Mandatory Credit: Photo by MICHELE TANTUSSI/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10682634m) Nordrhein-Westfalen M.P. Armin Laschet, arrive sfor a meeting of German Federal State Premiers at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, 17 June 2020. The German Prime Ministerial Conference took place earlier this day in Berlin. Chancellor Merkel meets German Federal State Premiers in Berlin, Germany – 17 Jun 2020 – MICHELE TANTUSSI/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The favourite to succeed Angela Merkel as German chancellor has come under fire after he appeared to blame migrant workers from Romania and Bulgaria for a new coronavirus outbreak.

There is growing concern in Germany over the outbreak among workers at a pig slaughterhouse, which has fuelled the largest daily increase in new infections the country has experienced in almost a month, with 770 cases recorded on Thursday alone.

But Armin Laschet, currently regional prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, dismissed concerns the outbreak had been caused by his decision to lift the lockdown in the state.

“It’s got nothing to do with it. Romanians and Bulgarians entered the country and the virus has come from there,” Mr Laschet told reporters on Thursday.

After his remarks were seized on by political rivals, including the foreign minister, Heiko Maas, who called them “extremely dangerous”, Mr Laschet hastily backtracked.

“It is forbidden to blame people of any origin for the virus. I want to make clear that this goes without saying for me and for the entire state government,” Mr Laschet said.

The outbreak at the Tönnies slaughterhouse in Rheda-Wiedenbrück has so far been successfully contained. The German military has been drafted in to set up a testing centre, some 7,000 staff have been place under quarantine and the production has been shut down.

Altogether, there have been 730 cases confirmed at the slaughterhouse, and it is believed to account for more than 300 of the 770 new infections recorded on Thursday alone.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by FRIEDEMANN VOGEL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock (10684765f) A German armed forces (Bundeswehr) soldier wearing a face mask arrives at the headquarters of the company Toennies, Europe’s biggest slaughterhouse, where the troops are helping to set up a coronavirus testing center, in Rheda-Wiedenbrueck, western Germany, 19 June 2020. According to media reports, at least 650 Toennies employees at the Rheda-Wiedenbrueck plant have tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease, making it one of the largest clusters of the ongoing pandemic detected so far in the country. German army helps set up coronavirus testing center at Toennies meat factory, Rheda Wiedenbrueck, Germany – 19 Jun 2020 – FRIEDEMANN VOGEL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Mr Laschet’s initial comments appear to have been prompted by speculation the outbreak could have been caused by migrant workers at the slaughterhouse who travelled to their home countries over a holiday weekend last week.

But that theory has been dismissed by virologists, who say there wasn’t sufficient time for new infections to develop after the workers’ return.

Instead attention has focused on poor conditions at Germany’s slaughterhouses, where migrant workers often live on production sites in cramped and unhygienic staff quarters.

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The outbreak is the most serious in a series of similar incidents at slaughterhouses, and Mr Laschet has since said he will focus on improving conditions for workers. 

“We have to assume working conditions and staff accommodation have contributed to the fact that the coronavirus was able to spread,” he said.

“Inhumane working conditions for employees are not acceptable in the meat industry or in any other branch.”

Mr Laschet is still favourite to become the new leader of Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrat party (CDU) in December, but the race has been thrown open by the coronavirus crisis.

Tönnies, the family-owned company that operates the slaughterhouse, has come under pressure over the outbreak, with calls for Clemens Tönnies to stand down in favour of his son.

Despite the outbreak, government scientists believe the virus is still under control in Germany. The R number — the number of people each infected person passes the virus to — remains under 1.

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