Reconciling economy and public health

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The rapid spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant is wreaking havoc on the shelves of your suburban supermarket. The range of groceries, especially meat and dairy products, is shrinking in many stores and KFC cannot find enough chicken. The cause is not so much panic buying, as in previous waves of COVID-19, but rather the shortage of personnel who operate supply chains.

The Australian Industry Group estimates that between 10 and 50 percent of food and logistics staff, depending on the company, are on sick leave in isolation because they have the disease or are in close contact.

The Australian Council of Small Business Organizations has said it wants isolation rules to be relaxed, including in the hospitality and retail sectors.Credit:Getty Images

The question of how to alleviate these staff shortages will likely be on the agenda again at the national cabinet meeting on Thursday. In the past two weeks, the national cabinet has already reduced the definition of close contact and shortened the mandatory isolation period from two weeks to one in an attempt to address the issue.

These changes are already far from ideal from a disease control standpoint. Some of the people released early into the community are still susceptible to contagion. But the risk was moderate and some slackening was inevitable given the severe shortage of workers.

Yet there is now pressure to go further. NSW has just allowed people who test positive to report to essential jobs, such as manufacturing and transporting food, without any period of isolation, provided they are asymptomatic and undergo antigen testing daily rapids. Similar rules already apply to many health workers, where the shortage of workers is at a critical point.

Businesses want even looser rules. The Australian Council of Small Business Organizations, which estimates 20 to 40% of workers are on leave, told ABC on Wednesday that it wanted isolation rules to be relaxed, including in the hospitality sectors and of retail.

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Age accepts that some additional measures may be needed to keep the economy running, but allowing bar staff to report to work sick with COVID-19 is not one of them. Excessive relaxation of the rules would be counterproductive as it could cause a vicious cycle of infection. The disease will spread even faster and more people will be affected, further depleting the workforce, not to mention causing more deaths.

CUTA secretary Sally McManus said if the rules are further weakened there must be safety plans to protect colleagues.

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