Bernard Matthews, the UK turkey processor owned by the boss of 2 Sisters Food Group, has seen an outbreak of coronavirus at its plant in the county of Suffolk, east England.

The site in the village of Holton, near the town of Halesworth, has reported 18 new cases of the virus, bringing the total to date to 36, according to a notice from local health authorities in Suffolk and neighbouring Norfolk, as well as Public Health England.

A spokesperson for Bernard Matthews said in the same statement: “We are grateful for the help of all local agencies and we fully support their objectives to protect the local community. We believe a number of cases were initiated in the community, but nevertheless we will continue to enforce our robust Covid measures as we enter into our busiest period of the year.”

All affected members of staff are now self-isolating at home, while another 123 workers have so far been tested or are due to be tested, with most returning negative results. Food production and safety is unaffected.

Bernard Matthews has been hit by the infections despite putting controls in place at the height of the pandemic in March, including temperature checks, staff working in bubbles, putting in place marshals, protective masks and visors and social distancing throughout the site.

Most of the 18 people that have come down with the virus live in the Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft areas, the notice said. 

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David Edwards, health protection consultant for Public Health England in the east of England, added: “We continue to work closely with the organisation, local authority and NHS partners providing public health advice and making sure measures are in place to help prevent the spread of the virus. Close workplace contacts have been identified and given self-isolation advice.

“Bernard Matthews is following national guidance and ensuring that anyone with symptoms self isolates for ten days, and their household members isolate for 14 days. Close contacts of confirmed cases are asked to self-isolate for 14 days, even if they have no symptoms, to avoid unknowingly spreading the virus.”

It is the latest set of bad news for Bernard Matthews, which was bought out of administration by 2 Sisters’ owner Ranjit Singh Boparan in 2016 under his private investment vehicle Boparan Private Office. 

Bernard Matthews’ processing facility in the village of Great Witchingham, Norfolk, was hit by a fire in August, although the facility remained open for business. And in 2 Sisters’ case, it had to deal with Covid-19 cases at its Coupar Angus poultry processing site in South Lanarkshire, Scotland, during the summer.

Meanwhile, trade union Unite said yesterday (30 September) Bernard Matthews had informed the union minimum-wage workers at the Holton plant who need to self-isolate will only receive statutory sick pay of GBP95.85 (US$124.0) a week. 

Unite said it was also told by the company the outbreak may be linked to workers car sharing. In response, Unite said since August Bernard Matthews had “actively encouraged” car sharing by nearly doubling the fares of its company-run buses to the site from GBP3.50 to GBP6.00 a day. 

The union added it had “consistently warned” 2 Sisters and other food manufacturers that only paying SSP leaves low paid staff facing the “stark choice of working while potentially infected or being unable to pay for food, rent or other bills”.

Unite regional officer Mark Jaina said: “Providing adequate sick pay for self-isolating workers and cancelling the rise in bus fares are not only the right thing to do for Bernard Matthews’ workforce, they are also the right thing to do for public health.”  

A spokesperson for Bernard Matthews refuted the Unite claims over bus charges, saying a decision had been made before the Union’s claims were published not to charge fares for employees using the company’s subsidised buses to all its facilities.

“This is a fast-moving situation and we are keen to do as much as we can to help our colleagues during this unsettling period,” a statement from Bernard Matthews read. “This decision will be continually reviewed and we would remind colleagues it is absolutely essential all appropriate Covid-secure measures are taken when using the bus, including social distancing and the wearing of masks or face coverings at all times.”