Hunt for third worker who escaped Covid-hit farm where 200 people were forced to isolate on site

A hunt is underway to catch a third worker who escaped from a coronavirus-hit farm in Herefordshire.

Three ‘Eastern European’ men fled from Rook Row Farm in Mathon after 200 people were forced to isolate on the site when 73 workers tested positive for the bug.

Two of the group were caught yesterday and told to self isolate as police and health officials try to trace the third runaway.

It comes as neighbours of the A S Green And Co farm – run by Andrew Green, his son Tom and wife Caroline – blasted them for keeping them in the dark over the outbreak.

Richard Thomas, 71, who lives 200m from the farm, branded the family ‘incredibly discourteous’.

One of the escapees was a picker who tested positive for Covid before fleeing over the weekend. He and a second worker caught yesterday were told to self isolate.

They are thought to have run across fields near the farm, which supplies a number of major supermarkets.

A spokesman for Public Health Midlands confirmed the two people are now self isolating after leaving the site.

Three 'Eastern European' men fled from Rook Row Farm (pictured, workers' quarters) in Mathon after 200 were forced to isolate on the site when 73 tested positive for the bug

Three 'Eastern European' men fled from Rook Row Farm (pictured, workers' quarters) in Mathon after 200 were forced to isolate on the site when 73 tested positive for the bug

Three ‘Eastern European’ men fled from Rook Row Farm (pictured, workers’ quarters) in Mathon after 200 were forced to isolate on the site when 73 tested positive for the bug

A police officer wearing a face mask stands by his car outside the gates of Rook Row Farm near Malver

A police officer wearing a face mask stands by his car outside the gates of Rook Row Farm near Malver

A police officer wearing a face mask stands by his car outside the gates of Rook Row Farm near Malver

West Mercia Police have confirmed three workers had left the site. Two have now been caught but a third is still being searched for.  Pictured: Men wearing full PPE leave the site

West Mercia Police have confirmed three workers had left the site. Two have now been caught but a third is still being searched for.  Pictured: Men wearing full PPE leave the site

West Mercia Police have confirmed three workers had left the site. Two have now been caught but a third is still being searched for.  Pictured: Men wearing full PPE leave the site

Mr Thomas, a retired chemical company CEO, said he was disappointed he had received no official news about the farm from the family or authorities.

He said: ‘We know absolutely nothing about what happened on Sunday. We are disappointed haven’t heard from anybody officially.

‘We are 200m from the gates and have got everything we know from the media. Nobody has had the common courtesy to knock on our door and tell us what’s going on. We haven’t been offered tests. Should we be tested?

‘Apparently it is airborne and we are hundreds of metres from the mobile homes. There are two houses right opposite the gates and they haven’t heard anything either.

‘It is a little hamlet of 13 homes and seven of those are in the vulnerable bracket through age or through illness.

‘One guy up the road has one lung and another was ill with coronavirus and got particularly poorly.

‘It is just really really disconcerting nobody has bothered to let us know officially. A lady from Public Health Hereford said on the news there was not a problem.

‘That’s really nice to know when you are 200m. That’s fantastic news. People were interviewed on the news in another village a mile and a half away.’

He added: ‘They have grown the business substantially. We are friends with them and have been over there for parties. I used to run his daughter over to various pony clubs.

‘I know he’s been busy, but even he didn’t phone anyone to say he has got a problem. It is incredibly discourteous.’

Two of the runaways reportedly broke out on Saturday, while the other made a run for it on Monday.

The first case was reported on the farm last Wednesday, five tested positive the next day but when the farm was lockdown down it was understood to have risen to 73.

Workers may have unwittingly been shopping super spreaders as they headed into Worcester and Malvern in the days before the positive Covid results.

The infected farmhands may have passed on the deadly bug after going on the trip last week.

North Herefordshire MP Bill Wiggin confirmed members of the group were taken by minibus to Worcester where they shopped in the city’s Primark.

They also went to an Iceland shop and the Romanian store in the city before being driven to a Morrisons supermarket in nearby Malvern.

Mr Wiggin said: ‘Worcestershire County Council have been informed that a minibus took workers to shop in four separate locations in Worcester and Malvern last week.

‘The shops and locations are Worcester’s Primark, Iceland and the Romanian store, and Malvern’s Morrison’s supermarket.’

A map shows the route taken by workers as they headed out shopping in the days before the farm was put into lockdown

A map shows the route taken by workers as they headed out shopping in the days before the farm was put into lockdown

A map shows the route taken by workers as they headed out shopping in the days before the farm was put into lockdown

Karen Wright, the director of Public Health Herefordshire (pictured right), is seen at the farm

Karen Wright, the director of Public Health Herefordshire (pictured right), is seen at the farm

Karen Wright, the director of Public Health Herefordshire (pictured right), is seen at the farm

Karen Wright, Director of Public Health for Herefordshire CCG, gives a press statement outside Rook Row Farm on Monday

Karen Wright, Director of Public Health for Herefordshire CCG, gives a press statement outside Rook Row Farm on Monday

Karen Wright, Director of Public Health for Herefordshire CCG, gives a press statement outside Rook Row Farm on Monday

Workers at A S Green And Co were tested after some workers showed symptoms of the bug (file photo)

Workers at A S Green And Co were tested after some workers showed symptoms of the bug (file photo)

Workers at A S Green And Co were tested after some workers showed symptoms of the bug (file photo)

A large container reverses at the farm on Monday morning after the outbreak of coronavirus

A large container reverses at the farm on Monday morning after the outbreak of coronavirus

A large container reverses at the farm on Monday morning after the outbreak of coronavirus

While working on the site, the farmhands shared a single toilet, according to a British couple who were also employed there.

The plastic portable toilet, with just one sanitiser dispenser, was ferried to a field each day where migrant vegetable pickers were working.

The toilet was shared between up to 60 pickers working in hot and sticky conditions for eight hours.

Brandon Burridge, 22, said: ‘It was pretty horrible, especially as the day went on. We were told to ring the office if it got bad but most of the time it was just left there for people to use.

‘Obviously I and the other men used the hedge but the women had to use the toilet, it wasn’t great.’

Mr Burridge and his girlfriend Leah Johnson, 21, picked broad beans during the three shifts they worked together at the farm in June and July.

The couple stayed with family locally after their request for accommodation was turned down.

Mr Burridge said: ‘I assume they reserve that for people from Eastern Europe who they bring in. We we’re probably lucky that we didn’t stay.’

The couple from Worcester worked in fields alongside Bulgarians, Romanians and Ukrainians who arrived shortly after the lockdown.

Mr Burridge and Ms Johnson were due to set up glamping areas at music festivals all over Europe this summer.

But when the events were cancelled they turned to picking fruit and vegetables for an income.

The couple are angry Rook Row Farm failed to tell them about the coronavirus outbreak as they only discovered they were at risk after reading media reports.

The pair organised their own Covid-19 tests and both came back negative on Tuesday.

Mr Burridge said: ‘I have our contact details but they haven’t been in touch to tell us we are risk.

He said: ‘As an employer it is their duty to let us know, they have been quite poor in communicating to us about the virus at the farm.’

Authorities have reportedly been offering the isolating workers – most from Eastern Europe – beer and cigarettes to prevent another break out attempt.

Brandon Burridge, 22, and his girlfriend Leah Johnson, 21, (pictured together) are angry Rook Row Farm failed to tell them about the coronavirus outbreak

Brandon Burridge, 22, and his girlfriend Leah Johnson, 21, (pictured together) are angry Rook Row Farm failed to tell them about the coronavirus outbreak

Brandon Burridge, 22, and his girlfriend Leah Johnson, 21, (pictured together) are angry Rook Row Farm failed to tell them about the coronavirus outbreak

The staff have been ordered to self-isolate in trailers that are set up near to where the staff work

The staff have been ordered to self-isolate in trailers that are set up near to where the staff work

The staff have been ordered to self-isolate in trailers that are set up near to where the staff work

An officer wearing a face mask stands at the entrance to AS Green and Co Farm, where employees have tested positive for Covid-19

An officer wearing a face mask stands at the entrance to AS Green and Co Farm, where employees have tested positive for Covid-19

An officer wearing a face mask stands at the entrance to AS Green and Co Farm, where employees have tested positive for Covid-19

Rook Row Farm is currently closed for all visitors and workers are receiving support required on the site, the company said in a statement

Rook Row Farm is currently closed for all visitors and workers are receiving support required on the site, the company said in a statement

Rook Row Farm is currently closed for all visitors and workers are receiving support required on the site, the company said in a statement

200 workers at the vegetable farm have been asked to self isolate in mobile homes (pictured) onsite after people tested positive for coronavirus

200 workers at the vegetable farm have been asked to self isolate in mobile homes (pictured) onsite after people tested positive for coronavirus

200 workers at the vegetable farm have been asked to self isolate in mobile homes (pictured) onsite after people tested positive for coronavirus

The workers are employed to carry out picking and packing work at the site while living in mobile homes.

Police wearing protective face masks have been guarding the exits of the farm and Herefordshire Council has organised deliveries.

Workers have been told they are not be permitted to leave the site but are receiving the required support – with officials treating the group as ‘one extended bubble’.

Meanwhile, visitors and management have been tested for the bug and the company confirmed all results to date outside of their site have been negative.

The firm put in place a range of infection control measures to try to reduce the risk of staff being exposed to the virus.

These include supporting testing, promoting social distancing in communal social areas and the indoor packaging areas.

They are providing PPE for staff where applicable, encouraging regular hand washing for 20 seconds and promoting the use of face coverings in closed areas.

The farm supplies vegetables to major supermarket chains, such as Tesco, Aldi, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Asda and M&S.

Trade body the British Retail Consortium last night reiterated advice from PHE that it is ‘very unlikely’ that the virus can be transmitted through food.   

Andrew Opie, Director of Food and Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: ‘Retailers are well versed in managing potential disruptions to prevent any impact on consumers.

‘This outbreak involves one farm in a very large supply chain, so retailers are confident that there will be no interruption to supply.

‘The farm in question is being supported by Public Health England, which has advised that it is very unlikely that the virus can be transmitted through food or packaging.’

During the harvest season, workers live onsite in shared mobile homes which have toilets, showers and kitchen facilities.

As a precaution the whole group are being treated as ‘one extended bubble’, according to officials.

It comes after farmers appealed for people to take up paid roles on local farms to stop food being left to rot in the fields as part of the Feed The Nation campaign.

Owner of A S Green And Co, Mr Green, was looking for 100 pickers and 60 packers to join their family team at the end of April, the Hereford Times reported.

Workers are being asked to isolate on the farm and stay within household groups to reduce the risk of spreading the virus within the workforce

Workers are being asked to isolate on the farm and stay within household groups to reduce the risk of spreading the virus within the workforce

Workers are being asked to isolate on the farm and stay within household groups to reduce the risk of spreading the virus within the workforce 

Director of Public Health at Herefordshire CCG speaks outside Rook Row Farm in Mathon, near Malvern

Director of Public Health at Herefordshire CCG speaks outside Rook Row Farm in Mathon, near Malvern

Director of Public Health at Herefordshire CCG speaks outside Rook Row Farm in Mathon, near Malvern

A man puts on PPE as he arrives at Rook Row Farm in Mathon, near Malvern in Herefordshire

A man puts on PPE as he arrives at Rook Row Farm in Mathon, near Malvern in Herefordshire

A man puts on PPE as he arrives at Rook Row Farm in Mathon, near Malvern in Herefordshire

In a statement posted on its website about the outbreak, the company said: ‘We confirm that we are working closely with, Public Health England and the Public Health team at Herefordshire Council to support a number of our workers that have tested positive for COVID-19.

‘As a precautionary measure we have arranged for testing of additional key workers including management team members and visitors connected with A S Green and can confirm all results to date outside of our site have been returned with negative results. To date there are 73 positive cases on our site.

‘Our site is currently closed for all visitors and with the assistance of the various bodies no workers are being permitted to leave our site and are receiving the required support at our site.

‘Our work force 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.

‘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. Thank you for your understanding in these difficult times.’

Katie Spence, PHE Midlands Health Protection Director, said: ‘We are working closely with the management at AS Green and Co to support the health and wellbeing of their workforce and wider public health.

‘At this phase of the pandemic, we still expect to see cases in the community and within settings where people are closer together, such as workplaces, which is why the Test and Trace system is important, to help us pick up on any potential problems and swiftly to take remedial action to reduce spread.

‘To support this workforce of around 200 key workers, the company has put in place a range of infection control measures to try to reduce the risk of staff being exposed to COVID-19. 

‘Measures include supporting testing on site, promoting social distancing in communal social areas and in the indoor packaging area; providing PPE for staff where applicable, encouraging regular handwashing for at least 20 seconds, and promoting the use of face coverings in closed areas.’

The site is still waiting on all the results but has asked all workers to seld-isolate as a precaution  (stock photo)

The site is still waiting on all the results but has asked all workers to seld-isolate as a precaution  (stock photo)

The site is still waiting on all the results but has asked all workers to seld-isolate as a precaution  (stock photo)

The owner of A S Green And Co was looking for 100 pickers and 60 packers to join their family team at the end of April

The owner of A S Green And Co was looking for 100 pickers and 60 packers to join their family team at the end of April

The owner of A S Green And Co was looking for 100 pickers and 60 packers to join their family team at the end of April

The company said that Public Health England advises that it is very unlikely Covid-19 can be transmitted through food or food packaging (stock photo)

The company said that Public Health England advises that it is very unlikely Covid-19 can be transmitted through food or food packaging (stock photo)

The company said that Public Health England advises that it is very unlikely Covid-19 can be transmitted through food or food packaging (stock photo)

‘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.

‘In line with NHS guidance, affected individuals were asked to self-isolate for 7 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.’

‘PHE Midlands and Herefordshire Council are therefore working with AS Green and Co to closely monitor and manage the outbreak and support individual workers.’  

A spokesman for AS Green said: ‘Our staff are our priority, they are hard-working key workers helping us provide food for the country during these unusual times. 

‘We contacted PHE and we are working closely with them and Public Health at Herefordshire Council to prevent the spread of COVID-19.’

Karen Wright, Director of Public Health for Herefordshire, said: ‘While Herefordshire is the first to experience an outbreak of this kind, this is not unexpected.

‘Our priority is to protect the health and wellbeing 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. 

A S Green And Co specialise in growing runner beans, Tenderstem broccoli, broad beans and helda beans

A S Green And Co specialise in growing runner beans, Tenderstem broccoli, broad beans and helda beans

A S Green And Co specialise in growing runner beans, Tenderstem broccoli, broad beans and helda beans

The company harvest from mid-May to mid-November and have packing jobs during the winter

The company harvest from mid-May to mid-November and have packing jobs during the winter

The company harvest from mid-May to mid-November and have packing jobs during the winter

‘Anyone who has a fever, persistent dry cough, or loss or change in their sense of taste or smell should call 119 or go online to arrange a test.’ 

Herefordshire have had 809 confirmed cases of the virus, with a rate of 421.1 (per 100,000 resident population), according to the Government’s daily statistics.

In April Andrew Green, owner of AS Green and Co, told the Hereford Times: ‘The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in soaring demand for fresh produce, but with tighter border controls and travel restrictions in place, many UK farmers have been left with a labour shortage, putting their produce at risk.’

He added: ‘Not only does the role provide the opportunity to work in a safe, healthy environment throughout the summer months, but it also enables those who have been financially impacted by the pandemic to boost their income, without jeopardising the support they will receive through the Government furlough scheme.’

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 spokesman 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.’ 

The outbreak comes after lockdown was extended for at least two weeks in Leicester, east midlands, after a surge in coronavirus cases.

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