Uncertain times ahead despite vaccine hope

The news that a vaccine for COVID-19 is now available brings with it renewed hope that the world may return to normal by the end of 2021. In what has been a year of unprecedented challenges for entire industries, it is welcome news at last.

For the food and drink manufacturing industry, it comes at a good time. COVID-19 resulted in movement restrictions of workers, changes in demand of consumers, closure of food production facilities, restricted food trade policies, and financial pressures in the food supply chain. The net result is an industry that has suffered huge losses across the board.

As we enter a time of year that is normally associated with increased demand on food services and supplies, confidence in the market is low. A survey conducted by CGA and Fourth, a UK-based consultancy, found that 82% of food industry CEOs were downbeat about their prospects for the coming year. Meanwhile across the Atlantic, US food and drink giant Pepsi Co temporarily shut one of its plants after an outbreak of COVID-19. It’s the tip of the iceberg as far as food production is concerned.

In June, the BBC reported that outbreaks in plants across Europe were soaring, with one site in the UK reporting 158 infections. Around the same time in the US, the Smithfield Pork Plant, which employs more than 3,000 people, reported that 240 staff had become infected. That number would peak at just fewer than 700, a figure that accounted for 55% of the region’s total infections.

Almost 6 months on and little appears to have changed. Outbreaks among manufacturing workers in Brazil, France and Ireland forced the closure of facilities, bringing a temporary halt to operations – this despite national lockdowns in place in the latter two countries.

The speed at which the virus spread in those environments is likely to have stemmed from the way COVID-19 presents in the vast majority of those infected. The World Health Organisation estimates that as many as 80% of transmissions have come from asymptomatic people. Further to that, there is strong evidence that pre-symptomatic patients are also contagious – meaning quite simply that most cases come from people who don't know they have COVID-19.

It’s an alarming insight into the virus, but one that underscores the importance of enforcing social distancing measures and the continued use of face coverings – especially in environments that are highly prone to outbreaks, such as factories and warehouses.

While nobody doubts the efficacy of guidelines and measures put in place by food and drink manufacturers, it underlines further why workers in that industry are especially vulnerable. Not only are they in regular close contact with each other and with potentially infected surfaces, the environment is a petri dish for infection.

'Factories and, in particular, indoor areas which are cold and damp, are perfect environments for coronavirus to linger and spread,' Professor Lawrence Young told the BBC. 'Virus-containing droplets from infected individuals are more likely to spread, settle and stay viable.' So where does the solution lie?

Why the vaccine may not be the answer - yet

When BioNTech and Pfizer announced that it had developed a COVID-19 vaccine that was safe and effective, the world breathed a collective sigh of relief. A return to normal now seemed more of a reality than a distant hope. The initial wave of excitement was met with further joy when the vaccine’s co-creator Prof Ugur Sahin said that we would start to see the effects of the vaccine by summer 2021 and that life would return to normal 12 months from now.

Closer reading of the situation is however required. Country leaders have urged caution among their populations, reminding citizens that just because we have found the map it does not mean we are out of the woods yet. It’s sound advice.

The thorny issue of who's getting the vaccine first reveals that Professor Sahin’s assertions may have been both premature and slightly misjudged. The UK was the first country to order the vaccine en masse, and has taken delivery of its first wave in time to begin vaccinating ahead of Christmas.

The first to receive the vaccine in the UK will be the elderly, care home residents, vulnerable and key workers, followed by those aged 50 or over. In the US it's a similar story, with the nation’s 21 million healthcare workers and 3 million care home residents first in line. Then around 90million essential workers will be next, though it is up to states to decide which industries to prioritise.

On the face of it, it’s a bit of a grey area. If you look at the working population in in a UK factory setting for example, it’s approx. from the ages of 18 to 55, meaning that the vast majority of workers won’t initially be vaccinated. So, you will have huge proportions of the population feasibly able to return to work and simultaneously be at risk of catching and spreading COVID-19.

To that end, governments face a hard choice. There is the initial issue of who should get the vaccine first beyond the vulnerable and key workers; and then there’s the decision over who is considered and essential worker - they could equally be teachers, GPs or food production workers.

As it stands, there’s very little clarity on if and when the latter will be classed as ‘essential enough’ to receive a vaccine. If not, then it raises the issue of timing, and whether or not those workers awaiting immunisation will be expected to return to an environment that leaves them vulnerable. From a psychological perspective, that could be very damaging.

Moving forward

The way forward lies in mitigating the risk of the virus spreading, while at the same time giving workers the confidence to return to their jobs. The safety and peace of mind comes in part from adhering to Government guidelines, ensuring compliance is taken seriously and communicating that with staff.

But in order to maintain productivity and more importantly to protect people, stringent and well-defined SOPs will need to be adopted. For those to be effective and meaningful, they’ll need constant review and refinement, which requires useful and meaningful data.

In large environments, such as production floors and factories, that data can be hard to gather. There are numerous points for interaction, crowding and opportunities to violate safety – unwittingly or otherwise. Quite simply, it isn’t easy to monitor the compliance of guidelines – whether that is maintaining social distancing or wearing a facemask.

Companies are increasingly turning to AI to tackle the problem and to provide an insight into how their workspaces are being used. This year, for example, EmpiricAI provided a large conglomerate and investment company which deploys and manages investments across a diverse range of sectors including food & agriculture, with its WorkSafe Analytics solution that would ensure the efficacy of its SOPs and safety measures.

Through the software, which monitors and detects whether masks are being worn and social distancing is being practiced, the company was able to get an accurate view of the risk of infection in their premises and make timely interventions. The actual result of the changes they implemented was a 50% reduction in non-compliance of social distancing guidelines within the first month of install.

This kind of real-time, fact-based approach offers food & drink manufactures real hope of navigating the next 18 months. It isn’t certain if or when workers in that industry will receive the vaccine. Neither is it certain how long it will take before all workers in that industry will be vaccinated and able to return to their work safely and with peace of mind. In fact, we don't even know how long the vaccine is effective for.

What is certain is that their work remains necessary and vital to the food supply chain. It’s also clear that they are at risk – and despite the best efforts of food & drink manufacturers, infection remains a concern for all parties. The vaccine may offer a long-term solution, but it is by no means a cure all. Best estimates suggest that COVID-19 will pose a problem until at least 2022 and maybe beyond.

In the absence of clarity, the situation calls for pragmatism and for action. Workers need to feel confident that they can return to work safely and with little risk of infection. As such, the best course of action for food and drinks manufacturers is to invest in innovative technology solutions that give their workforce peace of mind, ensure their productivity and, above all, keep them protected.

For more information about WorkSafe Analytics, please email us at info@empiric.ai

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