CORONAVIRUS cases at a farm forced to close due to a major outbreak have almost doubled to 142 after three workers went on the run.
Almost three quarters of the 200-strong workforce at Rook Row Farm in Mathon, Herefordshire, have now tested positive for the disease.
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Herefordshire Council and Public Health England (PHE) told The Sun a total of 142 workers – most of them from Eastern Europe – have now tested positive.
This is in addition to three infected people who fled the farm previously, each confirming with their employment agency that they were self isolating.
The vegetable farm was forced to shut down on July 12 after 73 of the 200 crop-pickers fell victim to the disease.
Police guarded the exit after staff were ordered to quarantine at the farm, owned by A S Green and Co.
A source said: "It's a serious situation.
"This is a prime example of what can happen. It's jumped to 142 workers now."
A joint statement released by the local authority and PHE said: “We continue to work with AS Green and Co to contain an outbreak of COVID-19 at their farm.
“The total number of positive cases linked to the outbreak is 142. Regular testing continues.
"A number of workers who have previously tested positive have now completed their period of self-isolation and are able to resume their daily activities. These workers are able to return to work or leave the farm."
In order to try and keep workers at the farm, the authorities were offering them “beer and cigarettes”.
Workers’ passports were also being kept “secure” at the farm, according to the source.
Pictures from the site last month show police officers wearing protective face masks while guarding the gates at both the entrance and the exit.
Herefordshire County Council confirmed to The Sun Online that three workers had fled the farm – insisting only one of them had tested positive for coronavirus.
Karen Wright, director of public health, was unable to say when or how they absconded but claimed 'agencies', which she refused to identify by name, knew where the person who tested positive was staying.
She added that the infected person was self-isolating but refused to say whether or not the whereabouts of the other two workers were known.
It comes after the Midlands regions have seen spikes in cases in recent weeks, with Leicester going into a local lockdown.
The dozens of new cases at producers AS Green and Co comes during harvesting season, where workers come and live on site on the Herefordshire-Worcestershire border.
During the busy summer season they spend their days picking and packing vegetables – supplying stores such as Tesco, Aldi and Sainsbury's.
Katie Spence, PHE Midlands Health Protection Director, said at the start of the farm's outbreak: “A small number of workers became symptomatic earlier this week and they and a few close contacts among the workforce were tested initially and found to be positive.
"In line with NHS guidance, affected individuals were asked to self-isolate for seven days, with their households and close contacts asked to isolate for 14 days.
“As we have seen a global trend of large food producers being subject to outbreaks, as a precautionary measure, the decision was made to test the entire workforce.
"The initial batch of results showed a significant percentage of positive cases, despite these individuals being asymptomatic."
A spokesperson for AS Green said: “Our staff are our priority, they are hard-working key workers helping us provide food for the country during these unusual times.
"We contacted PHE and we are working closely with them and Public Health at Herefordshire Council to prevent the spread of Covid-19.”
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