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Close contact changes don’t go far enough, say business groups

While the expansion of close contact rules will provide some relief to businesses facing critical staff shortages, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry says they don’t go far enough.

Close contact changes don’t go far enough, say business groups
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  • Keeli Cambourne
  • January 14, 2022
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National cabinet met on Thursday (13 January) to make the changes to close contact rules and isolation requirements to help support the diminishing supply chain and businesses suffering from what they term a “shadow lockdown”.

The government announced that from 11:59pm, Tuesday (18 January), workers in emergency services, education, critical utilities, custodial facilities, transport and freight will join workers in the food production sector as being eligible for the exemption.

Under the conditions of the exemption, the worker may return to work if it is necessary for continuity of operations and if other options have been exhausted. The exemption will apply to attending work only, not any other settings.

But ACCI chief executive Andrew McKellar said until supply constraints on rapid antigen tests are resolved, many employees caught up in isolation requirements will still be unable to return to work.

“The changes announced following National Cabinet mean more employees will be able to head back to work, more businesses will keep their doors open, and the problem of critical supply chains grinding to a halt will be lessened,” Mr McKellar said.

“Additionally, the extension of close contact rule changes to employees in the education and childcare sectors is also important to keeping the economy moving. We know that closing these services will further exacerbate the acute staff shortages we are seeing across the economy. However, there is still more work to do.

“It’s disappointing that National Cabinet did not extend the changes to other sectors. Thousands of businesses around the country have not been able to open or trade at full capacity since the onset of Omicron. It is likely we will need to revisit the scope of these measures over coming weeks.

“We have been calling for rapid antigen tests to be freely and widely available for Australians, small business and other industry settings since September last year. The Government must re-double its efforts to procure the supply Australia needs.

“As soon as the availability of rapid antigen testing makes this possible, National Cabinet should take action by extending the close contact protocols announced today to all workers.

“National Cabinet should also not lose sight of working to expand and secure Australia’s PCR testing capacity to future proof the economy against further variants where rapid antigen testing may not be as effective.

“Common sense changes to temporarily lift visa work right restrictions will allow thousands of visa holders to work additional hours and plug some of the staff shortages that continue to cripple businesses across the country.”

In Victoria, industry groups welcomed the state government’s announcement regarding close contacts in a bid to keep businesses open.

Tim Piper, Victorian head of Australian Industry Group said the changes are vital to support Victorian supply chains generally and importantly they will help keep supermarket shelves stocked.

“The changes are good news for business, their employees and the community. The numbers of workers being forced into isolation was becoming ridiculous. This is part of the solution to improving our supply chain and enabling essential services to be maintained,” he said.

“Especially welcome are announcements for the waste industry which would enable it, as an essential service, to continue to operate despite having many workers who would otherwise have been forced into isolation.

However, Mr Piper also said concern remains regarding the unavailability of rapid antigen tests (RAT) for industry and a further requirement that workers be given solo breakout areas.

“Currently, companies can’t comply with the requirement to have a RAT for all affected workers every day, for five days, because the tests are unavailable. The government has set down 19 January as the start date for this system. There will need to be a deluge of RATs available before then to enable compliance and help businesses to use the Orders,” he said.

“The State Government has listened to the concerns of both industry and the community and recognised that the empty shelf problem could only be solved by enabling more workers to stay engaged, provided that they were COVID negative.”

In order to be eligible to return to work, the worker must first notify the employer of their status as a contact, and critically, both parties must consent to the worker returning to the workplace. They are already required to be fully vaccinated.

Strong measures will be required to reduce the risk of a contact attending work while infectious:

  • The worker must undertake a daily rapid antigen test (RAT) for five days and return a negative result prior to attending work each day.
  • They must wear a face mask at all times, with exceptions in the case of eating or drinking, or safety reasons, and a P2/N95 respirator is preferred.
  • The worker cannot enter shared break areas and the employer must try and facilitate solo break time. The employer must also take reasonable steps to deploy the worker in areas where transmission risk is lower.
  • If at any time the worker develops symptoms or tests positive on a RAT, the exemption no longer applies – they are a case, must isolate for seven days, and must notify others including their employer.

The exemption order is identical to that granted by Victoria’s public health team for key food and beverage workers, and is designed to protect the state’s essential workforce during the continuing omicron wave.

This exemption also currently applies to hospital workers, disability workers, residential aged care facility workers, and ambulance workers, but the use of an N95 mask at the workplace is a requirement, not a preference.

Close contacts, otherwise known as household and household-like contacts, are people who have spent more than four hours with a case inside a house, accommodation or care facility.

The Department of Health has also updated its contact management guidelines to require workplaces to notify the department when five cases have attended the work premises within seven days. Previously, workplaces were required to advise the department and Worksafe of single cases.

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