DEATHS due to Covid-19 at a Barnsley food processing factory have sparked a national enquiry into such sites thought to be hotspots for the virus.

Three workers at Cranswick Convenience Foods in Valley Park Industrial Estate, Wombwell, died in May, and there have since been more than ten cases among its 1,300-strong workforce.

Local MPs John Healey, from Wentworth and the Dearne, and Stephanie Peacock, of Barnsley East, wrote a joint letter to Cranswick chief executive Adam Couch earlier this month formally requesting the factory to be closed so a proper investigation by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) can take place.

Ms Peacock hit out at the executive in the Commons last week, claiming it took inspectors three months to arrange a site visit following the deaths and criticising its lack of response to her letter.

Mr Healey has also criticised the HSE for its ‘hands-off and light touch’ approach - but with the department’s funding cut and staffing levels reduced by around a third, calls for urgent investigations of food processing and packing plants have fallen at the government’s door.

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According to Mr Healey, the HSE has seen a vast drop in prosecutions and convictions, and it’s also been revealed that of its 63 site visits in April and May, none took place in South Yorkshire.

This is despite the three deaths at Cranswick’s Wombwell site, along with hundreds of cases at other factories nationally, leading Labour to call for an urgent investigation into the causes for such high numbers of reports.

It’s been claimed that the cold, moist conditions most plants operate under are a breeding ground for the virus.

Labour shadow environment secretary Luke Pollard said: “There are thousands of people working in chilled and moist workplaces like meat packing factories throughout the country.

“The large number of Covid-19 outbreaks should have prompted a stronger response from the government to understand why these plants are most affected and what can be done to slow the spread of the virus in food factories.”

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.”