‘Delicate balance’ as virus peak could affect one-in-10 workers: national cabinet

By Jackson Graham

Thursday January 13, 2022

Scott Morrison
Prime Minister Scott Morrison. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

The federal government is attempting to strike a “delicate balance” between hospitals not being overrun by COVID-19 cases and workers being able to deliver critical services, prime minister Scott Morrison says. 

Department of Treasury and Finance secretary David Martine told the national cabinet on Thursday that workplaces would have a 10% absenteeism rate as states and territories reached the peak of Omicron outbreaks. 

Morrison said after the meeting that if schools were not to reopen at the start of term one in coming weeks the number of employees unable to work could increase 5%. 

It came as the federal government confirmed workers in schools, childcare, transport, freight, logistics, healthcare, welfare, emergency services, energy resources, waste, food distribution, telecommunications and media would be able to seek exemptions from isolating from their employer if they became close contacts and tested negative to the virus. 

Workers will be required to wear masks and do daily rapid antigen tests when returning to work. 

“The less restrictions you put on people to be at work, the more pressure that can potentially put on the hospital system,” Morrison said. 

“The more you try to protect your hospital system the more people you are taking out of work which disrupts supply chains. This is a very delicate balance which needs to be constantly re-calibrated.” 

Meanwhile, chief health officer Paul Kelly said a weekly operating picture of health systems across all jurisdictions that uses a traffic light system showed all hospitals remained “green” but some ICU’s had turned to “amber”. 

“Nationally 18% of our ICU capability is being used by people with COVID. So there is plenty of room, there is plenty of scope for that. What we are trying to do now is to make sure that remains the case while balancing all the issues,” Kelly said. 

Morrison stressed schools should safely open and remain open, although he conceded national cabinet understood South Australia and Queensland’s delayed start the term would be due to the virus peaking as schools were meant to return in those jurisdictions. 

“It is absolutely essential for schools to go back safely and to remain safely open if we are not to see any further exacerbation of the workforce challenges we are currently facing,” Morrison said. 

“Schools open, means shops open, schools open means hospitals are open, it means aged care facilities are open, it means essential services and groceries are on the shelves.” 

The national cabinet is now working on testing protocols to manage COVID-19 outbreaks in schools. 

Surveillance testing, the role of rapid antigen tests for staff, mask wearing and the health implications for primary school environments compared with secondary schools are now under consideration by states and territories, Morrison said. 

The Australian Council of Trade Unions has condemned the move to relax isolation requirements for critical workers without making rapid antigen tests free. 

“Forcing more workers who are close contacts to go to work increases risk and will not limit the spread that is putting health workers and our hospitals under intolerable pressure,” union secretary Sally McManus said.

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