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Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Greencore) Regulations 2020

Volume 805: debated on Friday 25 September 2020

Motion to Approve

Moved by

That the Regulations laid before the House on 1 September be approved.

Relevant document: 26th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, the regulations we are discussing today came into force on 29 August. On 21 August, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care announced that, due to a significant Covid-19 outbreak at Greencore Food to Go Ltd, regulations would be laid requiring the workforce and their households to self-isolate for 14 days to contain the outbreak and avoid the need to impose restrictions on the wider community.

The concern about the risk of transmission across the workforce at Greencore and out into the wider community of Northampton was significant, and engagement with local leaders and company directors was extensive, repeated and productive. I thank Greencore, Public Health England, the joint biosecurity centre, Defra, DHSC, Northampton Borough Council, Northamptonshire County Council and Lucy Wightman, the council’s director of public health, for their constructive engagement with each other.

The decision to act was not driven by numbers only. It was a judgment about the overall situation. It was necessary to make this change as quickly as practicable, in recognition of the immediate risk of a continued increase in the incidence of Covid-19 among the workforce at Greencore as the main cause of wider community transmission. Action had already been taken to protect Greencore employees. The whole workforce was tested, the factory layout was amended to make it more Covid-secure and deep cleaning was carried out. We hoped that these interventions and the work of the local public health teams would get the infection rate down without us having to take more drastic action.

However, a large percentage of the workforce continued to test positive for the virus. It was likely that this was due to their socialising together outside work; for example, sharing accommodation and car sharing to get to and from work.

At the local action committee meeting on 20 August a decision was taken to require Greencore to close its food manufacturing site in Northampton and to require the workforce and their direct household contacts to self-isolate for 14 days. Those actions were supported by Greencore’s leaders, who told their workforce. As many of the workers do not speak English as a first language, they provided guidance on what was required in the relevant languages.

Current government guidance advises that anyone who tests positive for the virus should self-isolate for 10 days from the date of the test. Anyone who has been in close contact with them is advised to self-isolate for 14 days. Requiring household members of Greencore workers to self-isolate went further than current government guidance. However, this measure was necessary due to the scale of the outbreak and the risk it posed to the wider community if further transmission was not contained and stopped.

I recognise and commend the local authority’s response to this outbreak. It worked closely with Greencore throughout and engaged in following up with workers and their households to ensure compliance.

NHS Test and Trace organised additional test sites which were set up at local centres, and mobile testing units, and the military provided a team of four people to support the incident management team.

I turn now to the data provided that informed those decisions. Mass testing at Greencore started on 10 August 2020. Following that first round of testing, nearly 300 members of staff tested positive for coronavirus. Greencore commenced retesting all staff who previously tested negative on 19 August, detecting further positive cases. In total, 317 staff who worked in different units tested positive. The final positivity rate was over 20%. The weekly incidence rate for Northampton peaked at 125 per 100,000 people and positivity rose to 9.2%. The background incidence rate for Northampton, by comparison, excluding positive tests in the Greencore workforce, was 38 per 100,000 for the same period.

These regulations required Greencore staff who had worked at the company’s designated production sites since 7 August, and members of their households, to self-isolate for 14 days from 21 August or for a shorter period in certain specified circumstances. Those dates were calculated to reflect the incubation period of Covid-19. Given that this was the first time we had imposed a legal requirement to self-isolate, it took time to develop the regulations. Although they came into force only on 29 August, the workforce and their households were able to start self-isolating from 21 August, when the site temporarily closed.

The regulations specified exactly who was required to self-isolate and for how long, recognising that some workers had already started to self-isolate following earlier positive test results. They also made provision to exclude members of households if the Greencore worker chose to isolate separately. Provisions were included to enable those self-isolating to access or provide emergency care and support or obtain basic necessities such as food or medical supplies.

Given the urgency of the situation at Greencore, we used the emergency procedure provided for by the Public Health (Control of Disease) Act 1984 to make the present set of regulations as soon as we could. The regulations will expire 28 days after they came into force, on 25 September—today.

Regulations 7 to 11 set out how the provisions will be enforced. It is a criminal offence to breach the requirement to self-isolate. As with the national regulations, there is the possibility of fixed penalty notices or a fine following conviction. We also published guidance on GOV.UK for Greencore workers and their households to help them understand what they could and could not do under the regulations.

We always knew that the path out of the lockdown would not be smooth. It was always likely that infections would rise in particular areas or workplaces and that we would need to be able to respond quickly and flexibly to those outbreaks. Greencore should be commended for acting so promptly, closing voluntarily and going above and beyond its role as an employer, to support the wider community. Rates in Northampton have reduced to a weekly incidence rate of 38 per 100,000 of the population during the period of 7-13 September. We will, of course, use the experience of the Greencore restrictions to inform and help us develop our responses to any future local outbreaks.

I am grateful to noble Lords for their continued engagement in this challenging process, and in the scrutiny of the regulations. We will, of course, reflect on this debate as we consider the response to any future local outbreaks. Lastly, I thank those employees and members of their households who completed the required periods of self-isolation and who have responded well to the measures put in place. It is thanks to their continued efforts that we were able to contain the outbreak and avoid the need to impose restrictions on the wider community. I beg to move.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her explanation. The irony is that the case has happened; the case is closed. I would be interested to know how many, if any, were fined for non-compliance with the statutory instrument. What research is taking place to identify the most vulnerable workplaces, such as food preparation or meat processing? What conclusions can be drawn, whether they are just about car sharing or socialising after work? Is it the food or the processing or the fact that so many people work closely together? These outbreaks have taken place in other countries, including Germany, and in several parts of the UK. It is important that research is conducted in this area.

Does the Minister think it is right that managers at Greencore were paid full sick pay during self-isolation, but the workers were not? The 2,100 workers who were sent home did not receive a sick pay top-up, and those furloughed received only 80% of their wage. It is Europe’s leading sandwich-maker and a supplier to Marks & Spencer, posting £56.4 million in pre-tax profits last year. The Government are paying 80% of the salary bill and the workers are carrying the burden of Covid-19. The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union estimates that 60% of the workforce will be left below the minimum wage. Greencore is only a microcosm of the unfair effects of Covid-19 on the working population. It makes a mockery of the oft-repeated statement that we are all in this together.

Greencore provides another example: the failings of the test and trace system. It was the private testing programme, introduced by the company, that revealed a further 250 cases of Covid-19; 79 had already been tested before that in July and August. Data from the Department of Health and Social Care reveals that just 62% of those in Northamptonshire who were reached by contact tracers over the period acknowledged that they should self-isolate. This left 1,834 people in respect of whom contact attempts were made, but who did not acknowledge that they needed to self-isolate. Until the public have confidence in the test and trace system, I doubt that that percentage will increase in any significant way.

There is a good ending to the story, as the Minister has said: the workers are back at work. The Northamptonshire Director of Public Health, Lucy Wightman—I am grateful to the noble Baroness for mentioning her and to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, for praising all the public health directors in the previous debate—said that she was confident of no second wave of Covid-19 because Greencore

“have had much more thorough testing there than from most employers.”

I mention the public health directors again because they are the unsung heroes of our system. Let us hope that the chaotic masters at No. 10 do not spot a system which is working.

Although I have criticised Greencore for its unfair treatment of workers, I should balance that by repeating what the noble Baroness has said, that the factory closed voluntarily on 21 August and undertook a full deep clean. The Government stated that the measures that we are debating today in retrospect were taken to prevent wider lockdown restrictions in the area. Is that strategy working? Can the Minister indicate what lessons have been learned from the Greencore experience? Are factories of this kind more vulnerable, should workers be treated less fairly, and can the test and trace system be improved at least to the level of the Greencore testing? I look forward to the Minister’s reply.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her detailed explanation of the regulations. Yet again, we are faced with regulations which we are being asked to approve in retrospect. We are all aware of the demands from some MPs and Peers for greater levels of parliamentary scrutiny for such regulations. In fact, on Monday, during a take-note debate on a Motion from the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, will move to discontinue the use of these types of regulations.

We are living in extraordinary times, which require difficult answers and measures as regards the economy, finance and health. However, all of us have a civic responsibility to protect ourselves, our colleagues and our neighbours to ensure that the NHS is not overburdened. Hence there is a need for such legislation and for the SIs, even though they place limitations on our freedoms, but we need more parliamentary scrutiny and greater levels of accountability.

On Greencore, which is an Irish-based company, there is a balance between protecting the health of staff and local communities and underpinning jobs and the economy, in particular when many of the employees come from other countries. I notice that these regulations in relation to Greencore were made on 29 August and were due to expire in 28 days. As the Minister has said, they expire today. Therefore, we are giving these regulations retrospective approval, which was a point of considerable objection in your Lordships’ House last Friday, when we discussed many coronavirus regulations. It simply points to the changing nature of this pandemic and that the virus is very much still with us. Can the Minister say how the machinery of government will address that deficit in scrutiny levels while ensuring the protection of the public?

This is notwithstanding the fact that the parent legislation, which is meant to be temporary in nature, is to be reviewed every six months. In fact, it is my understanding that it is due to be reviewed on Monday in the other place. Further to that question, can the Minister indicate what detailed measures have been put in place by the management and owners of all food processing factories in England to protect staff and food products from this virus? I also noticed in the information on the regulations that reference is made to tests by Randox Testing Services. I thought the Government had indicated that there were problems earlier this year with the testing regime undertaken by that company, so I would simply ask the Minister: is Randox still being used for testing purposes?

Perhaps the Minister could also clarify the following points. The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, talked about staff rights in relation to Greencore. In addition to her request, perhaps the Minister would provide some answers in relation to the following. Were the staff at Greencore compensated for loss of earnings while they were self-isolating? Did they receive hardship moneys from their employer? Were they forced to turn to food banks? Did the Government attempt to intervene to ask Greencore to pay its staff 100% of their pay during periods of self-isolation, as required by these regulations?

Further and finally, because this circumvents all of these regulations, will the Minister, along with her ministerial colleagues in the Department of Health, source a solution to dealing with regulations such as these so we do not have to deal with them by affirming them retrospectively? Is there any update or clarity on the test and trace regime, and are we any nearer to having a global vaccine for this virus? People will be content and have a greater degree of freedom of movement only when a successful vaccine is available.

My Lords, between 9 and 15 August, Northampton saw an 8% increase in the number of positive test results for Covid-19. Data from the NHS shows that most of the transmissions appeared to have occurred within households and in community settings that could be traced back to staff working in the Greencore factory in Northampton. Greencore arranged for mass testing of its workforce. I applaud the NHS and Greencore for taking immediate action by allowing the relevant staff and their families to self-isolate. Did the Government approve the proper regulations to deal with this? Infections among staff in the food industry have to be taken seriously as this can be one of the most dangerous sources of mass infection.

I hardly need to remind anyone about the Covid-19 pandemic which started in the Wuhan food market in China. Food factories distribute their products to cities around the country from wherever they are located. There are regular inspections of the factories, and inspectors have the authority to shut them down immediately. It is also the practice to regularly inspect restaurants and butcheries to check whether proper precautions have been taken to prevent infection.

In recent years, more and more people are ordering takeaway food to be delivered to their homes, while families regularly eat in restaurants because there is no time to cook at home. I fully agree with the action which has been taken by the Government to introduce regulations immediately to deal with the outbreak in Northampton.

Yesterday, we debated the actions being taken in Leicester. Public health must take priority over business every time. The political parties should work together to promote citizenship in this difficult era of corona. Can the Minister say whether special payments were made to the owners of Greencore and its workers because of the shutdown?

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Penn, for the clear way in which she introduced this statutory instrument. It is rather strange to be debating an instrument that applies to just one company.

The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, mentioned that there have been other similar outbreaks, such as at the 2 Sisters food processing plants in Llangefni and Coupar Angus. I imagine that they were dealt with by the devolved Administrations. When she comes to answer, can the Minister talk about how similar outbreaks are being handled by the devolved Administrations and what is being done to co-ordinate the intelligence and learning that comes from them?

The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, is also correct that there have been a number of international examples; I think in particular of a meat processing plant in St Cloud, Minnesota, that was in the news over the summer. Are the Government, working with directors of public health—and, crucially, environmental health professionals—now in a position to say what the risk factors are? The Minister mentioned car-sharing and socialising. Okay, but are there also particular risk factors relating to large-scale food processing? Or is it just that these are buildings in which people work in high temperatures and intensively together?

I mention the role of environmental health officers because I spent some time looking at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health website in preparation for today’s debate. It is interesting that, on 12 August, the CIEH said:

“CIEH has welcomed the Government’s decision to move the NHS Test and Trace system for combatting the spread of COVID-19 in England away from a centralised model and towards focussing on local knowledge and expertise.”

One of its former environmental health officers said:

“We saw very early on that EH were key to the effective delivery of the service, because obviously we do a lot of contact tracing through our day to day involvement in food poisoning investigations and zoonotic infections.”

So, CIEH has an existing level of expertise.

Interestingly, an article on its website talks about what CIEH has done in different local authorities. In effect, it has had to set up its own 24-hour teams—with, for example, librarians setting up information systems and so on—so that they can supplement the cuts made to environmental health budgets over the years. Does the Minister realise that local authorities have had to come up with a lot of make-do-and-mend solutions because of the urgency here, but that those solutions will not be sustainable in the longer term? Does she realise that, for the foreseeable future, we will require strong environmental and public health resources in a way that we have not before?

I want to ask the Minister about the role of local health authorities. They did not figure much in her list of people—presumably because they were still focusing largely on what was happening in hospitals at the time—so I wonder whether she can say something about the local role of the NHS in horizon-scanning work and epidemiological research. Also, what has happened since? What research has been done into, for example, levels of non-compliance and the overall effect, as well as the economic effect on the company? Will these regulations be a template for future ones?

In advance of our debate on Monday, I want to ask why these regulations were necessary. What powers did the Government or local authorities not have that required them to have these particular powers to deal with what they could all see was a rapidly emerging health problem? We have already given people so many powers. I wanted to clarify that.

Finally, since these regulations were laid, the Government have announced that people who have to self-isolate will now be eligible for a payment of £500 on loss of earnings. Will the people who were affected by this regulation now have a retrospective right to that, because I gather from what the Minister says that a lot of them were low-paid workers? She mentioned the production of information in different languages, because a lot of people from BAME communities were involved. What has been done to make sure that that expertise is collected and replicated in future?

Finally, we now have an app. All that app does—if it works properly—is tell you that you have been in close proximity to somebody who has been diagnosed. It does not do anything more than that. Are the Government now going to talk to employers about how that might work—or not—with their workforces, as good employers seek to put in place preventive measures that will protect their staff, because good employers will?

I welcome the noble Baroness to the wonderful world of statutory instruments: this is new to her. Noble Lords may forgive me for putting them through yet another Groundhog Day, but it would be remiss of me not to highlight that these regulations came into force on 29 August, yet we are able to debate their merits only today. The Greencore workers have self-isolated, as per the regulations—or some of them may not have done—and have returned to work and, although the regulations remain on the statute book, they are no longer relevant and are due to expire shortly.

The delay in laying these regulations is concerning, given that they were introduced in response to a significant Covid-19 outbreak at Greencore that was confirmed by the Health Secretary over a week earlier, on 21 August. So can the Minister explain why there was a delay, and does she share my concern that it appears that opportunities might have been missed in that week?

The Minister said that, following the initial identification of cases, the factory layout was amended to make it more Covid-secure than before, which seems an odd turn of phrase. Surely workplaces should have been Covid-secure, and are either Covid-secure or they are not. Perhaps she could elaborate on the point made on Tuesday, when the PM announced that there would be a legal obligation for businesses in retail, tourism and leisure to follow Covid-secure guidelines.

As far back as March, Greencore workers were challenging the adequacy of Covid-19 protections, including concerns about staff, access to risk assessment, social distancing and the availability of PPE and temperature checks. In May, they also raised concerns about the effectiveness of the company’s contact tracing process after it had taken 48 hours following a member of staff notifying the company that they had tested positive to inform six other staff members that they needed to self-isolate. This is completely inadequate.

Then, when 287 cases of Covid-19 were identified between 10 August and 12 August, those who tested positive and their households were told to self-isolate and did so, but the factory remained open. It was not until 21 August, following pressure from the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers’ Union, which I congratulate for its role in this, that Greencore announced that it would immediately cease production at its Northampton site in order to allow staff to self-isolate for 14 days.

With hindsight, does the Minister believe that the delay impacted on the spread of the virus? Does she share my concern that the Government may not have learned lessons from the decision to delay the lockdown? They delayed it in March and they seem to have delayed it here. I understand that requiring household members of Greencore workers to self-isolate actually went further than the government guidance, so can the Minister explain why and how? I echo my noble friend Lady Donaghy’s questions about the conduct of Greencore’s management and the inequalities that this episode has revealed. However, it did close and clean, and that means the factory has now reopened.

As with national regulations, these regulations provide powers for an authorised person such as a police officer to enforce compliance with self-isolation and create summary-only criminal offences for contravening requirements to self-isolate or, without reasonable excuse, a fixed penalty notice or fine following conviction. Can the Minister advise the House whether there were any confirmed breaches and whether any fixed penalty notices or fines were issued in this case?

The key point seems to be: what are the lessons learned here? Will the Government move more quickly in future with outbreaks in factories and other larger workplaces?

My Lords, I thank noble Lords for this important debate. The restrictions we have debated today are necessary and important for three reasons, which I hope I set out in my opening speech.

First, and most importantly, they protect the Greencore workforce and people of Northampton and the surrounding area from this terrible virus. The restrictions we had to impose were difficult for those affected, but I think Greencore employees and their households recognise that letting the virus spread unchecked would have been worse.

Secondly, the restrictions are important because they protect those of us who do not live in Northampton. As a result of the restrictions, the risk of transmission beyond Northampton was reduced and the high infection rates in the city did not spread elsewhere. We should recognise that the restrictions and difficulties faced by the Greencore employees and their households will have benefited the whole country.

Thirdly, these restrictions show our absolute determination to respond to outbreaks of the virus in a focused and effective way. We are learning from what has happened in Greencore as we work with local authorities and other businesses to respond to localised outbreaks. I am pleased that Greencore was able to restart food production on 25 August and that those affected were able to return to work once they completed their period of self-isolation.

I am grateful to noble Lords for their contributions today; I will address some of the specific points raised. Several noble Baronesses, including the noble Baronesses, Lady Donaghy and Lady Thornton, raised the question of fines and enforcement. I do not have the breakdown of fines for the local area, but that work is ongoing so that we can learn about how measures are enforced. Between 27 March and 17 August, 16,000 fixed penalty notices relating to enforcement of Covid-19 public health regulations were issued by police forces in England, but there is more work to do to get local breakdowns of some of that information and learn about how enforcement is working.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Donaghy, Lady Ritchie, Lady Barker and Lady Thornton, and the noble Lord, Lord Bhatia, all raised the question of vulnerable workplaces. As I said, our understanding is that in this instance it was not the workplace specifically that led to the spread of the virus but workers there socialising outside work and sharing accommodation. But noble Lords are right to raise this matter; that is why we have issued Covid-secure guidance to workplaces in all sorts of different sectors. Several noble Lords asked about enforcement of that. If workers have concerns that their workplace is not Covid-secure, they should discuss those with their employer and perhaps a trade union; the role of trade unions has been highlighted in this debate.

If concerns remain, they can contact the Health and Safety Executive. We have put more resources into the Health and Safety Executive to help it with that role. Using the additional funding provided by government, the Health and Safety Executive has created a spot-check team to call businesses to check that they are Covid-secure. It now contacts up to 5,000 businesses each week. Thousands of businesses have also been visited face to face by Health and Safety Executive inspectors.

Noble Baronesses also raised the specific threat that might be in place in food-processing plants and associated with this type of workplace. The guidance I have is that it remains unlikely that you can catch coronavirus from food. Covid-19 is not known to be transmitted by exposure to food or food packaging. The chief operating officer of the Food Standards Agency has said:

“Whilst the picture keeps evolving, the level of Covid-19 outbreaks in food processing plants that have been reported in this country remains very low and we continue to work with colleagues leading on these public health and health and safety issues.”

To give some context to that, across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there are more than 20,000 food processing plants, and as of 25 August, less than 45 processing plants in England have been impacted. Some have been, but it does not seem disproportionate to the activity in that sector of the economy.

Several noble Lords raised the question of support to workers. I am not aware of the issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, raised, concerning managers getting sick pay and other workers getting furloughed. As I said in my opening speech, workers who were not eligible had their statutory sick pay rates topped up to furlough rates by Greencore. The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, is right that we are introducing a new payment for low-income households on 28 September. It will not be retrospectively applied to these workers, who were furloughed or had their payments topped up by the company. However, local authorities will be putting in place the systems for making these payments, and anyone who qualifies but does not get a payment on 28 September will have those payments backdated if they are delayed.

Noble Lords asked about NHS Test and Trace. The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, cited a figure of only 62% of people contacted by NHS Test and Trace acknowledging the need to self-isolate. Alongside the new payment to incentivise people to comply with the requirement to self-isolate should they be contacted by NHS Test and Trace, the move on 28 September is making isolation a requirement, not guidance. We have learned from these guidelines. This statutory instrument is the first time that we have put in place the legal requirement to self-isolate if you are asked to by NHS Test and Trace. This is being implemented nationally from 28 September, not only with fixed penalty notices and fines, but also with the incentive put in place to help those on low incomes.

Noble Lords also raised other outbreaks that may have happened in similar settings. Another example was Banham Poultry Limited. The local authorities in Norfolk were able to learn the lessons from how that outbreak was managed in terms of their approach. They did not need to put in place regulations that enforced the isolation; they were able to work with the employer to get the job done.

The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked me about lessons learned from the devolved Administrations. I do not have specific examples of outbreaks in the devolved Administrations, but she is right that they will be managed by those Administrations. However, there is ongoing communication between the NHS in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in order to continue to share, and take forward, lessons learned from all outbreaks in different settings and circumstances.

The noble Baroness also asked why these regulations were necessary. As I explained, we did not previously have the ability in law to require self-isolation. As the noble Baroness, Lady Thornton, pointed out, these regulations go further than the existing guidance in one specific respect—the requirement on family members of workers at the plants who had not tested positive also to self-isolate.

I hope that I have addressed most of the points raised by noble Lords. I conclude by recording, on behalf of the Government, my thanks to the people of Greencore and Northampton, and particularly the NHS and care workers there—indeed, all key workers in the city—for their ongoing hard work to keep our vital services running and save lives throughout this crisis.

Motion agreed.

House adjourned at 2.15 pm.