National cabinet to discuss school return

Andrew Brown |

A plan on how students can safely return to schools amid rising COVID-19 cases will be thrashed out by leaders when national cabinet meets.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison will meet with state and territory counterparts to develop a uniform approach to schools later this month.

Principles for how schools would reopen for students and stay open in the wake of COVID outbreaks have already been finalised by federal, state and territory officials, before it will be put to national cabinet on Thursday.

Leaders will also hear from Treasury officials on the economic reasons to keep schools open.

It’s expected the list of sectors classified as essential will also expand following the national cabinet meeting, in order to keep supply chains moving.

It comes after the country’s leading medical advisory group recommended earlier this week that food and grocery workers be able to return to work after being a close contact of a positive COVID case, provided they then return a negative rapid test.

A similar proposal could be laid out for other sectors classified as essential, which could include road, rail and air transport, mental health and education and energy supply.

It’s expected transport and logistics workers would be prioritised.

Meanwhile, ministers have flagged the possibility JobSeeker recipients could be deployed into workforces that are facing staff shortages.

A plan to also increase the hours international students are able to work to 40 hours a fortnight is also being considered as a way to alleviate pressure on sectors hardest hit by the virus.

National cabinet will also settle on a date for when concession card holders will able to access free rapid tests from pharmacies.

Arrangements with pharmacies for the scheme, which would see concession holders access 10 free tests over a three-month period, have been finalised.

The scheme was sketched out during the most recent national cabinet meeting following mass shortages of the rapid tests nationwide.

As shortages of rapid tests continue, the government has placed an urgent tender for more than $60 million of the tests.

Five separate tenders for the rapid tests were placed by the federal health department on Monday.

The tenders were sent out due to “extreme urgency or events unforeseen”, according to the tender listings.

It’s not clear if the tenders for new rapid tests would form part of the 200 million the prime minister said would arrive in the country in coming weeks, or if they were additional RATs.

Mr Morrison previously said procuring rapid tests was a state responsibility.

Labor senator Katy Gallagher said the move demonstrated a lack of preparedness for the amount of rapid tests needed.

“Despite knowing that rapid tests were a critical part of opening up, as far back as September, the Morrison government did nothing to secure supplies until there was a national COVID testing crisis,” Senator Gallagher told AAP.

“How Scott Morrison could have left it until this week to order the rapid antigen tests needed beggars belief.”

Nationally, more than 100,000 cases of COVID-19 were reported on Wednesday.

NSW recorded 34,759 new infections and 21 deaths, while Victoria had the same number of fatalities and 40,127 cases.

There were 22,069 cases in Queensland and 3715 in SA, while Tasmania and the ACT had 1583 and 1078 respectively.

It comes as more jurisdictions moved to allow people who record positive results on rapid antigen tests to report it.

The move has been designed to allow health authorities to have a more accurate picture of the number of positive cases in the community.

NSW, SA and the ACT outlined on Wednesday their plans for how positive tests would be recorded.

Residents in NSW and SA would be slapped with a $1000 fine if they failed to upload their positive test result.