A BARNSLEY MP has accused the government of ‘sleepwalking through the pandemic’ after multiple deaths at a Wombwell food factory were put down to inadequate safety checks.
Wentworth and Dearne MP John Healey contacted the chief executive of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Sarah Albon, claiming sufficient checks weren’t carried out at the Cranswick Convenience Foods site.
The MP then joined with Barnsley East MP Stephanie Peacock to write to Cranswick chief executive Adam Couch, formally asking the factory to be closed to allow the HSE to undetake a full review.
The factory, which employs 1,300 people at the site on Valley Park Industrial Estate, saw three deaths from the virus in May.
At the time the company stated that: “The health and safety of all of our colleagues is our number one priority and we are doing everything we can to protect our workforce.
“We will continue to work with the relevant regulatory bodies including the HSE, Public Health England, the Food Standards Agency and local Environmental Health officers during these challenging times.”
John believes that the HSE has not properly investigated the problem and claims sites that are deemed safe could be dangerous.
John said: “What happened at Cranswick - where the HSE didn’t speak to company managers at the site - seems to be how the HSE has operated across the country.
“Even where workers have died of Covid-19, the company’s word about operating safely is taken with no site inspection to check.
“The HSE seems to take a hands-off and light touch approach, when workers are being infected and dying of Covid-19.
“We’ve seen public services like the NHS and councils adapt rapidly and radically to meet the challenge of the crisis, while the HSE, which should be one of the agencies at the forefront of the battle against the virus, seem to be sleepwalking through the pandemic.”
John is now calling for a reversal of cuts to the HSE after staff levels dropped from 3,233 in 2007/8 to 2,343 in 2019/20.
As a result, the HSE saw a 30 per cent drop in enforcement notices and a 62 per cent fall in prosecutions.
It was also revealed that of the 63 site visits co-ordinated by the HSE in April and May, none took place in South Yorkshire.
The HSE said it had received concerns relating to social distancing measures in place at the site but that inspectors had got in touch and concerns ‘were very quickly addressed by the company with minimal intervention from HSE’.
A spokesperson added: “We continue our ongoing dialogue with the MPs who have contacted us on this matter.”
Julia Burrows, director of public health for Barnsley Council, said the local authority’s been working with the firm since April.
“Based on the information the company shared with us, we agreed that the measures they had put in place were suitable and sufficient at that time,” she said.
“We shared this information with Public Health England (PHE) and, in May, we also referred the site to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), as the organisation that has the responsibility for enforcement of health and safety, for further investigation.
“We continue to work closely with Public Health England to provide support to the company.”