Coronavirus: German politician floats prison sentence for billionaire slaughterhouse boss

A leading German politician has suggested billionaire meat industry boss Clemens Tönnies should face a prison sentence for exploiting his company’s workers.

Coronavirus: German politician floats prison sentence for billionaire slaughterhouse boss
German meat boss Clemens Tönnies. Photo: DPA

More than 1,500 have contracted the coronavirus, with thousands more subject to quarantines. 

In June, the districts of Gütersloh and Warendorf were placed under lockdown due to the virus, with residents of these regions banned from holidaying in other parts of Germany. 

EXPLAINED: What you need to know about Germany's new local coronavirus lockdowns 

The employees, many of them from foreign countries, were forced to work and live in cramped conditions which experts think exacerbated the spread of the virus. 

Ralf Stegner, from the Social Democrats (SPD) said Tönnies endangered his workers and broader society. 

“There is real exploitation. It has a lot to do with the fact that we had a corona hotspot there,” Stegner told German tabloid Bild. 

Stegner criticised Tönnies’ company’s request for state assistance due to a forced closure as a result of the coronavirus lockdown, implying that the only way the billionaire should be reliant on state funds is if he finds himself in prison. 

He added: “Such a person does not need state help from taxpayers' money, he should be held responsible. Maybe he will end up in state food and lodging at some point.”

Stegner, who is the SPD parliamentary leader in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein, said any access to public funds would be “outrageous”. 

READ ALSO: 'These clusters will continue to occur': Can Germany keep on top of new coronavirus outbreaks?

German Labor Minister Minister Hubertus Heil previously said the company should pay damages as a result of its conduct. 

Reform of meat industry

Meanwhile, Germany has vowed to crack down on working and accommodation conditions at meat processing plants after a number of outbreaks in the country during the coronavirus crisis.

A draft law agreed by the government will force slaughterhouses to quit the practise of hiring eastern Europeans on short term contracts and will impose heavy fines on companies that fail to comply.

Trade unions say that the eastern Europeans are the victims of appalling living conditions at the mass accommodation provided for them by sub-contractors hired by the meat packing industry. Furthermore they lament a practise of meat companies contracting out work to subcontractors so that they cannot be held liable when abuses are exposed.

READ ALSO: Germany to reform meat industry after corona outbreak exposes abuses

What was the cause of the outbreak?

More than 1,500 employees contracted the coronavirus at the Rheda-Wiedenbrück meat plant run by Tönnies, Germany's leading meat processing firm.

NRW Prime Minister Armin Laschet said it was the largest single outbreak of infections in North Rhine-Westphalia and Germany so far.

READ ALSO: Germany battles to control outbreak at meat plant

Of 6,140 Tönnies employees tested, 1,553 were confirmed as infected with coronavirus. The meat plant was closed for two weeks.

Many of the workers at the processing plant come from eastern Europe and have short-term contracts. There were concerns that people are living and working in cramped conditions which can fuel the spread of the virus.

On top of that, around 7,000 workers were placed under strict quarantine orders and unable to leave their homes.

Authorities put up fencing around residential buildings where workers lived and were distributing food.

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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.