Australia Unions Decry Move to Ease Isolation Requirements for Close Contacts

Australian unions have slammed the national cabinet decision to allow close contacts in essential industries who test negative to COVID-19 to return to work.

The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), the peak union body, also condemned the decision against making rapid antigen tests (RATs) free and accessible for all Australians.

“The announcement [on Jan. 13] allowing more workers who are close contacts to attend work is not a solution to the current crisis,” the union said. “It increases risk; and could increase sickness in workplaces and across the community at a time health workers and hospitals are already overwhelmed.”

ACTU wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday evening demanding free RATs and the restoration of paid pandemic leave for close contacts and those forced out of work but have yet to receive a response.

“The federal government’s plan to open up, if there is one, has clearly failed our health systems, our economy, and the essential national supply chains,” ACTU Secretary Sally McManus said.

She said if the prime minister and the federal government will not act on their demands, then the unions will step up to provide national leadership.

“Accordingly, the ACTU has called a crisis meeting of union leaders representing all workers to consider our response to the prime minister’s regrettable failure of leadership, to ensure that Australia can get through the continuing pandemic without compromising the safety of workers and the Australian community,” she said.

The Transport Workers’ Union (TWU) predicted that the transport crisis would “significantly worsen” in the coming weeks due to the national cabinet’s decision.

“Distribution centres will become virus hotbeds sending more essential workers to their sick beds, infecting their families along the way,” TWU National Secretary Michael said.

Epoch Times Photo
Minister for Finance Simon Birmingham at a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia on May 13, 2021. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham told ABC radio that the newer Omicron variant was a game-changer, with actual demand for tests far exceeding what had been previously modelled by health advisers.

Birmingham said the government had been planning for Australia’s reopening in response to health advice for the Delta variant, where there had been a “strong preference to keep using PCR testing as much as possible.”

“If we could all have predicted what the Omicron variant would look like, of course, we would have prepared for it in different ways,” he said. “But ultimately, we modelled very carefully how we would reopen against the Delta variant.”

“Omicron’s changed a lot of that, it’s changed, vastly, the case numbers that we’re seeing and the world is seeing in terms of COVID-19.”

Birmingham added that while the government knew there would be more variants after Delta, it is not possible to predict what kind of impacts those new variants would have.

Meanwhile, the Australia Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) welcomed the national cabinet decision but warned that until supply constraints on RATs were resolved, employees in isolation will still be unable to return to work.

“We have been calling for rapid antigen tests to be freely and widely available for Australians, small business, and other industry settings since September last year,” ACCI Andrew McKellar said. “The government must redouble its efforts to procure the supply Australia needs.”

“As soon as the availability of rapid antigen testing makes this possible, the national cabinet should take action by extending the close contact protocols announced today to all workers.”

Rebecca Zhu

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Rebecca Zhu is an Australian reporter based in Sydney. She focuses on the Australian economy, property, and education. Contact her at rebecca.zhu@epochtimes.com.au.

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