‘Why weren’t we told?’: Anger in Yorkshire town at centre of major coronavirus outbreak kept secret by council

A security guard at Kober meat processing plant in Cleckheaton: PA
A security guard at Kober meat processing plant in Cleckheaton: PA

On a rainy day in Cleckheaton, few people seemed overly fearful that the west Yorkshire town has this week found itself at the centre of a major new coronavirus outbreak.

They were, however, almost uniformly angry that, for nine days, authorities here had attempted to keep it secret.

As more than 300 workers at a meat-packing plant were quietly tested for Covid-19, officials with Kirklees Council made the decision not to inform local residents that the potentially deadly disease had found a toehold at the factory.

They did not disclose that more than 60 people at the site – called Kober Ltd and owned by Asda – had been found positive for the killer bug or that the situation there was considered so desperate health secretary Matt Hancock was called in to chair an emergency action meeting.

Only this Thursday when Mr Hancock himself accidentally made a passing reference to the ongoing outbreak in a live Downing Street press conference was it revealed to the rest of town that the deadly pandemic was here in some force.

“Why weren’t we told straight away?” asks Jill Howarth, still incredulous, when approached by The Independent. “How could they possibly think that was for the best?”

She’s an operator at Colin’s taxi services in the town. Their cars are regularly booked by workers at the factory. “Then, straight after, we might go and pick up an older person for a doctor’s appointment,” she says. “It doesn’t matter how much we clean, that’s creating a risk we should at least know about. It’s disgusting they kept it hush-hush.”

It is a sentiment widely shared – not least by the three councillors, including life peer Baroness (Kath) Pinnock, who serve the town of 16,000 people. Officials even withheld what was happening from them.

“The first I knew there was an issue was when Matt Hancock mentioned Kirklees on TV,” says Baroness Pinnock, a Liberal Democrat who once led the authority. “But even then I assumed it would be in Huddersfield [the largest town in the borough]. It was only when we started getting calls from worried people who'd already heard rumours that we realised this was right here.”

She had to tell those callers, she says, that she was none-the-wiser about what was happening than they were.

“Which is how people become frightened,” she says. “You get rumours going round – someone said on Facebook there were 1,000 people infected – but there’s no correct information to combat that. There’s a vacuum and that leads to panic. You don’t keep people safe by keeping them in the dark.”

Cleckheaton councillors John Lawson, Andrew Pinnock and Baroness Pinnock (Independent)
Cleckheaton councillors John Lawson, Andrew Pinnock and Baroness Pinnock (Independent)

What we now know, finally, is that staff at the factory – which supplies bacon and joints to Asda – started falling ill as early as Monday 8 June. The factory was closed some time that week – although exactly when remains ambiguous – and mobile testing tents set up by Public Health England in the car park for all workers.

Those that were found positive – thought to be about 60 people – have since been told to isolate at home, with their contacts being traced.

“In many ways,” says Baroness Pinnock, “It’s been very well dealt with. Test and trace has been rolled out quickly and there is a hope the situation has been contained. But it is that lack of communication that has alarmed people.”

Her colleague, councillor John Lawson, also a Liberal Democrat, agrees: “There’s a balance to be made with confidentiality but the public need to be confident they have all the information to keep themselves safe, which includes knowing about local outbreaks. Without that confidence, people become fearful. What I would say is that, as a country, this is an opportunity to do some fast learning and not repeat the mistakes here."

Have lives been put at risk? "Perhaps that would be going too far," he says. "But I think knowing the virus is in town, it focuses people's minds that this is not over. It encourages them to be cautious."

Someone who did know what was going on relatively early was Katarina Gajdosova.

She serves at Polskie Specjaly, a Polish supermarket where many of those who work at the plant shop.

“I have two friends ill,” the mother-of-one says. “Not serious but ill. I know what is happening from them. But we have lots of workers come here, buy their food. But no one from the government tells me these people may have virus. All I get told is second hand from friends who don’t get told much either. So now maybe I get sick too. Maybe my two-year-old? Small shop, this can happen.”

One customer – a 35-year-old who gives his name only as Michael – is in the store. He happens to work at the plant. He got lucky, he says. He tested negative: “But some people, I hear, very ill.”

He says conditions at the plant feel relatively safe but it's damp and people end up working in close proximity, even now with social distancing rules in place. Because of the noise, staff have to shout to each other – something experts say will project an infection further.

He has been told the plant may reopen on Monday. Will he go back? “Of course,” he says. “This is money.”

Yet despite the calls for greater transparency across the town, Kirklees Council itself stands by its decision not to tell people what was happening.

A spokesperson said: “We want all businesses to act in the same responsible way as this one has done because it has helped us contain the spread in the fastest way possible.

“If we disclose the location and name of any business or organisation we seriously risk discouraging others from coming forward.”

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