Banham Poultry boss: ‘Our safety measures rival the best hospitals in the country’
PUBLISHED: 08:59 17 September 2020 | UPDATED: 08:59 17 September 2020
The boss of a Norfolk factory where 127 workers contracted Covid-19 says the company has installed safety measures which would rival those in the country’s best hospitals.
Banham Poultry reopened its meat processing plant in Attleborough on Monday, September 14, after experiencing the county’s largest single coronavirus outbreak.
The site initially closed on August 27 following a request from public health authorities in relation to a growing number of cases at the factory.
All 800 on-site employees were subsequently tested for the virus, with 127 returning positive results.
Shareholders met last Friday to discuss Banham Poultry’s future, and a decision was reached to welcome back workers on Monday - with a raft of new safety measures in place.
But managing director Blaine van Rensburg revealed on Wednesday that around 20pc of workers were still absent, despite being encouraged to return to work.
“Everybody’s self isolation periods ended on Sunday evening and staff were due to return on Monday, but not all have returned so we are operating at around 80pc,” said Mr Van Rensburg
“We are reaching out and trying to contact them - sending emails, making phone calls. Some we know are on holiday abroad and, as a result, will need to quarantine when they return.
“We have probably got another two weeks where we are going to be short.”
As the factory’s reopening was announced last week, Banham Poultry said it had “worked tirelessly” for a fortnight to enhance safety at the factory.
Among its new measures are a one-way walkway across the entire site, touch-activated sanitisers on all door handles and walk-through portals containing a disinfectant mist and thermal imaging for temperature monitoring.
Amid fears that the factory was opening prematurely - less than three weeks after a major outbreak - Mr Van Rensburg insisted the timing was appropriate.
He added: “I can say simply that some of the measures we have in place are rivalling what you might see in some of the best hospitals in the country. Short of this becoming a hospital setting, there is not a lot more we can do.
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“If you feel comfortable going into your local supermarket, you should feel more than comfortable coming to work here.
“Before the government had issued guidance on social distancing, we had already begun putting measures in place. What we have done now is go over and above to the extreme.”
When questioned on the cost of ensuring safety at the factory, Banham Poultry’s chief says it is “a drop in the bucket”.
But the financial implication of suspending operations has been anything but, with Mr Van Rensburg estimating a dent of around £4m.
He and Mid Norfolk MP, George Freeman, have been calling on the government to provide financial support for the struggling firm and other businesses put in a similar position due to outbreaks.
“We have had to dispose of circa two million birds, either for free or at a very small cost,” said Mr Van Rensburg. “That is why we are pushing for support.
“Under normal circumstances, we would have gladly shut down and put stock into storage. But live animals can’t just be put on a shelf. They keep growing and that is not something you can stop, so they need to be processed at a certain time.
“Our employees have been fantastic and it pains me that we were unable to support them with anything more than sick pay. We feel they should have had access to the furlough scheme.
“George Freeman is lobbying on our behalf and for the rest of the industry but, at this stage, there has not been a lot forthcoming.”
Earlier this week Dr Louise Smith, Norfolk’s director of public health, said there was no evidence of the virus having spread from Banham Poultry into the wider community.
Mr Van Rensburg believes the outbreak was handled well, but says further outbreaks are inevitable.
“The reality is further outbreaks will happen because it is impossible to stop the spread completely,” he added.
“Lockdown clearly decreased the R value and, as soon as measures were relaxed, cases started to rise again.
“My own perspective is that lockdown allowed us to shield from potential outbreaks. Ever since, they have begun to surface in factories around the country.”
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