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Government Puts Seasonal Turkey Plant Workers at Risk of Coronavirus to Save Christmas

Workers arriving in the U.K. to work at meat plants will be “allowed” to work together without quarantining, but must avoid the public because of the risk of COVID-19

Christmas turkeys in a warehouse Ian Forsyth/Getty Images

Transport secretary Grant Shapps has announced that seasonal poultry plant workers will now be “allowed” to work without quarantining upon arrival in the U.K. The workers, however, must self-isolate from the general public for 14 days following their arrival, so that the public is not at increased risk of infection from coronavirus. The workers themselves are given no such protection from infection.

The change, which came into force from 04:00 a.m. today, Tuesday 16 November, is designed to “ensure there is enough turkey available for Christmas dinners,” according to the BBC. Shapps added that “Christmas dinner is the highlight of the year for many families and this year it will be particularly significant.” In an apparent attempt to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission, the workers will live, and work in “cohorts,” to reduce mixing among employees. How large those cohorts are has not been confirmed.

British Poultry Council (BPC) boss Richard Griffiths said that “industry is determined to deliver Christmas to households across the nation. If the exemption helps us deliver a fantastic Christmas and helps our smaller seasonal producers out, then it can only be a good thing.” It is unclear as to whether outbreaks of coronavirus in seasonal workers would temper the definition of “only be a good thing.”

Numerous reports and investigations have documented meat plants’ increased risk of coronavirus transmission, even when workers live and work in smaller groups; the lack of airflow, close proximity, and temperatures combine to provide a fertile source of spread. The Food and Environment Reporting Network (FERN) has tracked outbreaks at U.S. meat plants since March; they have the second highest incidence of cumulative cases among food sectors, behind only “all sectors” surveyed. Several U.K. meat plants and food factories have closed after reporting hundreds of cases of novel coronavirus, among a workforce largely made up of immigrant workers on precarious zero hour contracts mediated by agencies, often unable to avoid work when unwell.

In addition to the forecast, if uncertain, end of national coronavirus lockdown on Thursday 3 December, it’s clear that the Conservative drive for a covid-contained-Christmas is rapidly accelerating. But at whose cost?