PM urges workers: keep pushing through

Marion Rae |

A week ago, bosses were wondering how to manage a hybrid and reluctant workforce returning from a summer break. 

Now they’re counting who they have left.

NAB economist Taylor Nugent says the current Omicron wave is proving highly disruptive to activity and supply chains both in Australia and beyond.

“Case numbers are in excess of previous peaks owing to Omicron’s higher transmissibility as well as the shift in policy approach to managing the virus in the community,” he says.

“There are also reports of staffing shortages causing reduced activity and supply chain problems leading to some shortages of goods.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says many sectors of the economy are “obviously” affected by workforce shortages.

Food distribution centres, food production and transport are “critical sectors” along with the healthcare, aged care and disability workforce.

“We need truckies keeping on trucking. That’s what we need them to do to keep moving things around,” he said after the latest national cabinet meeting.

“Right now, they’re delivering vaccines, children’s vaccines out there to GPs and pharmacists.

“And you know that that system is, of course, under strain because of the high number of case numbers. But that is the nature of Omicron. You’ve just got to keep pushing through.” 

New rules to get aged care and health staff back to work quicker may be extended to transport, distribution centres and food workers as suddenly empty supermarket shelves spook shoppers.

Victorian Farmers Federation president Emma Germano says time is ticking for agriculture.

“Farmers can’t provide the food and fibre needed to feed the country without the means to transport it via our essential supply chains,” she says.

“Our access to the inputs needed to operate is also severely impacted.”

South Australia’s biggest union is calling for calm amid staff shortages, urging people to only buy what they need.

SDA Secretary Josh Peak warns the supply chain across the nation is under significant pressure as a result of hundreds of thousands of workers being forced into COVID-related isolation.

“The last thing we need right now is a run on the shops or panic buying,” he says.

The unvaccinated population also remains vulnerable, which could put working parents and businesses further in jeopardy when schools reopen.

Families are trying to get vaccination appointments for their primary school age children from January 10, when their phase of the vaccination rollout is due to kick off.

“Today is a vastly different situation to the one we were in at the end of the 2021 school year,” Queensland and Northern Territory Independent Education Union boss Terry Burke says.

“Protecting the health and safety of everyone in a school community is more critical than ever in the face of this highly transmissible variant – one we still have much to learn about.”

The prime minister wants schools to open for term one and stay open but Mr Burke says unanswered questions include whether a return to remote learning will be needed in some places to meet localised outbreaks. 

With just weeks to go, officials are working on a national framework for the return of school and will report back to national cabinet on Thursday.

Everything from the vaccination rollout and testing arrangements to what to do when teachers test positive and classrooms risk being left empty will be considered.

“What we want to achieve is those schools and the kids go back and stay back, and we don’t have schools opening and closing, opening and closing and the disruption that that will cause,” Morrison says.

But teachers remain concerned schools may become superspreader hubs.

Labor health spokesman Mark Butler says it’s clear vast numbers of cases are going unreported, with positive test rates reaching more than 30 per cent in NSW and Victoria, and climbing in other states.

“Public health experts are saying that’s probably four to five times the official case numbers we’re seeing in the community,” he says.

Omicron continues to show greater infectivity than the Delta variant although with less severity but a small percentage of a big number is still a lot of hospital beds and sick days.

Workplace expert Maureen Kyne says bosses who fail to comply with health protocols and adapt to the challenges ahead risk losing staff and damaging workplace culture.

The number one priority must be to make sure staff feel safe and follow health protocols before returning to the office, she says.

“Booster shot requirements and close contacts having to isolate means bosses cannot expect or demand staff will simply return to the workplace in January and carry on as though it’s business as usual.”

But many don’t have an office and can’t work from home.

ANZ senior economist Catherine Birch says the spread of Omicron has also made businesses more hesitant to hire because of uncertainty around consumer behaviour and worker availability.

The much-hyped Great Resignation is on the backburner and ideas about the new hybrid future of work will have to wait.