More than 1,500 people have tested positive for coronavirus in a German meat factory outbreak blamed for a spike in the country’s R rate.
Health authorities have quarantined all 6,500 workers at the Toennies plant and carried out tests on the entire workforce after the outbreak came to light last week.
Some 1,553 tests have already come back positive and the regional premier of North Rhine-Westphalia has warned that the whole state could have to go back into lockdown.
Many of those ordered into quarantine with their families are migrant workers from Eastern Europe who live in crowded company-provided accommodation – prompting anger at the German plant managers over alleged ‘exploitation’.
The plant’s billionaire owner Clemens Toennies, nicknamed the ‘Pig Baron’, has apologised for the outbreak and admitted that the firm has struggled to trace possible contacts.
The Toennies cluster is the largest of several new outbreaks which have sent Germany’s R rate rising to an alarming 2.76, although health chiefs say the number is more likely to lurch around when the overall figures are low.
German Red Cross workers in protective suits stand in front of a house yesterday where Toennies meat factory workers are being quarantined following an outbreak at the plant
Health authorities have quarantined all 6,500 workers at the Toennies plant (pictured) and tested the entire workforce after the outbreak came to light last week
Germany’s R rate has ballooned to 2.76 following a series of local outbreaks, far above the level of 1.00 which signals that the contagion has stopped accelerating
Clemens Toennies, who has an estimated net worth of $2.3billion, said on Saturday that the new outbreak was an ‘existential crisis’ for the company.
‘As a company we thought we had done everything right,’ he said, after operations were suspended because of the crisis.
‘As an entrepreneur I can only apologise. We have caused this and are fully responsible for it,’ Toennies said.
The outbreak has also prompted protests in front of the meat-packing plant calling for the closure of slaughterhouses across Germany.
Toennies, who founded the firm with his brother Bernd in 1971, was caught in a racism storm last year after saying that power stations should be built in Africa so that ‘the Africans would stop cutting down trees and produce babies when it is dark’.
The 64-year-old was forced to step down for three months as president of German football team Schalke 04 as football bosses ruled that his comments were racist.
Before that, Toennies was involved in a lengthy legal battle with his nephew Robert which finally led to a settlement in 2017.
However, the legal wrangling resumed last year when Robert Tonnies launched a new claim over the meat firm’s business in China.
Ansgar Puff, a bishop in nearby Cologne, condemned what he called ‘exploitation and slavery-like practices’ at meat-packing plants in Germany.
‘Migrants from Eastern Europe are misused as cheap labour in the middle of Germany and housed in inhumane dwellings. The exploitative employment in the meat industry is a scandal,’ he said.
‘Before the corona cases in the slaughterhouses, the topic was of little interest to the general public. It was just too easy for many to close their eyes.’
Local authorities are employing translators to help manage the quarantine and the embassies of Romania, Bulgaria and Poland have offered assistance.
A German soldier walks beside a security guard at the meat-packing plant in western Germany where thousands of people have been tested
Eastern European workers at the Toennies plant are seen behind a barrier at their accommodation in western Germany yesterday
A member of a mobile testing unit organised by the German army and German Red Cross tests a resident for coronavirus yesterday
Germany’s labour minister Hubertus Heil has suggested that Toennies could have to pay damages for the outbreak.
‘We should examine to what extent the company bears civil responsibility’ for the outbreak and resulting lockdown, he told German television.
Anton Hofreiter, the parliamentary leader of the Green party, has said that Clemens Toennies should pay any such compensation out of his own pocket.
China has already banned meat imports from Toennies, which is one of Germany’s largest meat producers.
The outbreak near Guetersloh was first reported on Wednesday, when 400 workers tested positive.
By Friday, that number had doubled to 803 and it had climbed further to 1,029 by Saturday. Last night it increased to 1,553.
The entire workforce has been quarantined whether they tested positive or not, while health authorities carry out further screening on their households.
The German army has been deployed to help manage the quarantine while police distribute food to thousands of people in an accommodation block.
Animal rights activists protest in front of the Toennies meat-packing plant at the weekend amid anger over the conditions in which Eastern European migrants are living and working
A police officer helps to deliver food for quarantined employees of the meat processing company yesterday
Schools and kindergartens in the district of Guetersloh have also been shut since Thursday.
The leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, Armin Laschet, has said he ‘cannot rule out a blanket lockdown’ in Germany’s most populous state.
Laschet has come under fire for suggesting that ‘Romanians and Bulgarians’ working at the plant were responsible for bringing the virus.
He later backtracked and acknowledged that the migrants’ poor working and living conditions in Germany may have contributed to the spread of the virus.
The Toennies outbreak is the largest of a handful of new clusters which have sent Germany’s R rate soaring to 2.76 in recent days.
A figure above 1 means that the number of cases will grow over time, while a rate below 1 means that the outbreak is in decline.
Angela Merkel has previously warned that Germany’s hospitals could be overwhelmed if the rate hovers even slightly above 1.
The Robert Koch diseases institute (RKI) which calculates the rate says the rate is prone to jumping around when the overall number of cases is still low.
The high rate ‘is linked to local clusters… with the outbreak in North Rhine-Westphalia playing a particularly large role,’ the RKI says.
Germany’s total number of new cases rose to 3,553 last week compared to 2,290 the week before – ending 10 straight weeks of decline.
Police officers guard the buildings where employees of the Toennies meat factory remain under lockdown yesterday
Testing officials wearing protective gear cross a street yesterday as they carry out screening on thousands of Toennies employees and their families
North Rhine-Westphalia was responsible for more than half of the 537 new cases reported in Germany yesterday, according to official figures.
Elsewhere in Germany, further outbreaks have been detected in the city of Magdeburg, in the state of Saxony-Anhalt and in the Berlin district of Neukölln.
In addition, hundreds tried to escape a tower block quarantine in Goettingen on Saturday after 700 people were placed in lockdown because of an outbreak.
The weekly figure of 3,553 cases is still well below the number seen at the height of the crisis, when 39,167 new cases were added in the week beginning on March 30.
In addition, the latest spike has not yet made any noticeable impression on Germany’s death figures, which remain relatively low.
The RKI reported only 10 new deaths today and the total for the last week was only 96, compared to 119 the week before.
Germany has recorded a total of 190,862 cases and 8,895 deaths since the pandemic began.
The country has generally been praised for its handling of the pandemic, with the death rate much lower than in Britain, France, Italy or Spain.