Close contacts of people with Covid-19 will be allowed out of isolation to work if their job is critical for food supply or emergency services under new rules in New South Wales and Queensland.
The two state governments announced the relaxed restrictions to ease food shortages on Sunday as federal health officials revealed isolation rules may soon change nationwide.
With case numbers spiking due to Omicron, Australians are adjusting to growing hospitalisations, workforce disruptions and an increasing onus on managing the pandemic themselves by recording rapid antigen test results.
NSW reported its deadliest day since the start of the pandemic on Sunday with 16 deaths in the preceding 24 hours – eclipsing the highest daily totals of the Delta wave. Eight men and eight women in their 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s died.
The state’s premier, Dominic Perrottet, told reporters NSW faced “a challenging three to four weeks” as the Omicron wave reached its peak.
“There is no doubt for our state that this is a difficult time, just like across the country and just like across the world,” he said.
Perrottet said from mid-week, citizens would be able to use the Service NSW app to record their rapid antigen test (RAT) results to connect positive cases to care, as already occurs in Victoria.
The premier said a further 50m RATs had been purchased by the state in addition to the 50m already in reserve. “These tests will be crucial to ensure that we get kids back to school day one, term one,” he said.
Dr Nhi Nguyen from the Nepean hospital said with almost 2,000 people in hospital in NSW and a further rise expected “the system will be under strain, it won’t be perfect”.
The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, noted the peak of the Omicron wave is expected to come at the end of January or early February in her state.
“This is going to be a tough time of year for a lot of people, I thank them for their patience and their understanding,” she said.
The NSW government said workers in the agriculture, food logistics, transport and manufacturing sectors who had been furloughed as close contacts would be permitted to leave isolation if their employer determined their absence posed “a high risk of disruption to the delivery of critical services or activities”.
Workers will be required to wear a mask and conduct daily rapid antigen tests, with any worker who tests positive or develops symptoms ordered to self-isolate.
“The exemption from the isolation rules for close contacts also applies to emergency services workers who are necessary for the delivery of critical services and who cannot work from home,” NSW Health said in a statement.
Queensland said “essential workers” in critical industries would be allowed to work.
The Palaszczuk government added conditions including the requirement to attend work in personal protective equipment, be vaccinated and to use private transport to and from work.
The NSW industry minister, Stuart Ayres, defended the changes, noting the government was “not putting a single person who is testing positive to Covid out into the workforce”.
“If you have tested positive you are at home in isolation, if you are not testing positive [and] you are asymptomatic, we want you out working in our most critical areas.”
Australia’s deputy chief medical officer, Prof Michael Kidd, said chief medical officers from the states and territories were meeting to discuss furlough requirements – a sign the rules could soon change Australia-wide.
The Australian Health Protection Principal Committee was “meeting as we speak right now … looking at this issue and looking at what might be modified with the requirements and restrictions in order to ensure supply chain and supply lines continue,” Kidd told reporters in Canberra.
The federal health minister, Greg Hunt, said the national coordination mechanism was also considering the question and the prime minister, Scott Morrison, would on Sunday afternoon meet with the supply chain management team.
Unions reacted furiously, accusing the Morrison government of liaising with employers to wind back isolation requirements in the transport sector without consulting workers.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions acting secretary, Liam O’Brien, said “forcing potentially infected staff back to work will only exacerbate the already rampant spread of the highly infectious Omicron strain throughout workplaces and the broader community, putting the safety of all Australians at risk.”
The Transport Workers Union national secretary, Michael Kaine, described scrapping isolation requirements as “reckless” and said it removed “the last buffer we had left to protect workplaces”.
Hunt noted that Omicron had already prompted a change in the definition of contact, “significantly reducing” the number of people who had to isolate.
In late December, the national cabinet redefined close contacts as those who had spent four or more hours in a household context or similar environment with a Covid-positive person.
Morrison said eliminating the casual contact category and raising the bar for close contacts would have “a positive impact on the furloughing issue with particularly the health workforce”.
Although rule changes may temporarily increase the available workforce, unions are concerned that employers are coercing staff to attend work while sick.