WORKERS at Cowley’s Mini plant fear the factory could become a coronavirus hotspot after nine workers tested positive for the virus in just a week.
BMW, which owns the plant, confirmed the cluster of Covid-19 cases yesterday, saying it was ‘monitoring the situation closely’ and had discussed the situation ‘in detail’ with Public Health England.
Unite, which represent staff at the factory, said it was also working with BMW to ensure the safety of employees, as is the county council, which warned it highlights the pandemic is ‘far from over’.
It came after an anonymous source contacted the Oxford Mail claiming eight members of production staff had contracted Covid-19.
They said: “Staff are getting worried at this rapid number in just a few days.”
Asked whether they had any specific concerns, they said: “It sounds as if [BMW] have taken precautions as advised… hand sanitised, plastic shields, face coverings, but I don’t know that it can be working if so many have got it in the one area.”
They added: “Of course the precautions are only as good as the staff – if they aren’t complying inside or outside of work then it’s useless.
“Maybe they all caught it outside of work, but it seems a coincidence they are all showing symptoms in the first two weeks back at work.
“And they are coming into work, to be sent home as they fear not getting paid if they ring in sick from home… so essentially they are travelling to the site with symptoms instead of following guidance to isolate.”
There were similar safety concerns from workers in early June at the site, which reopened on May 18, after two staff members were sent home – one testing positive for coronavirus and the other having been in contact with them.
On the latest cases, a BMW spokesman said: “We can confirm that nine members of staff working at Mini Plant Oxford have recently tested positive for Covid-19.
“We are monitoring the situation closely and have discussed it in detail with Public Health England.”
He added: “Before restarting production we made a wide range of practical modifications and enhanced personal hygiene and cleaning routines, as well as giving clear instructions to everybody on site, in order to minimise the risk of transmission in the workplace as far as possible.
“These measures, which are fully in line with Government health and safety guidance, are monitored on a daily basis in the best interests of our employees.”
Public Health England confirmed it is providing expert advice and support to the plant following ‘a small number of confirmed cases’ of coronavirus.
In line with the Government’s test and trace programme, anyone identified as a close contact of a positive case is being advised to self-isolate for 14 days even if they have no symptoms.
Clare Humphreys, consultant in health protection at PHE South East, said: “We are working closely with Mini Plant, the county council and NHS partners to provide public health advice and help stop the spread of the virus.
“Employers have been asked to take certain measures to help reduce the spread of Covid-19, including ensuring staff can maintain social distancing wherever possible and are able to regularly wash their hands for 20 seconds with soap and water, and cleaning frequently touched surfaces.”
The statement from Public Health England said the company has been advised to take ‘appropriate public health measures’ to ensure it is safe for other staff to continue working.
It added: “However, if anyone does develop symptoms, which include a new continuous cough, high temperature or loss or change to their sense of taste or smell, they should self-isolate straight away.”
A Unite spokesperson said: “Risk assessments and strict health and safety protocols are in place at the Oxford plant and are under constant review by Unite.
“The health and safety of our members is Unite’s top priority and we are working with the company to ensure staff are protected.”
There have been several outbreaks of coronavirus at factories since manufacturing restarted, with meat production particularly badly hit.
More than 450 Covid-19 cases were reported at food factories in England and Wales last week, included 165 workers at a meat factory in West Yorkshire.
Oxfordshire’s director of public health, Ansaf Azhar, speaking at a meeting of councillors and health providers earlier this month, said local leadership on test and trace was going to be ‘vital’.
He said: “As we ease out of lockdown, locally we need to manage this because there is a danger that hotspots and clusters can get out of control.”
A spokesperson for Oxfordshire County Council said: “We are aware of the situation and are working with both BMW and Public Health England to ensure appropriate action is taken.
“While we’ve been pleased that cases continue to decline, this situation highlights that the pandemic is far from over.
“The occurrence of new cases in the county is something that we can prevent by continued vigilance, maintaining good hand hygiene, and observing appropriate social distancing. As a council, we are working with our local partners to ensure that as the lifting of lockdown continues, that they implement safe operating procedures.”
The R number – the rate the virus spreads through a community –has been slowly rising across Oxfordshire in recent weeks but remains only slightly above the national average.