Staff at the Fat Duck restaurant should not have been working when they were infected with the highly contagious norovirus, a Government health watchdog complained yesterday.
In its first public criticism of the head chef and proprietor, Heston Blumenthal, the Health Protection Agency said it had identified "weakness" in the way his world-famous restaurant had dealt with ill staff, who should have stayed off work for at least 48 hours after they last had diarrhoea or vomiting.
The HPA also disclosed the number of people claiming to have fallen ill after eating at the Fat Duck had risen to 529 – up 30 per cent on the previous figure of 400.
Health officials are expected to continue investigating for a month before they issue a final report on the illness linked to the Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, one of only three restaurants in Britain with three Michelin stars. As The Independent revealed yesterday, Blumenthal told an Australian journalist at the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival that the most likely cause of the outbreak was the norovirus rather than food poisoning – which he said was "categorically" not the case.
He disclosed that three members of staff and five customers had tested positive for norovirus.
In a statement yesterday, the HPA said norovirus had been detected in six staff and eight diners – and criticised the Fat Duck. "The in-depth investigation into what has caused 529 people to date to report being ill after eating at the restaurant is continuing and so far the Health Protection Agency has detected norovirus infection in six staff and eight diners and weaknesses in how staff sickness was identified and dealt with," the HPA said.
"Based on staff interviews, sickness records and samples taken, it is clear that staff worked while still infectious with norovirus. HPA guidance states that people should not work in food preparation while they have symptoms/are infectious as a result of diarrhoea and vomiting to avoid the risk of passing the infection to others."
The HPA revealed that advice given to the restaurant prior to its reopening last week "included guidance on the identification and management of staff illness".
Blumenthal has described the Fat Duck as a "labour of love" but the premises are small, seating only 40 diners at each session, and it is not believed to generate large profits.
The restaurant industry has been criticised in the past for failing to pay sick staff, who, it is said, continue turning up for work even if they may have an infectious disease that could be passed on to diners.