A THIRD coronavirus outbreak at a Scots chicken factory has made “a mockery” of the idea of Covid-secure workplaces, a leading expert in occupational health has said.

Professor Andrew Watterson said the country had to base such environments on a policy that had been ignored for months.

Watterson was speaking after the third outbreak was revealed at the

2 Sisters Food Group’s (2SFG) chicken factory in Coupar Angus, Perth and Kinross, which affected more than two dozen of its workforce of around 1000 people.

The first infections at the factory in August saw all staff sent home to self-isolate for two weeks while the premises were shut down. More positive cases were recorded after Christmas and the small number rose significantly the following month. NHS National Services Scotland approached the Army to help with 2SFG’s outdoor testing operation in the town.

Watterson, from the Occupational and Environmental Health Research Group at Stirling University, told The National: “The third outbreak in the same meat factory is making a mockery of the idea of Covid secure workplaces.

“Scotland and the UK urgently need to move to Covid safe workplaces based on the Zero Covid (zero tolerance) strategy that has been advocated but ignored for months.

“It begs so many questions that have been posed for months and remain unanswered, with workers and communities still at risk. The third outbreak at this plant reveals the set up in Scotland is not fit for purpose.

“Public health bodies, local authorities and Food Standards Scotland are simply not the best bodies to lead the investigation and inspection of workplace clusters in the food industry.

“HSE Inspectors – not the spot check inspectors from the private sector – should lead interventions with support from public health and councils, not the other way round.”

A spokesperson for 2SFG referred to a statement from the multi-agency incident management team (IMT) and declined to comment further.

Dr Emma Fletcher, IMT chair, said they were alerted in response to a “small but sustained” rise in the number of cases of Covid associated with the chicken factory.

“The IMT is working closely with 2 Sisters to put in place preventative measures to limit further transmission of the virus amongst factory workers,” she said.

“This includes supporting them to review existing infection prevention processes and procedures in place.

“The factory is working closely with NHS Tayside’s Public Health team and Food Standards Scotland to ensure all arrangements for contact tracing and self-isolation are in place. Staff who are self-isolating are being given appropriate advice and additional support from their relevant Local Authority if needed. The IMT is reassured that the factory can remain open at this time.”

A spokesperson for NHS National Services Scotland said they had been working with the 2SFG factory to help improve the flow of test data into the NHS Scotland system.

“We asked the British Army to support, as they have done with a number of asymptomatic test sites,” they said. “This was agreed in partnership with 2 Sisters and the Army attended on March 16 to provide assistance and assurance to the on-site asymptomatic testing team. As a result,

the issue was swiftly identified and resolved.”

However, Watterson also criticised the assessment of airborne risks in meat factories from last year.

He said: “It does not look as if up-to-date research was used by HSE to assess airborne risks in meat factories from May 2020 onwards and indicate which PPE was most effective – face coverings are not effective in this setting, but various PPE is.

“Nor have debriefs or reports on general lessons to be learnt in Scotland on meat plant outbreaks apparently been made available by public health bodies who lead the IMTs that investigate them at the moment.

“In addition HSE produced an ‘evidence report’ on Sars-CoV-2 transmission in meat processing plants that was completed in July 2020 but it did not see the light of day and certainly wasn’t published until well into 2021.

“Workers, employers and communities need up to date and transparent information on steps to reduce Covid cases to as low as possible (zero Covid) but they’re not getting it either from HSE or public health bodies at the moment. Lesson are not being learnt. Accepting pressures field staff are under, this is a criticism of the leadership of these agencies, not the staff in the field.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We’re confident that the current system of workplace inspection and cluster management is robust and effective and offers the protection required to employees.

“All our agencies and professionals work closely together in doing so, ensuring that we apply all relevant knowledge, skills and experience to managing and addressing all outbreaks, including those in workplaces. Importantly, the current system is specific to Scotland’s needs in accordance with health being devolved, whereas the HSE is a UK Government body.”