Isolation change won’t add risk: experts

Andrew Brown |

Changes to isolation requirements for essential employees aren’t expected to add virus risk in workplaces, according to leading epidemiologists.

National cabinet on Thursday agreed to allow for essential workers in a wide number of sectors to return to work after a negative rapid antigen test, even if they’re labelled as a close contact.

Epidemiology chair at Deakin University Catherine Bennett said the measures were sensible in order to prevent supply chain issues, but warned caution was still needed.

“Multiple layers (of prevention) keep people safe, but it’s not going to be zero risk anyway. It shouldn’t add a measurable load (of risk) to that, but we should be monitoring closely,” Professor Bennett told Sky News on Friday.

“It’s important to remember we currently have transmission in workplaces.”

However, workers are still having a difficult time accessing rapid antigen tests, with widespread shortages of the kits.

Australia’s peak union body has called a crisis meeting after the prime minister’s “failure” to protect workers and community safety by making rapid antigen tests free.

The ACTU wrote to Scott Morrison on Monday offering to work together through Australia’s staffing crisis and proposing urgent changes for workers, but has not heard back from the prime minister.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus said failing to provide RATs for key workers was a major concern.

“Essential workers are being forced to put themselves in harm’s way to keep food on the shelves, medicines in stock, the lights and water on and keep this country open for business,” she said.

“Forcing more workers who are close contacts to go to work increases risk and will not limit the spread that is putting health workers and our hospitals under intolerable pressure.”

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese said the government had done too little, too late in attempting to source enough rapid tests to meet demand.

“What’s extraordinary is that the prime minister knew months ago and was warned that rapid antigen tests would be needed and he was complacent,” he told reporters in Queensland.

“Workers were struggling to get access to rapid antigen tests, going from chemist to chemist trying to get a test so they could be assured they were healthy enough to work.”

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said there had been shortages of rapid tests in other countries, and warned against universal access to the tests.

“The worst thing you could do is to take Labor’s policy, which is suggesting that everybody just pick them up for free off the supermarket shelves,” he told the Nine Network.

“(People would) stockpile them at home and just have continued pressure in terms of the availability of those tests.”

While the country is still experiencing high numbers of COVID-19 cases, Professor Bennett said the peak of the Omicron wave was likely to pass soon.

“(Data from NSW) is looking good … importantly we;re not seeing an exponential rise as we’ve seen in the past,” she said.

“In some local government areas, they have started to look like they are declining.”

There were more than 63,000 new cases of COVID-19 reported in NSW on Friday, with almost 38,000 of those being from rapid tests.

However, the state recorded 29 deaths, a one-day high during the pandemic.

Victoria had 34,836 new infections, more than 15,000 of them from rapid tests, along with 18 deaths.

Queensland registered a one-day high for new infections with 23,630 cases, while Tasmania had 1201.

Case numbers were stable in the ACT at 1125, despite the national capital also incorporating rapid tests in its daily case numbers for the first time.