Police are searching for three people, one of whom tested positive for coronavirus, who left quarantine on a farm at the centre of a Covid-19 outbreak in Herefordshire.
It was announced on Sunday that about 200 staff at the vegetable farm and packing business AS Green & Co had been ordered to isolate on the property after at least 74 workers tested positive for the virus, prompting concerns about safety standards in agriculture.
West Mercia police said on Monday they were working with Public Health England (PHE) and the local authority to trace an individual who left the site after testing positive for coronavirus.
The Herefordshire commander, Supt Sue Thomas, said: “Within the constraints of the current legislation, we continue to support our partners in PHE and Herefordshire county council as they work with the farm owner and those working there to keep them all safe and to provide reassurance to the local community.
“In relation to an individual who has left the site after testing positive with the virus, we are assisting our colleagues at PHE, as required, in order to trace them.”
Karen Wright, director of public health at Herefordshire council, said: “There are three workers who have left the site without permission - one of whom tested positive. Workers who have left the premises have been asked to self-isolate. We are working with West Mercia police to ensure they are safe and well, and taking the appropriate public health advice.”
Concerns have been raised about working conditions on the farm prior to the outbreak, with unions warning that coronavirus was “lifting up a stone” on the situation in workplaces such as textile factories, meat processing plants and now farms.
A former employee claimed that 60 employees had to work in the farm’s pack house with no face coverings, limited personal protective equipment (PPE), and no social distancing.
The first case of coronavirus at the farm was discovered last Tuesday. By Friday all the workers had been tested and the results posted on a notice board at the farm. Since the outbreak PHE has provided PPE for staff, including masks, and regular testing.
The farm, which supplies Aldi, Asda, M&S and Sainsbury’s, has refused to answer questions since the outbreak was confirmed.
The former employee claimed that PPE was minimal before the outbreak. Karen (not her real name) said: “The PPE provided in the pack house was hairnets and beardnets, and an outer jacket that an old-fashioned greengrocer would wear. Gloves were optional, so we had to buy our own. I did a couple of days without gloves and you get broccoli under your nails and it hurts. We never had to wear face masks.”
She claimed 40 people worked in the bigger of two rooms in the packing house. “There isn’t much spare space and no social distancing,” she said. Karen also provided photograph of a small caravan room that workers often have to share, and are now being confined to if they have tested positive.
The Guardian asked AS Green & Co farm to comment on Karen’s allegations, but received no response.
Labour and the Unite union said supermarkets which the farm supplies should be held to account for the problems the outbreak had revealed.
Bridget Henderson, a researcher at Unite, said the conditions at the farm, including the on-site caravan accommodation, were typical for the food processing sector but had only been exposed now because of the outbreak.
“Coronavirus is lifting up a stone to reveal what’s underneath, as with Boohoo in Leicester, the meat processing companies, and now this farm,” she said. “All these structural issues have been going on for ages, but it takes a crisis like this to show the vulnerabilities.
It is indicative of how precarious food supply is, should anything get knocked off track. Until employers, and ultimately the people at the top of the supply chain, like Boohoo in the textile industry or the supermarkets in this case, start to see the value of having unions involved, it is going to be very difficult to raise standards.”
Daniel Zeichner, the shadow agriculture minister, said: “Working conditions on many of our farms, particularly for migrant workers, are likely to leave people vulnerable. Too little of the value in the food-chain goes to primary producers, and supermarkets have huge power.”
He added that the industry watchdog, the Grocery Code Adjudicator, lacked the power and resources to intervene. Zeichner said: “The supermarkets have done very well financially through the crisis – improving the working conditions of those growing our food would be a welcome and necessary response.”
The British Retail Consortium has been asked to comment on behalf of the supermarkets.