State and territory leaders will shortly decide on changing restrictions for COVID-19 close contacts in critical food supply chain roles without waiting for Thursday's national cabinet meeting.
The federal government is feeling the pressure over food shortages in the nation's supermarkets as Scott Morrison urges state and territory leaders to "push through" in lieu of more lockdowns.
The Prime Minister admitted that Omicron had spread faster than was anticipated with total known active cases in Australia approaching half a million. With the collapse of organised testing and contact tracing total case numbers are unknowable.
Coronavirus cases in the nation's hospitals increased to 5097 patients on Monday, with 78 on ventilators. At least 48 individuals have died over the weekend, including 22 in NSW's deadliest day of the pandemic.
"You push through. You don't lockdown," Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra after announcing the peak medical committee, AHPPC, had endorsed a plan to keep more workers in grocery supply on the job even if they were close contacts of people who had tested positive.
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Customer-facing workers will not be among them.
NSW, Queensland and Victorian governments all announced in recent days some form of easing of restrictions on close contact workers in the food supply sector who have a negative rapid antigen test.
The federal government wants a national solution and is also weighing requests from the hospitality and aviation sectors.
Representatives from Coles and Woolworths told the AHPPC meeting that supermarket chains were experiencing worker absenteeism between 30 and 50 per cent, including both sick workers and close contacts isolating while awaiting test results.
The retail union and Australian Retailers Association joined forces to urge the government to take immediate action to alleviate the supply chain constraints and minimise risks to the health and safety essential, front-line retail workers.
Supermarket night stackers and delivery drivers will be among the essential workers allowed to return to their jobs if they are COVID-19 close contacts and asymptomatic under the national plan endorsed by the AHPPC on Sunday and shared with state and territory leaders on Monday.
"What that involves is asymptomatic close contact being able to go to work in [essential] sectors," Mr Morrison said.
"The next step is to take that further into other critical sectors. And we're especially looking at the transport sector, both in aviation and in other distribution tasks."
The plan would not cover checkout workers at supermarkets or anyone in customer-facing roles, but asymptomatic night stackers and those involved in online orders could return to work with a single negative COVID rapid antigen test.
Several unions have hit out at the plans.
Gerard Dwyer, national secretary of the SDA union for retail, fast food, warehouse and online retail workers, said "living with the virus" made the current situation "entirely predictable" and the government's failure to plan had put at risk both health and now welfare of the entire community.
Access to free rapid antigen tests and appropriate PPE for essential frontline retail workers in stores and distribution centres was a matter of absolute immediate priority, Mr Dwyer said.
"The authorities must act to give shoppers sufficient confidence to ensure retail workers do not become the targets of abuse and worse in the face of supply shortages of food and other essentials."
The ACTU warned more workers would get sick due to the new rules, but chief medical officer Paul Kelly said it was a "reasonable step" to allow asymptomatic close contacts to return to work in critical roles.
"These provisions that allow greater flexibility in balancing the need to reduce transmission against detrimental loss of workforce, [are an] appropriate measure," Professor Kelly said.
National cabinet will this week also look at occupational health and safety regulations impacting businesses who seek to have close-contact workers return to their jobs.
Epidemiology professor Adrian Esterman said the Prime Minister's dichotomy of push through or lockdown was too simplistic and much more was now known about Omicron to avoid needing a full lockdown.
"With all jurisdictions undertaking the vaccination plus public health measures approach, then there is a good chance we can get out of the Omicron wave in February," Professor Esterman said.
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