A hunt has today been launched for a group of vegetable pickers – one who has tested positive for Covid-19 – after they escaped from a farm at the centre of a coronavirus outbreak.
According to reports, up to four vegetable pickers are believed to have ‘escaped’ police-guarded A S Green And Co in Herefordshire, where 75 people working and living on the site in trailers have tested positive for the virus.
The workers are believed to have run across fields near Rook Row Farm in Mathon, where 200 staff working for the vegetable producers, which supplies a number of major supermarkets, have been ordered to self-isolate as a precaution.
West Mercia Police have today confirmed that three workers have left the site, one of whom has tested positive for coronavirus.
A spokesperson for the force said officers were working with Public Health England and the local council to track down the workers.
It comes as reports today suggest authorities were offering the isolating workers – most from Eastern Europe – beer and cigarettes to prevent another break out attempt.
Four vegetable pickers, three of whom had tested positive for Covid-19, have fled after 75 people working for A S Green And Co in Mathon, Herefordshire (aerial view of the farm pictured), tested positive for Covid-19
A police officer wearing a face mask stands by his car outside the gates of Rook Row Farm near Malvern
West Mercia Police have today confirmed that three workers have left the site, one of whom has tested positive for coronavirus. Pictured: Men wearing full PPE leave the site in Mathon, Herefordshire
Karen Wright, the director of Public Health Herefordshire, pictured right, is seen at the farm today
Workers at A S Green And Co were tested after some workers showed symptoms of the bug (stock photo)
Two of the escapees, one who had the virus, reportedly left on Saturday, while the other two, who also tested positive, fled today, a source told the Sun.
The first case was reported to the farm on Wednesday and another five tested positive the day after, the source added.
By the time it was locked down, the farm, run by Andrew Green, with the help of his son Tom and wife Caroline, had a total of 72 cases however it has now understood to have risen to 75.
In an attempt to keep workers from fleeing, local authorities are said to be keeping their passports ‘secure’ and offering ‘beer and cigarettes’.
The workers are employed to carry out picking and packing work at the site while living in mobile homes.
Police wearing protective face masks are currently guarding the exits of the farm and Herefordshire Council has organised the supply of deliveries.
Workers have been told they are not be permitted to leave the site but are receiving the required support – with officials treating the group as ‘one extended bubble’.
Herefordshire Commander, Superintendent Sue Thomas said: ‘Within the constraints of the current legislation, we continue to support our partners in Public Health England and Herefordshire County Council as they work with the farm owner and those working there to keep them all safe and to provide reassurance to the local community.
In an attempt to keep workers from fleeing, local authorities are said to be keeping their passports ‘secure’ and offering ‘ beer and cigarettes’. Pictured: Ms Wright speaks with a man wearing full PPE at the farm
A large container reverses at the farm earlier today after the outbreak of coronavirus
‘In relation to an individual who has left the site after testing positive with the virus, we are assisting our colleagues at Public Health England, as required, in order to trace them.’
Meanwhile, visitors and management team members have been tested for the bug and the company confirmed all results to date outside of their site have been negative.
The firm has put in place a range of infection control measures to try to reduce the risk of staff being exposed to the virus.
These include supporting testing, promoting social distancing in communal social areas and the indoor packaging areas.
They are providing PPE for staff where applicable, encouraging regular hand washing for 20 seconds and promoting the use of face coverings in closed areas.
The farm supplies vegetables to major supermarket chains, such as Tesco, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Asda and M&S.
Trade body the British Retail Consortium today reiterated advice from PHE that it is ‘very unlikely’ that the virus can be transmitted through food.
Andrew Opie, Director of Food and Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: ‘Retailers are well versed in managing potential disruptions to prevent any impact on consumers.
‘This outbreak involves one farm in a very large supply chain, so retailers are confident that there will be no interruption to supply.
‘The farm in question is being supported by Public Health England, which has advised that it is very unlikely that the virus can be transmitted through food or packaging.’
During the harvest season, workers live onsite in shared mobile homes which have toilets, showers and kitchen facilities.
As a precaution the whole group are being treated as ‘one extended bubble’, according to officials.
Herefordshire Council is arranging food and essential supplies for residents on the site while they self-isolate.
It comes after farmers appealed for people to take up paid roles on local farms to stop food being left to rot in the fields as part of the Feed The Nation campaign.
Owner of A S Green And Co, Mr Green, was looking for 100 pickers and 60 packers to join their family team at the end of April, the Hereford Times reported.
In a previous statement posted on its website, the company said: ‘We confirm that we are working closely with, Public Health England and the Public Health team at Herefordshire Council to support a number of our workers that have tested positive for COVID-19.
‘As a precautionary measure we have arranged for testing of additional key workers including management team members and visitors connected with A S Green and can confirm all results to date outside of our site have been returned with negative results. To date there are 73 positive cases on our site.
‘Our site is currently closed for all visitors and with the assistance of the various bodies no workers are being permitted to leave our site and are receiving the required support at our site.
‘Our work force and local community are our priority at this difficult time and we continue to follow the guidance of the relevant bodies to ensure that the spread of the virus is controlled and our workforce is supported.
‘Public Health England advises that it is very unlikely Covid-19 can be transmitted through food or food packaging, so shoppers can remain confident buying British fruit and veg.
‘Thank you for your understanding in these difficult times.’
A man puts on PPE as he arrives at Rook Row Farm in Mathon, near Malvern in Herefordshire
Katie Spence, PHE Midlands Health Protection Director, said: ‘We are working closely with the management at AS Green and Co to support the health and wellbeing of their workforce and wider public health.
‘At this phase of the pandemic, we still expect to see cases in the community and within settings where people are closer together, such as workplaces, which is why the Test and Trace system is important, to help us pick up on any potential problems and swiftly to take remedial action to reduce spread.
‘To support this workforce of around 200 key workers, the company has put in place a range of infection control measures to try to reduce the risk of staff being exposed to COVID-19.
‘Measures include supporting testing on site, promoting social distancing in communal social areas and in the indoor packaging area; providing PPE for staff where applicable, encouraging regular handwashing for at least 20 seconds, and promoting the use of face coverings in closed areas.’
‘Despite these measures, a small number of workers became symptomatic earlier this week and they and a few close contacts among the workforce were tested initially and found to be positive.
‘In line with NHS guidance, affected individuals were asked to self-isolate for 7 days, with their households and close contacts asked to isolate for 14 days.’
‘As we have seen a global trend of large food producers being subject to outbreaks, as a precautionary measure, the decision was made to test the entire workforce.
The owner of A S Green And Co was looking for 100 pickers and 60 packers to join their family team at the end of April
‘The initial batch of results showed a significant percentage of positive cases, despite these individuals being asymptomatic.
‘We are still awaiting a few final results, but currently we have 73 positive cases of COVID-19 among the workforce.’
‘PHE Midlands and Herefordshire Council are therefore working with AS Green and Co to closely monitor and manage the outbreak and support individual workers.’
A spokesperson for AS Green said: ‘Our staff are our priority, they are hard-working key workers helping us provide food for the country during these unusual times.
‘We contacted PHE and we are working closely with them and Public Health at Herefordshire Council to prevent the spread of COVID-19.’
Karen Wright, Director of Public Health for Herefordshire, said: ‘While Herefordshire is the first to experience an outbreak of this kind, this is not unexpected.
‘Our priority is to protect the health and wellbeing of all residents in our community. Prompt testing on the farm has allowed us to understand transmission and control the spread of infection.
‘We continue to support the farm management, their workers – who form an important part of our local economy, and the local community through this challenging time.
‘Anyone who has a fever, persistent dry cough, or loss or change in their sense of taste or smell should call 119 or go online to arrange a test.’
Herefordshire have had 809 confirmed cases of the virus, with a rate of 421.1 (per 100,000 resident population), according to the Government’s daily statistics published last night around 6pm.
The company harvest from mid-May to mid-November and have packing jobs during the winter
In April Andrew Green, owner of AS Green and Co, told the Hereford Times: ‘The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in soaring demand for fresh produce, but with tighter border controls and travel restrictions in place, many UK farmers have been left with a labour shortage, putting their produce at risk.’
He added: ‘Not only does the role provide the opportunity to work in a safe, healthy environment throughout the summer months, but it also enables those who have been financially impacted by the pandemic to boost their income, without jeopardising the support they will receive through the Government furlough scheme.’
Following the Pick for Britain campaign – an initiative to bring together UK workers and farmers together to prevent crops rotting in the ground during the pandemic – the farm said it had received more than 300 applications.
On the firm’s website, it says workers are expected to share accommodation at Rook Row Farm, while there is a recreational building with a pool table, dart board and TV for all employees.
A spokeswoman for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said: ‘The industry takes this issue incredibly seriously and everything is being done to keep workers safe; their health and safety remains the priority.
‘Across the sector there have been significant investments this season; from the use of additional safety equipment and PPE, regularly testing temperatures, and following government guidance created specifically for seasonal workers.’
Karen Wright, director of public health for Herefordshire, urged anyone experiencing any symptoms of Covid-19 to arrange a test.
‘While Herefordshire is the first to experience an outbreak of this kind, this is not unexpected,’ she said in a statement.
‘Our priority is to protect the health and well-being of all residents in our community.
‘Prompt testing on the farm has allowed us to understand transmission and control the spread of infection.
‘We continue to support the farm management, their workers – who form an important part of our local economy, and the local community through this challenging time.’
The outbreak comes after lockdown was extended for at least two weeks in Leicester, east midlands, after a surge in coronavirus cases.
Number 10’s scientific advisers revealed on July 10 that the UK’s R rate is between 0.7 and 0.9.
The R rate represents the average number of people each Covid-19 patient infects and SAGE admitted it could be one or higher in London, the Midlands, the North East and Yorkshire, the South East and the South West.
A S Green And Co specialise in growing runner beans, Tenderstem broccoli, broad beans and helda beans.