SIPTU and the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland have complained to the Health and Safety Authority about its failure to inspect meat plants, where more than 850 workers have contracted Covid-19.

In a letter to HSA Chief Executive Dr Sharon McGuinness, SIPTU Manufacturing Division Organiser Greg Ennis and MRCI Director Edel McGinley were responding to Dr McGuinness's comments to the Oireachtas Committee on Covid-19 yesterday.

Dr McGuiness confirmed to the committee that despite the HSA receiving reports of problems, the agency had not carried out any on-site inspections in the meat factories.

"We have been approached by our members and workers from various meat factories who feel that their safety at work has not been prioritised by their employers during this crisis," they wrote.

"At the beginning of the lockdown, some employers were very slow to put in place safety measures, including staggered breaks, floor markings, shields between work stations, temperature testing, cleaning of work wear between use by different employees, and signage in languages people could understand," they continued.

The letter argued that the failure of those employers to implement health and safety protocols had resulted in significant exposure among staff to the virus, which may in turn have contributed to the surge in cases in so many meat plants.

SIPTU and the MRCI also queried why the HSA had been so slow to respond to reports relating to the meat industry, and demanded to know what action now plans to take.

They insist that where the HSA exercises its powers to shut down workplaces when deemed necessary, workers should not suffer any loss of earnings.

SIPTU also alleged that the employer lobby group for the sector, Meat Industry Ireland, had refused to engage in discussions to deal with the problem.

Earlier, the meat industry insisted that it is doing all it can to deal with Covid-19 outbreaks in meat plants.

Meat Industry Ireland, which represents meat processors, issued the response after health authorities confirmed last night that there were a further 328 cases of the virus confirmed in meat plants in the last week.

The vast majority of confirmed cases are now no longer in the community, with outbreaks in meat plants accounting for a large number of cases announced every day.

The increase in clusters in those facilities has seen some county's weekly records spike dramatically too.

Despite this the meat industry is insisting it is taking a wide range of measures to deal with the virus.

Meat Industry Ireland says 60% of workers who had the virus are now back at work.

It said that many sites operated by its members remain unaffected, but it did not disclose how many are Covid-19 free.

Cormac Healy, Senior Director of Meat Industry Ireland, said it will continue to work with the HSE for best practice. 

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Mr Healy said a number of clusters have developed in the sector and where this has happened, the HSE has been engaged.

Nobody, he said, has had everything perfect in the course of this pandemic and it has been a huge learning curve. 

Mr Healy said that 80% of the workforce is made up of Irish and European workers, and just 20% is made up of workers on a permit scheme.

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Last night, the Health Service Executive told RTÉ News that it would be suspending the practice of informing employers of Covid-19 positive results before workers were told.

The practice occurred at many meat plants and nursing homes, with workers finding out they had the virus from their employers.

The HSE said it is to seek guidance on the issue from the Data Protection Commission.

The commission said yesterday the practice of informing employers was in breach of data protection legislation.

Yesterday, the Department of Health said a further 16 people with Covid-19 have died in Ireland bringing the overall death toll to 1,561.

An additional 51 more cases of the coronavirus have been diagnosed bringing the number of confirmed cases to 24,251.

Around 80% of cases of Covid-19 will be a mild to moderate illness, close to 14% have severe disease and around 6% are critical.

Generally, you need to be 15 minutes or more in the vicinity of an infected person and within two metres of them, to be considered at-risk, or a close contact.

Additional reporting: Fran McNulty