A Bakkavor worker has died amid a coronavirus outbreak at its Tilmanstone Salads factory which produces food for Marks andSpencer.

The fresh prepared food manufacturer called the employee’s death a “tragedy” and said its thoughts were with the family “who we are supporting at this sad time”.

According to Bakkavor, 70 staff out of 900 at the salads facility in Kent are currentlyoff work having tested positive for Covid-19, with an additional 69 self-isolating. This marks a sharp rise in coronavirus cases at the site in the last week of November, according to the GMB Union which represents employees at the factory.

The union claimed Bakkavorhas only agreed to ask staff to wear face masks after it applied pressure, however Bakkavor stressed that the healthand safety of its staff was its “foremost priority”.

The company added in a statement: “We have adopted mask wearing at our Tilmanstone site in line with PHE advice.

“At this early point in the investigation there is no evidence that this case was contracted in the workplace.

“We have stringent safety controls in place, we brief colleagues on travelling safely to and from work, and stress to all our colleagues to be equally careful outside of work to control the transmission of the virus.”

As a major food manufacturer, Bakkavor Salads Tilmanstone has stayed open for business throughout the pandemic.

The company emphasised that nationally and locally it has been “working closely” with Public Health England since the outbreak of coronavirus, making PHEaware of its safety controls, following its guidance, and receiving its “endorsement for being vigilant in having good controls in place”.

PHE issued a statement saying it was satisfied the business is working hard to control the outbreak and limit the spread of infection.

GMB called for Bakkavor to offer full pay to anyone taking Covid-related absence, mass testing for staff and for the company to perform a deep clean at the factory.

Union organiser Frank Macklin said: “GMB has requested the facility close to allow mass testing of employees and a deep clean of thefactory.

“Once this has been done, the factory can re-open with staff returning safe in the knowledge every step has been taken to ensure they are working in the safest possible environment.

“We also call on Bakkavor Tilmanstone Salads to pay employees their full salary if they have tested positive for covid-19 or have to self-isolate. No one can survive on Statutory Sick Pay alone.

“GMB has now lodged a formal collective grievance on behalf of our members, as we believe the health and safety of our members has been seriously compromised at the factory.”

In response, a Bakkavor spokesperson said: “Deep cleaning is one part of our standard regular hygiene practices in addition to an already high focus on factory cleaning as required within a food manufacturing environment.

“Bakkavor Salads Tilmanstone always has been subject to a deep clean on a nightly basis, and this was further enhanced from the beginning of the pandemic with a twice weekly virucidal clean.

“Touch points are also disinfected throughout all shifts including offices, ancillary areas and workshops and hand sanitisers are available in all amenity areas.

In terms of sick pay, colleagues that are unwell get paid sick leave fully in line with their agreed employment contracts and we follow the Government’s extension of Statutory Sick Pay (SSP) to ensure that it commences from the first day of absence.

“Bakkavor also recognises that those who are in self-isolation should be treated as being on sick leave and are paid SSP as they are helping to protect others from the virus and should not be penalised for doing the right thing. We will continue to review this approach on an ongoing basis.”