Staff shortages caused by Covid are hitting Australia’s economy, emptying supermarket shelves and closing shops and restaurants amid renewed calls for rapid antigen testing to be made free in the workplace.
While there is no precise data on how many people are on sick leave because they have Covid, isolate themselves due to close contact, or are waiting for a test, some companies report that half of their employees cannot attend.
Trucking and logistics are particularly affected, as is the meat industry, which this week warned of shortages unless slaughterhouses and boning rooms are exempt from health orders prohibiting close contact with work, or provided with Covid tests.
There are blank spaces on the supermarket shelves in every shelf of the two large supermarkets, Coles and Woolworths, as staff shortages affect every part of the supply chain, from suppliers to transport companies and own distribution centers. chains, which send products to individual stores. .
In a return to the measures last seen at the height of the first wave in 2020, Coles limited sales of ground meat, sausage, chicken breasts and chicken thighs to one packet per customer in order to stop panic shopping. Woolworths has yet to set purchasing limits.
Supermarkets are also reducing the range of products they sell to make life easier for their suppliers.
The supermarket industry is concerned that some stores will be forced to close or reduce their hours due to the unavailability of workers.
While relaxed close contact rules have made it easier to keep people at work, that extra capacity has been overtaken by the growing number of Covid cases, which topped 68,000 across Australia on Thursday.
Scott Morrison said testing requirements for truck drivers have been watered down in an effort to ease pressure on the logistics system while treasurer Josh Frydenberg has spoken to supermarket bosses about the crisis.
The Prime Minister admitted that continued staff shortages were negatively impacting the economy and said the federal government was focused on increasing capacity in critical areas including healthcare, distribution centers, food production and transport.
“We need truck drivers to keep trucking, that’s what we need to do to keep making things happen,” Morrison said. “And right now they’re delivering vaccines to GPs and pharmacists, and of course that system is under strain due to the high number of cases. “
The Prime Minister also asked Attorney General Michaelia Cash to meet with state governments to discuss relaxing laws that require employers to maintain a safe workplace so that small businesses do not have to put up with the cost of purchasing rapid antigenic tests (RATs), the price of which has skyrocketed due to soaring demand and limited supply.
A spokesperson for Cash said the Morrison government “will work with state and territory governments to clarify to employers the requirements for rapid antigen testing under the WHS [work health and safety] laws “.
“The Attorney General is reaching out to WHS ministers to move this work forward. “
Unions strongly opposed the idea, which they doubt will be practical, and reiterated their call on the government to provide free RTNs to small businesses.
Australian Council of Trade Unions acting secretary Liam O’Brien said all workers were entitled to the same level of protection at work as Morrison, who said on Wednesday he was able to get RATs provided to workers of the Prime Minister’s Ministry and Cabinet because he was “an employee in this building, like everyone else”.
O’Brien attacked Morrison for not buying enough RATs despite the warning, given by unions and businesses in October, that they would be needed once restrictions were reduced and face-to-face trading resumed.
“On the one hand, he has the right to this very safe workplace [but] because he failed to do his job by getting enough tests for the nation, the rest of us would have to be working under less safe conditions, ”O’Brien said.
“If we’re going to start removing employers’ obligations to introduce rapid testing, not only will we see more outbreaks in the workplace, which will lead to more people contracting Covid, but as we see in this moment, we’re going to see businesses shut down.
He said occupational health and safety laws were under state control, not the federal government.
“I don’t think it’s possible or practical for him [Morrison] to change eight different state laws, ”he said.
The union that represents employed chemists, Professional Pharmacists Australia, said a plan announced by Morrison to distribute up to 10 free tests to concession card holders was not enough.
“Such limited access does not help the millions of workers and businesses who need regular access to multiple tests to protect workplace health safety and business continuity,” said union chief executive Jill McCabe. .
“Access to free testing is a critical health and safety risk mitigation measure needed to reduce the spread of Covid in the workplace. “
As Guardian Australia has previously reported, tourism and hotel operators and airlines have also had to scale back operations due to staff shortages caused by the increase in the number of cases.
Sarah Hunter, chief economist for Australia at BIS Oxford Economics, said it was difficult to assess the effect of staff shortages on the economy until the workforce statistics will be released by the Bureau of Statistics at the end of next month.
She said it was also difficult to say whether the blow was caused by supply issues or a drop in demand.
“You also see that people are less willing to go out, to go shopping, that sort of thing,” she said.
“Whether it’s because people can’t go to work or they don’t want to go out, it’s hard to say because they’re happening at the same time.”
However, Hunter said Australia could learn from the woes experienced by the UK and US in previous waves where these countries did not lock in.
She said up to 25% of employees in the third of Australia’s workforce who worked in industries where working from home was not possible could be taken out of service at any time.
“Twenty-five percent is certainly the worst case scenario, I’m not saying it’s going to happen, but it’s clear that for the next few months it will be difficult for the economy as a whole,” he said. she declared.
“It’s not just the healthcare industries, it’s companies like Woolworths and Coles and the food supply chain.
“In the UK, in their last wave, they had problems not because of supply issues, but because they weren’t able to put things on the shelves.”
Hunter said another pressure point would be parents who couldn’t work because their children had to stay at home and needed supervision.
“Again, it’s unclear what impact this will have, but in the US and UK this factor has been cited in polls as one of the reasons people have yet to return to the work market.”