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The start of 2022 saw around 40 per cent of the supply chain and supermarket workforce sick or in close contact isolation. As the country grew increasingly alarmed at product shortages and empty supermarket shelves, calls for the federal government to provide nationally consistent rules gained intensity.

In early January, the Australia Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) took a proposal to the federal government outlining methods to reduce the risks of household contacts spreading the virus while continuing to work.

AFGC CEO Tanya Barden said the relaxed isolation requirements for workers by the New South Wales, Queensland, and Victorian governments were welcomed, but nationally consistent rules were needed.

In the lead up to national cabinet’s 13 January meeting, Barden urged the government to develop a uniform approach that would allow asymptomatic workers to return to critically important jobs with the caveat that for such plans to work there had to be priority access to rapid antigen tests for daily testing of food and grocery manufacturers or a “more pragmatic approach” such as the day six testing in Queensland.

The Australian Fresh Produce Alliance (AFPA) said it expected the situation to worsen through to the end of January. AFPA CEO Michael Rogers said some businesses have had to halve their staff in one day.

“People aren’t turning up because they have Covid, are close contacts or are concerned about Covid. This is affecting the harvesting, packing, transport and distribution of fruit and vegetables.

“While there is obvious public health concern over the increase in Covid cases we cannot ignore the effect that this is having on the community’s access to food. A shortage of food should not be added to the significant stress and anxiety many Australian families are already experiencing,” Rogers said.

Following cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a continuation of exemptions for food and grocery supply chain workers but deferred implementation to the states and territories subject to their individual public health orders.

It also failed to deliver a definitive answer to measures on PCR and Rapid Antigen Tests.

Prior to cabinet meeting, chief executive of employer body Ai Group Innes Willox said it was time to think creatively about ways to get “all hands on deck” in critical sectors to counter the millions of workers currently out of action.

“To give this perspective, if twenty per cent of our entire workforce was isolated or sick that would equate to around 2.6 million workers,” Willox said.

The group proposed temporarily lifting visa work restrictions, granting all visa holders rights to work in areas of critical need.

“Why not, for example, allow temporary skilled 482 visa holders to earn extra money helping to alleviate shortages by working extra hours in a supermarket, a food manufacturing plant or as a truck driver,” Willox said.

Willox said cabinet’s decision to remove the limit on how many hours international students can work was positive, but Ai Group would like to see more concessions in the area. 

Meanwhile, the Australian Council of Trade Unions condemned cabinet’s failure to make RATs free and accessible to all workers.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus said extending the number of industries that can allow close contacts to work would not solve the current crisis, instead increasing risk.

“Essential workers are being forced to put themselves in harm’s way to keep food on the shelves, medicines in stock, the lights and water on and keep this country open for business,” McManus said.

The government’s interim guidance provides recommended work permissions and restrictions management but puts the responsibility on employers to decide what to do when a case or exposure occurs.

“Employers should be prepared to make assessments on their own, in line with COVID Management Plans, in instances where Public Health Unit advice is not available,” it said.

Concerns are also being raised about RATs. In addition to the difficulty in finding one, there is growing evidence of inequitable access to them with higher paid white-collar industries providing them to staff for free, while lower paid workers – often in essential services – are not.

While cabinet agreed to the final arrangements for the jointly funded state and federal RAT Concessional Access Program, no other decision was made in regard to the costs or availability of RATs to consumers or businesses.

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