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Food shortages will continue unless state and federal governments can overcome the shortfall in rapid antigen tests, industry warns, as COVID-19 safeguards are eased to get close contacts back into the critical supply chain workforce.
Retails stores are running short of some groceries, with the biggest impacts being felt in NSW, Victoria and Queensland where high rates of infection are decimating the supply chain workforce and preventing food from getting onto shelves.
Empty fresh produce shelves at Woolworths in Sydney’s Neutral Bay on Friday.Credit:James Brickwood
All states and territories except Western Australia are expected to agree on changes to slash isolation requirements for food supply and distribution workers ahead of the next scheduled meeting of national cabinet on Thursday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday the changes could apply broadly across the industry.
“[It would cover] those who are driving the trucks 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,” he said.
Under the plan, close contacts deemed a low risk of infection, and who do not have COVID-19 symptoms, will not be required to isolate and are free to keep working in food supply chain roles.
High-risk contacts, who were exposed to an infected person in a household setting or in a workplace for at least 15 minutes without masks, may continue to work if they don’t have COVID-19 symptoms and return a negative rapid antigen test on day one. They would then have a rapid test every second day until day six. Symptomatic workers must isolate for seven days from their last COVID-19 contact.
Industry groups welcomed the plan but said governments must urgently provide adequate supply of rapid antigen tests to employers, especially small and medium-sized businesses, and pay for the test kits.
“For these arrangements to be effective, there needs to be either 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,” Australian Food and Grocery Council chief executive Tanya Barden said.
“We urge all state and territory governments to develop a uniform approach that will allow asymptomatic workers to return to their critically important jobs, subject to strict controls to protect public health, so that they can continue the work of supplying food and groceries to the nation.”
Australian Industry Group chief Innes Willox said the community benefited from keeping food businesses open and the costs of testing should be shared.
“Employers are increasingly having to bear the costs of rapid antigen testing of their employees themselves and with these costs set to rise in coming months, governments need to consider how employers – particularly small and medium-sized employers – can reduce or have testing costs reimbursed,” Mr Willox said.
Trucking companies have said up to 50 per cent of their workforce was absent from work either because they had contracted COVID-19 or were in isolation as a close contact. Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, said food distribution companies had also advised the government they were missing up to half of their workers in some instances.
Mr Morrison said large companies including Woolworths and Coles had ample raid antigen tests on hand to meet their requirements and Workforce Minister Stuart Robert was working with industry to support smaller companies.
“We’re looking specifically at if there are small and medium-sized businesses that don’t have the same resources as the large businesses, which dominate a lot of that sector, then we’re looking at what direct support we might provide to those,” Mr Morrison said.
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