Covid Isolation Rules Eased to End Australia Supply Chain Crisis
(Bloomberg) -- Australian transport and freight workers who are close contacts of those infected with Covid-19 will no longer be required to isolate in an attempt to end supermarket shortages across the country.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the cabinet decision was made following widespread supply chain disruptions triggered by a surge in omicron infections and shortages of rapid antigen tests. At present up to 10% of the workforce was on leave at any time due to the latest outbreak, he said, although the Australian Broadcasting Corporation has put that figure at as much as 50% in the transport sector.
The lack of workers was leading to empty shelves in supermarkets countrywide, with one major chain, Coles, putting limits on purchases of meat and poultry. These shortages along with other Covid-related disruptions could well cost Morrison some votes when the Australia heads to national elections that must be held by May.
“This is a constantly moving target. We know what we have to hit. Keep our hospitals going, keeping our health system strong and keeping as many people at work,” Morrison said. It was a “delicate balance, he added.
As of Wednesday, Australia has recorded more than one million Covid-19 infections, a rapid jump for a country which until recently was embracing a zero Covid policy.
Buckling under worsening staffing shortages, some businesses have obtained government exemptions to get their employees to return to work even if they have tested positive. Meat processor Teys, which supplies products to Woolworths, told the staff at one of its abattoirs in South Australia this week that they must come back to work unless their symptoms rendered them too unwell to function.
“We’re facing a disaster, there’s no other word for it,” said Jim Stanford, an economist and director of the Center for Future Work. “If a pandemic rips through the workforce, there’s no way to avoid massive economic consequences.”
The staffing shortages come as Australians struggled to get access to rapid antigen tests. Federal and state governments will stop providing these kits free of charge to all citizens while chemists in most major cities are routinely sold out.
Opposition Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese said it was “untenable” for workers to be unable to access rapid testing, especially those in healthcare. It should be ensured that workers “are able to go to work safely by actually getting access to these tests and one of the ways you could do that is by making sure they’re free,” he said.
To cope with demand, state and territory leaders in Australia have announced their own mass purchases, with New South Wales and Victoria buying more than 10 million combined.
Criticism of the shortages has even come from inside Morrison’s own party. Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said Morrison had failed to support locally-developed technology which could have boosted supplies.
“I know ‘innovation’ is no longer fashionable in Canberra, but what about patriotism?” Turnbull said in a tweet.
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