Covid isolation rules scrapped for critical workers to protect Australia’s food supply chain

Scott Morrison says relaxed isolation rules will help keep food on the shelves, as he says Australia must ‘push through’ Omicron wave

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Last modified on Mon 10 Jan 2022 02.26 EST

Close contacts of Covid cases employed in critical supply chains will have their isolation requirements scrapped, in an attempt to address workforce shortages that have hit the food industry.

Announcing a shake-up of isolation requirements on Monday, the prime minister, Scott Morrison, said the requirements would not apply to customer-facing roles, but those working in “critical supply chains”.

All states and territories, except WA, are expected to sign off on the changes on Monday, with NSW and Queensland already announcing similar changes over the weekend.

“Those who are driving the truck to deliver the food, those who are stacking the shelves at night, those who are in the distribution centres, those who are in the abattoirs, those who are in the manufacturing places that are producing food,” Morrison said.

The changes will bring the food distribution industry and emergency services in line with requirements that already apply in some states’ health and aged care sectors.

Anyone who tests positive or who is symptomatic will not return to work.

The prime minister said national cabinet would assess extending the relaxed isolation requirements to other sectors, including aviation and potentially hospitality, but the disruptions to food supply chains and emergency services needed to be acted upon “immediately”, ahead of a meeting of national cabinet on Thursday.

He also said the country now had no choice but to “push through” the Omicron wave, saying the alternative was a return to lockdowns.

“I mean, you can just shut everything down and lock everybody away, and there will be no food on the shelves, and there’ll be no children getting taught, and there’ll be no one providing health care.

“So that’s obviously not a practical way to move forward. And so what we have done as a government has always sought to balance the various demands and pressures on the system with the health imperative.”

The new isolation changes were agreed to by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee, which is comprised of state and territory chief health officers and the chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly.

Kelly said that discussions with Coles and Woolworths on Sunday had indicated that absenteeism was running at between 30 and 50%, and the supermarkets “could not operate in those sort of circumstances”.

“So that’s the sort of issues we’re dealing with and we need to move fast to take these risk based approaches,” Kelly said.

“This is a reasonable step in relation to the increased transmissibility of the Omicron variant and the expected high number of incident cases in the community, and with the majority of those … mild illness,” Kelly said.

“The provision to allow greater flexibility in balancing the need to reduce transmission against the detrimental loss of workforce is an appropriate measure.”

In relation to the pressures being felt by the hospitality sector and other businesses, Morrison said the government would make changes “one step at a time”.

“As the case numbers continue to rise the volume of cases will of course have an inevitable impact on the workforce, and so we are looking to maximise those people who remain in the workforce.”

The NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet said the government was focused on the issues in food supply chains, but he was aware of similar concerns in the hospitality sector that would also be considered.

“We will work with our health teams in relation to that, but we need to prioritise here and ultimately our number one responsibility is to keep people safe.

“But as we move through this period I would expect further adjustments will get made as we have from time to time … obviously we have been in contact with the hospitality industry and completely understand their concerns.”

With the peak of the Omicron wave still several weeks away, Morrison also said he was confident that all states would resume face-to-face learning in term one, and was hopeful that states and territories would “harmonise their back-to-school plans”.

“Our objective is go back, stay back, day one, term one,” Morrison said.

“The idea is once we go back, we stay back, and we get certainty around that issue, and so we’ll be working through those issues this week and to get further certainty and harmonisation between the states and territories.

“It’s obviously a key issue for parents as they think about their children going back to school in a few weeks’ time.”

The secretary of the department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Phil Gaetjens, is working with the states to develop a consistent approach, despite Queensland already indicating it will delay the start of the school year until 7 February for most students.

Kelly said that the discussion about children and Covid was “difficult”, but he emphasised that the vast majority of cases in young people were mild.

“It’s related to balancing the wider aspects and the importance of face-to-face learning in schools with the risk of Covid,” Kelly said.

“There are many other reasons why children should be in school … in the widest terms, including mental health, developmental health, physical health outside of Covid. So these are tricky things to talk through, but we are talking through them.”

On Monday, the vaccine rollout for children aged five to 11 also commenced, with the head of the government’s vaccine taskforce, Lt Gen John Frewen, insisting that appointments and supplies were available, despite reports of parents struggling to access the jabs.

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He said there would be 2m doses available by 21 January, with 8,000 places participating in the paediatric vaccine program.

“The message again is there has been very strong take up on bookings and I do commend parents for their determination and willingness to bring their kids forward to get vaccinated,” Frewen said.

“If there have been frustrations around getting appointments for some, then please if you can’t get an immediate appointment with your primary healthcare provider if that is your GP, then please do try the pharmacies, please do try the state hubs.

“There are additional bookings coming online every day and there will be more and more opportunities over the weeks ahead.”

Australia’s booster program is also under way, with about 250,000 shots being given on a daily basis.

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