UPDATE (11.11AM AEDT, 10 JAN 2022): Prime Minister Scott Morrison has this morning confirmed The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) has endorsed changes to close contact rules for asymptomatic workers in critical sectors. The proposal is now before National Cabinet for approval.
The states of Queensland and New South Wales have moved to permit ‘critical workers’ to attend a workplace if they are deemed close contacts, as long as they are fully vaccinated and are asymptomatic.
Both states cite the risk to essential services and the supply chain as an impetus to change the rules which will permit workers to continue to provide services while classified as close contacts.
In NSW, critical workers will only be eligible to leave self-isolation if their employer determines that their absence from the workplace poses a high risk of disruption to the delivery of critical services or activities, and they are unable to work from home.
These workers must wear a mask and comply with risk-management strategies put in place by their employer, including daily Rapid Antigen Tests.
NSW says the following industries fall under the new rules:
- agriculture (biosecurity and food safety personnel undertaking critical duties)
- manufacturing (production and manufacturing of food, beverages, groceries, cleaning and sanitary products)
- transport, postal and warehousing (food logistics, delivery and grocery fulfilment)
Meanwhile, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the move was restricted to a narrow range of industries to ensure essential services and supplies like groceries, petrol, energy, water, freight and others could continue.
Workers in the state will need to be fully vaccinated, must wear a mask at work, and be asymptomatic.
Those eligible and able to work during the usual close contact quarantine period will also be required to:
- travel to and from work in a private vehicle
- while travelling and working, wear appropriate PPE
- maintain personal hygiene (hand washing etc)
- undertake regular symptom surveillance
- undertake a RAT on Day 6, consistent with the requirements for all close contacts.
If at any stage they develop symptoms, they need to return to quarantine immediately.
“We know the number of COVID-19 cases will continue to rise over the coming weeks,” the Premier said.
“People need to be able to have their lights on, have food in the fridge and have running water.
“We want to ensure our hospitals are staffed, food continues to be delivered to our supermarkets and we can still fill our cars at the petrol station.”
A ‘critically essential worker’ will be defined as someone employed in one of the following industries, who must be in the workplace to do their job:
- emergency services, including Police
- the resource sector
- agriculture and fisheries production
- freight and logistics
- public transport
- essential retail such as supermarkets and stores in remote locations/communities
- major manufacturing, distribution, and critical supply chains (for example food and petrol).
The announcements come after the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) urged the Federal Government to redefine the definition of a ‘close contact’, arguing the current interpretation of the term is too narrow.
The ACTU hopes the term can be redefined to include contact with a COVID positive case that happens in a workplace, ensuring workers who are isolating or awaiting a test result can access pandemic leave payments.
“It is ridiculous to think that Omicron only spreads in the home and that only household contacts should be considered close contacts and eligible for payment. Workers are currently being forced into isolation without pay when exposed at work. This is ridiculous and dangerous,” ACTU acting secretary Liam O’Brien said.
“Australian workers are back in lockdown but this time there is no economic support available. With no money, how can Australian workers be expected to afford the overpriced and inaccessible RATs they require?
“Scott Morrison’s failure to secure free and accessible rapid tests is forcing Australia back into lockdown. Workplace close contacts must be able to access the same economic support as everyone else.”
AHPPC endorses new close contact rules for critical workers
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has this morning confirmed the decision making committee for health emergencies has endorsed a national plan that would enable asymptomatic workers deemed close contacts to continue working in critical industries including food processing, food production and emergency services.
The plan will be presented to National Cabinet today, and Morrison said he expected to receive endorsement from state and territory leaders soon regarding the changes which have already been implemented by NSW and QLD.
As endorsed by the The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), the plan would allow asymptomatic close contacts to go to work in the critical sectors deemed crucial for the national supply chain and the population's health and safety.
Morrison said he is looking to take the new rules into other critical sectors including the transport sector and other distribution tasks, noting the rules do not apply for those in customer facing roles like at supermarket checkouts.
"As the case numbers continue to rise, the volume of cases will of course have an inevitable impact on the workforce, so we're looking to maximise those who can remain in the workforce," Morrison said.
"This is an incredibly tough time on business; there aren't lockdowns but there are many people obviously impacted by being close contacts or people being weary or those indeed who have COVID themselves, and that is having an impact on consumer spending.
"This will be a case for a while yet while Omicron walks its way through and moves to its peak, but that means it is very tough on business. So we're working to ensure that we can alleviate the impact on business."
Updated at 9.48am AEDT on 10 January 2022.
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