More than 1,000 staff from a Tönnies meat plant in Germany have tested positive for Covid-19 and become a factor in a spike in the R, or reproduction, number of the virus in the country.

The outbreak among workers employed at the facility, located in Gütersloh in north-west Germany, was yesterday (22 June) described as “massive” by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief spokesperson.

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A combination of the Tönnies outbreak – and cases in apartment blocks 80 miles south east in the city of Goettingen – led to Germany’s R rate hitting 2.88 on Sunday, according to the Robert Koch Institute. If the R number for a disease is above one, it can spread exponentially.

Tönnies, one of the largest meat processors in Europe, has been accused by officials of withholding data and hindering work to try and trace contacts of the affected staff, a charge the company denies.

“As a company, we were in an extreme situation. We had to violate relevant law and break data protection in several thousand cases in order to request and provide the necessary personal data from our service providers in the required time. Ultimately, after weighing all the consequences, we made the required data available to the employees of our service providers,” Tönnies said in a statement.

It was on Wednesday when Tönnies, together, the company said, with local officials in Gütersloh, decided to temporarily shut down the slaughter area of the plant. More than 1,550 staff are said to have tested positive.

Hubertus Heil, Germany’s Federal Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, has reportedly said trust in Toennies is “equal to zero” and argued there “must be a civil liability of the company”. Heil reportedly told a Bild online broadcast Tönnies had “taken an entire region hostage”.

There have been concerns about whether the local state of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous, may have to be placed under a new lockdown. Armin Laschet, the state’s prime minister, has not ruled that out but said it is not currently necessary as the outbreak can be localised, the broadcaster ARD said.

Local media, citing the NGG union, reported that some affected employees may have returned to their home countries of Bulgaria, Romania and Poland.

Employment practices and working conditions in the meat sector have come under scrutiny in recent weeks, not only in Germany, but worldwide, as plants become hotspots for Covid-19.

Last month, the German government announced a “work protection programme for the meat industry”, raising labour standards in a sector criticised for poor health and safety due to a rash of outbreaks of Covid-19 among temporary migrant workers.

The proposals include a ban on contract staffing from the start of 2021 as well as higher fines of up to EUR30,000 (US$34,000), (up from a current ceiling of EUR15,000), for breaches of workplace health and safety regulations.