A Co Offaly meat factory impacted by a Covid-19 outbreak has suspended production amid tightened coronavirus restrictions in the Midlands.
Carroll Cuisine has become the fourth affected plant to close operations in the three-county area covered by the localised infection control steps.
The spike in cases that prompted the restrictions in Offaly, Kildare and Laois have been linked to outbreaks in meat processing factories.
The intensified focus on the plants came as face coverings became mandatory in shops across Ireland on Monday, with those breaching the laws potentially facing up to a 2,500 euro fine or six months in prison.
Carroll Cuisine in Tullamore initially opened on Monday morning, however it had been facing increasing calls to halt production.
Minister of State Sean Fleming, a TD for Laois and Offaly, had urged the company to close voluntarily, noting that the state could intervene to order closure.
Tanaiste Leo Varadkar had also highlighted that the HSE could move to impose a closure order.
Nine of the plant’s 330 employees tested positive for Covid-19 last week.
Those tests were carried out following the first diagnosed case of coronavirus among the workforce on July 31.
On Monday afternoon, Kieran Carolan, chief executive of Carroll Cuisine, said the plant would take a break in operations pending the results of further testing of staff conducted on Sunday.
“The health, safety and wellbeing of all our people and our wider communities is an absolute priority for us at all times,” he said.
“We have been working closely and co-operatively with the HSE and, while positive case levels among our staff are low, we believe that the best approach is to take this break in operations over the days ahead until we can evaluate the results of comprehensive tests which were undertaken for our staff on a precautionary basis yesterday in co-operation with the HSE.”
The plant boss said he backed a proposal for a recurring 14-day testing regime in meat plants.
He said employees would continue to be paid during the suspension of operations.
“We note that a number of Government and health service sources have said factories should close wherever there are any cases of Covid,” he said.
“However, it’s essential that while closures may be envisaged, the industry will need to continue in operation to supply food and facilities will need to reopen once any particular situation is contained and brought under control.
“Clear guidance is required on the measures, procedures and roadmap envisaged by the Government in this regard.”
The three other plants that have experienced outbreaks, Kildare Chilling, O’Brien Fine Foods and Irish Dog Foods, had already suspended operations prior to the announcement by Carroll Cuisine.
On Monday, 57 new cases of the disease were reported in Ireland by the Department of Health, bringing the total number of infections to 26,768.
No more deaths were recorded.
Acting chief medical officer Dr Ronan Glynn said 19 of the cases are located in Kildare, 11 in Dublin, 10 in Offaly, seven in Limerick, and the rest are in Clare, Cork, Galway, Kerry and Wicklow.
Localised restrictions in Kildare, Laois and Offaly were announced on Friday and are in place for at least two weeks.
Residents are only allowed to travel outside their counties in limited circumstances while restaurants and pubs serving food have been closed.
Dr Glynn said: “I fully understand the frustrations of other businesses in the area and the comparisons that they are making but ultimately this pandemic is not going away for the foreseeable number of months.”
He added: “We have to be guided by the experts on the ground who have the level of knowledge and expertise to make assessments there.
“We have to make assessments based on evidence, the local teams have to make assessments based on evidence.
“We have to continue as safely as we can.”