Leicester's mayor and Labour councillors were warned three months ago that factories were operating in breach of Covid-19 rules but failed to act, a former minister has claimed.
Conservative politicians wrote to members of the council in April warning that some manufacturing premises appeared to be operating in "shuttered premises", risking the health of workers, as well as their families and the local population at large.
Baroness Verma, who was a development minister under David Cameron and chairs the city's Conservative federation, said she had been concerned that the factories were operating in breach of strict social distancing rules, which required workers to stay two metres apart and regularly wash their hands.
The claims have emerged after Leicester became the first city in Britain to be put back into lockdown after public health officials expressed alarm at a significant rise in Covid-19 cases.
Last week a report by Labour Behind the Label, a garment workers’ rights group, alleged that some suppliers were operating factories without social distancing measures.
Garment factory workers in Leicester have told The Telegraph that while their workplaces initially shut down when the lockdown was announced they were reopened with no social distancing or hygiene measures in place to stop the spread of Covid-19.
They said the front gates of the factories were kept closed, perhaps to give the appearance that they were not open. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has confirmed that it is now "actively investigating three textile businesses" in the city and has issued a formal improvement notice requiring one firm to "take action to control the risk of Covid-19 in the workplace."
In an email to Labour councillors on April 18, Leicester Conservatives stated: "We have had a number of people contacting us in fear that factory owners are flouting the law by appearing closed but with employees still working behind shuttered premises.
"This is not only dangerous to the workers in the factories but also to the families and wider communities at large. We want assurances from you that you are ensuring that these occurrences are reported to the police and trading standards and action taken immediately. This is incredibly dangerous to frontline workers."
Several councillors responded stating that they were forwarding the email onto Sir Peter Soulsby, the Labour mayor of Leicester.
Baroness Verma said: "It was an open secret that the factories were open. The concerns were about the conditions in which some of them were operating. Why weren't the mayor and councillors using the intelligence and going out there?"
A spokesman for Leicester city council said factories could remain open "as long as they operate safely according to government guidance" and that "ensuring safe operating in factories - including social distancing - is the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE)". But it worked with HSE and other agencies to ensure a "joint approach".
Meanwhile, two workers claimed that they were scared to return to factories during the lockdown.
One said: "The factories tried to hide the fact that they were open. All factories were officially closed but work was going on inside. [The] facade and front doors of the factories were closed."
Another said: “The main gate of the factory was closed and workers were herded inside through the rear side.”
A spokesman for Public Health England said: “There is no evidence that the rise in the infection can be explained by outbreaks in care homes, hospital settings, or industrial processes.”