Northampton faces the threat of a local lockdown after nearly 300 workers at a sandwich factory that supplies M&S have tested positive for coronavirus.
The Greencore food facility on the town’s Moulton Park Industrial Estate has revealed 292 staff there have caught Covid-19 and are self-isolating.
Local health authorities said 79 people tested positive on the NHS, and a further 213 were spotted through Greencore’s private swabbing scheme.
The firm, thought to be the world’s largest maker of sandwiches, took the decision to proactively test workers as a result of a rise in cases in the town.
There were 85 new cases diagnosed there last week, up from 66 in the week before. And Northampton is one of 29 places on Public Health England’s watchlist.
Food factories have hosted an unusually high number of Covid-19 outbreaks around the world and experts say the cold, sunless environments, cramped working conditions and staff who are more likely to use public transport may be ideal for the virus to spread.
It comes as a symptom-tracking app today named six new coronavirus hotspots in England, including St Helens, Blackpool and Thurrock in Essex.
Greencore in Northampton said nearly 300 staff there have tested positive for Covid-19 and are self-isolating
In a statement, Greencore said: ‘As a result of the rising number of Covid-19 cases in the Northampton area, we took the decision to start proactively testing all of the colleagues at our Northampton site.
‘We can confirm that a number of colleagues have tested positive for the virus and are now self-isolating.
‘We are liaising closely with PHE East Midlands, Northamptonshire County Council and Northampton Borough Council, who are fully supportive of the controls that we have on site.’
Northampton is listed as a ‘concern’ by PHE, which last week published a list of 29 areas that have worrying levels of coronavirus.
THE 29 TOWNS AND CITIES OF CONCERN ON PUBLIC HEALTH ENGLAND’S WATCH LIST:
- Blackburn with Darwen
- Wigston and Eden
*As of 7 August, based on data between 27 July and 2 August
The worst affected areas — mostly in the North West and including Leicester — are in an ‘intervention’ category and have their own lockdown rules that are stricter than the rest of the country.
Northampton is not at this level yet — it has an infection rate of 29.8 new cases per 100,000 people each week, according to the most recent data.
This compares to a rate of 80 cases per 100,000 in the worst-affected part of the country, Blackburn.
As a result of Northampton’s status, Greencore said it was testing staff itself rather than waiting for them to get NHS tests.
The company said: ‘In each case we have immediately conducted contact tracing and instructed potentially affected colleagues to self-isolate.
‘All of Greencore’s sites have wide-ranging social distancing measures, stringent hygiene procedures and regular temperature checking in place, and we are doing everything that we can to keep our people safe.
‘As ever, the health and wellbeing of our colleagues is our number one priority.’
Lucy Wightman, director of public health at Northamptonshire County Council, said employees have been asked to ‘act now’ after the number of confirmed cases in the town increased from 66 in the week ending August 2 to 85 for the week ending August 9.
She said: ‘We are working with colleagues at Greencore in Northampton after the discovery of an outbreak of Covid-19 in the workplace.
‘Public Health England Midlands have been providing support to colleagues at Greencore in managing the outbreak.
‘This has been supplemented by support from the local infection prevention and control team and Northampton Borough Council’s environmental health colleagues.’
She added: ‘It is evident that Greencore has highly effective measures in place and they continue to work extremely hard to exceed the requirements needed to be Covid-19 secure within the workplace.
‘Northampton borough has been experiencing a high number of cases over the last four weeks and residents and employees have been asked to “act now” to follow additional measures, to avoid a local lockdown or further government intervention.’
While Northampton sits on PHE’s list of places to watch to make sure infections don’t spiral out of control, researchers have today highlighted another six areas that appear to be hotspots for infection.
Halton in Cheshire is now considered England’s coronavirus hotspot, according to the Covid Symptom Tracker app.
ARE MEAT AND FOOD FACTORIES HOTSPOTS FOR THE CORONAVIRUS?
As news has emerged of food factories around the world experiencing outbreaks of Covid-19, experts have suggested conditions inside the plants may be conducive to the spread of the virus.
Dr Simon Clarke, a cellular microbiologist at the University of Reading, told MailOnline that it was notable that food factories seemed to have been the centre of outbreaks more than other factories where people might be close together.
He said: ‘There are problems in this country, in Germany, in the United States. There is something common between them – it’s not happening in engineering or clothing factories where you also might expect people to be in close proximity to one another.
‘One assumes – but it’s just an idea – that the cold environment makes people more susceptible to the virus.
‘Cold weather irritates the airways and the cells become more susceptible to viral infection.’
Dr Chris Smith, a virologist at the University of Cambridge, said on LBC ‘temperature is going to play a part’.
He explained: ‘When I’m breathing I’m blowing out droplets of moisture from my respiratory tract and the virus which is growing in there would be packaged up in the droplets.
‘Now the droplets will hover for a period of time in the air and then sink to the ground… and if it’s very dry, cold air – and cold air carries less moisture, remember – the droplets will stay smaller and stay airborne for longer.
‘If it’s very humid, moisture joins them, makes them bigger and heavier, and they fall and they drop out of circulation faster – so temperature could be a factor.’
Sunlight is also known to degrade viruses and make them less able to survive on surfaces that are exposed to UV light.
Rays of sunlight are thought to damage the genetic material inside the virus, making it less able to reproduce and killing it faster.
Professor Calum Semple, a disease outbreak expert at the University of Liverpool, told The Telegraph that cold, sunless food factories are ideal conditions.
He said: ‘If I wanted to preserve a virus I would put it in a cold, dark environment or a cool environment that doesn’t have any ultraviolet light – essentially a fridge or a meat processing facility…
‘The perfect place to keep a virus alive for a long time is a cold place without sunlight.’
But the temperature alone does not appear to be a controlling factor in coronavirus outbreaks.
Dr Michael Head, a global health researcher at the University of Southampton, said he thought close proximity was most likely to be behind the factory outbreaks.
He said: ‘Whilst refrigeration may be a contributory factor to the spread of the virus, the key factors are likely to be the number of people close together in indoor conditions.
‘Some of these factories have onsite or nearby accommodation where there are several people in each dormitory, they may be transported on a bus to the site of work, and they will be indoors together all day.
‘Levels of adherence to measures such as washing hands is uncertain and there is unlikely to be widespread use of PPE.’
The King’s College London researchers behind the app estimate around 0.34 per cent of people in the town currently have tell-tale Covid-19 symptoms.
It is followed by St Helens in Merseyside (0.25 per cent), Blackpool (0.23), Tameside in Greater Manchester (0.21) and Thurrock in Essex (0.2).
Tameside and Halton were both named in this week and last week’s list of hotspots by academics, alongside Blackburn with Darwen and Bolton.
The three other newcomers were Middlesbrough (0.18 per cent), Lancashire (0.17) and Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland (0.17).
Only Blackburn and Tameside are also listed in the 10 Covid-19 hotspots by the NHS, which uses infection rate data as opposed to self-reported symptoms from users of a mobile app.
Oldham has the highest infection rate in the country currently, with 107.4 cases for every 100,000 people in the week ending August 10.
It is followed by Blackburn (77.2), Leicester (66.7), Bradford (55.8), Rochdale (42.7), Swindon (40.5), Calderdale (37.6), Manchester (36.9), Tameside (34.2) and Kirklees (31.2).
The King’s College team said the UK is not at the beginning of a second coronavirus wave – as people have feared – and cases have actually dipped to their lowest since the beginning of July, scientists have claimed in the midst of fears diagnoses are on the rise.
King’s College London’s COVID Symptom Study mobile app estimates cases depending on users reporting their symptoms and positive test results.
An estimated 1,434 people are being infected per day in the UK, according to data in the two weeks up to August 8, which does not include care homes or hospitals.
This is down on the 1,626 daily new cases in the two weeks up to 1 August, and 2,110 in the two weeks up to 25 July.
Across July, the researchers were concerned that Covid-19 cases were possibly rising, or were barely dropping below 2,000 new daily cases.
But now they are at last falling to levels recorded before pubs, restaurants, hairdressers and other venues re-opened on ‘Super Saturday’ – July 4.
In contrast, the government tally shows new cases, confirmed with a lab test, are on the rise. More than 1,000 Britons tested positive for coronavirus yesterday after record low cases in July.
And there are concerns spikes abroad in holiday destinations Spain, France and Greece will soon hit Britain.
In light of increasing cases, scientists have said we must learn to live with Covid-19 and that small surges in cases are expected.
Estimates of the prevalence of the coronavirus in the UK are produced regularly by the team who run the COVID Symptom Study app at King’s College London (KCL) and the health tech firm ZOE.
The COVID-19 Symptom Study app has now been downloaded by over 3.9million people in the UK who regularly update information about if they have symptoms of have had a Covid-19 test.
The latest figures were based on the data from 10,988 swab tests done between 26 July to 8 August.
They estimate that 24,131 people currently have symptomatic Covid-19 in the UK.
It’s down on the 26,512 reported last week (up until August 1) and 29,174 on the week prior (up until July 25).
But despite the positive signs, the team said the data suggests Covid-19 cases have ‘remained stable’ overall.
They are cautious to make firm conclusions that the outbreak is either growing or shrinking until they are certain.
During July, the team said rises in estimated cases were too small to definitively say that the outbreak was worsening, but that they are watching the situation closely.
King’s College London say the UK is not at the beginning of a second coronavirus wave and cases have dipped to their lowest since the beginning of July
Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, said today: ‘It’s encouraging to see that the numbers are coming down slightly across the UK and that the isolated outbreaks in the North of England appear to be well contained so far.
‘This is further confirmation that we aren’t at the beginning of a second wave and rather, still trying to end the first.
‘The figures also suggest that the outbreaks we are seeing in other countries such as Belgium, France and Spain aren’t having an effect here in the UK yet.
‘On top of this, the hot weather which caused concern by making many flock to crowded beaches and parks doesn’t seem to be having the predicted negative impact.
‘Overall, we are pleasantly surprised by the figures this week, which are back down to the early July levels and hope that the good news continues.’