Quarantine exemption about ‘managing risk’

Dominic Giannini, Maeve Bannister and Andrew Brown |

Any expansion to what classifies an essential worker will be about managing risk and keeping Australia running amid widespread supply chain shortages, a leading epidemiologist says. 

National cabinet will on Thursday discuss adding more industries and workers to the list of COVID-19 close contacts exempt from quarantine requirements.

Professor Catherine Bennett from Deakin University says the changes would not come from a starting point of zero risk and needed to be weighed up against the large number of critical workers being furloughed. 

“People who might have had exposures won’t necessarily go on to have an infection but at the moment are out of the workplace and that is causing this widespread disruption,” she told the ABC ahead of Thursday’s meeting. 

“It’s not going from zero risk … it’s actually saying we can select for people who are less likely to be infectious who can continue working if they have no symptoms.”

People exposed to the virus at home will often already be at work while infectious before the original case is even identified, Prof Bennett said. 

Ministers have flagged the possibility JobSeeker recipients could be deployed into workforces to help ease staff shortages.

A plan to 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.

Chair of the Australian Trucking Association David Smith told Sky News upskilling and retraining drivers with truck licences could help address distribution shortages.

Mr Smith estimated about 30 per cent of truck drivers had been taken out of action due to COVID-19.

“It is certainly a big hit the our availability of staff to deliver goods to supermarkets and around the country,” he said.

“There is quite a number of people in Australia that have had, or got, a truck licence that don’t use them. We believe we could reintroduce people back into the workforce to alleviate some of the pain”.

Mr Smith said there were a number of Afghan refugees whose visas made it impossible to train as truck drivers.

“These people have already driven heavy vehicles in Afghanistan and trained by the Australian army but don’t have an Australian licence. We are calling on the government to relax those visa rules so we can train them up.”

He also called for a reduction of the minimum age of forklift drivers from 18 to 16.

A plan on how students can safely return to schools amid rising cases will also be thrashed out by leaders.

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

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese says the Queensland government’s decision to delay the start of the school year was the right one. 

He said other states and territories needed to make a decision based on health advice.

“Australians are voting with their feet literally, staying at home, they are making their own decisions and parents will make decisions in their interests of their children,” he told ABC News on Thursday. 

“It is extraordinary that in the third year of the pandemic we have people getting their booster shot appointments deferred, we have children who can’t get their first shot causing anxiety for parents.

“The government needs to have that health assurance that it is safe.”

But the Australian Education Union expressed concern about how schools will go back with President Correna Haythorpe saying schools could become quite significant super-spreader environments.

Ms Haythorpe also called for priority access for teachers to rapid antigen and PCR tests so they would be able to test themselves quickly and conveniently.