School return locked in, says NSW premier


January 28 is the non-negotiable date for NSW children to return to school, the premier says, with rapid antigen testing critical to the plan.

A further 50 million at-home rapid test kits have been purchased by the state in addition to the 50 million already held in reserve, Premier Dominic Perrottet said on Sunday.

The announcement came as NSW reported its deadliest day of the pandemic, recording 16 deaths related to the coronavirus.

There are currently 1927 virus patients in NSW hospitals, 130 more than the previous day. Of them, 151 are in intensive care with 38 needing ventilation.

There were also 30,062 new infections reported from less than 100,000 conventional PCR lab tests.

NSW is yet to launch a system to report rapid test results, but Mr Perrottet says he’s advised the switch will happen by mid-week, at which point case numbers are expected to surge afresh.

The newly-purchased rapid tests would be instrumental in getting kids back to school, he said.

“We are finalising our back-to-school plans at the moment. This will be a core part of the plans getting kids back in the classrooms.

“There will be challenges as we move through the return-to-school program but ultimately we can’t let perfection be the enemy of good. We need kids back in class.”

While just over 78 per cent of children aged 12 to 15 in NSW have been fully vaccinated, primary school-aged children – those between five and 11 – will only become eligible for their first dose on Monday.

With a three week gap recommended between jabs, very few will be fully vaccinated when classrooms open their doors amid the nation’s biggest outbreak.

That has prompted the Queensland government to delay the return to classrooms by two weeks, to February 7.

Meanwhile, isolation requirements for more close contacts have been scrapped, in an effort to stem the outbreak’s impacts on supply chains.

Shoppers have been faced with empty shelves as the crisis hits supermarkets.

Food logistics and manufacturing staff furloughed as close contacts are now allowed to leave self-isolation to attend work if they have no symptoms.

They also have to wear a mask and comply with risk-management strategies including daily rapid antigen tests.

The new rules apply to critical workers in biosecurity and food safety, the production and manufacturing of food, beverages, groceries, cleaning and sanitary products, and food logistics, delivery and grocery fulfilment.

The Transport Workers Union lashed the changes as reckless, while the Shop, Distributive and Allied union warned authorities to ensure staff did not become the targets of abuse due to food and other shortages.

“There is no doubt that there is a crisis, a shortage of workers in road transport supply chains,” TWU National Secretary Michael Kaine told ABC’s Radio National.

But he says the decision to relax close contact rules for critical workers is the wrong way to go about fixing the problem.

“Close contacts are more likely now than ever to have the virus because of Omicron and the definition of a close contact.

“The concern is they will be required to work. That means you have people the most likely to have the virus in workplaces.

“We think there is a real danger that this will make matters worse.”

NSW train and bus timetables will also be adjusted from Monday to help provide services while managing staff shortages.