Around 200 workers at a farm in Herefordshire have been quarantined following an outbreak of Covid-19.
Some 73 positive cases of the virus have been confirmed among workers at vegetable producer AS Green and Co, which is based in the village of Mathon, near Worcester.
A joint statement from Public Health England (PHE) Midlands and Herefordshire Council said employees were being asked to remain on the farm during the period of isolation.
During the harvesting season, the workforce resides in mobile homes based on the farm, so as a precaution the whole group are being treated as “one extended bubble”, according to officials.
The council said it is arranging food and essential supplies for residents on the site – who carry out packing and picking work – while they self-isolate.
Katie Spence, PHE Midlands health protection director, said that to support the workforce of around 200 key workers, the company had put a range of infection control measures in place.
“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,” she said in a statement.
“In line with NHS guidance, affected individuals were asked to self-isolate for seven 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 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.”
A spokesman for AS Green and Co, which specialises in growing beans, said its “hard-working” staff were the firm’s “priority” as it was supported by PHE and Herefordshire Council.
“We contacted PHE and we are working closely with them and Public Health at Herefordshire Council to prevent the spread of Covid-19,” the spokesman added.
A statement from Herefordshire Council on how we’re working with a local business to closely monitor and manage the reported outbreak in Herefordshire: https://t.co/zx65oqsadd pic.twitter.com/kDBUGjJv5C
— HerefordshireCouncil (@HfdsCouncil) July 12, 2020
A statement on the farm’s website said the site has been closed to all visitors, while no workers are permitted to leave.
“Our workforce 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,” it said.
“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.”
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.”