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CORONAVIRUS: CRISIS TALKS TACKLE CRIPPLING STAFF SHORTAGES

11/02/22; The Australian

Critical industry groups held crisis meetings with the federal government on Tuesday night amid fears Omicron-induced staff shortages could cripple the economy, as Scott Morrison seeks a national deal to loosen isolation requirements for more workforces.

Going into the meeting, industry leaders warned that staff shortages could leave ports disrupted, airports facing closures and farmers confronting the prospect of losing their harvest as fruit and vegetables remain unpicked.

A lack of rapid antigen tests was also identified as a major problem that would undermine any national agreement on a uniform set of rules relaxing isolation requirements across a broader range of sectors.

Peak agriculture bodies told The Australian the unfolding ­supply chain crisis would escalate when Covid-19 spread further into the regions, exacerbating food shortages and disrupting harvests across Queensland for up to six weeks.

Australian Airports Association chief executive James Goodwin said a loss of critical staff due to the spiralling Omicron outbreak could lead to airports having to close for certain hours or services reduced.

Responding to the Omicron outbreak, Coles announced national purchase limits of one pack of toilet paper and two packs of painkillers due to high demand following restrictions introduced last week for meat purchases in all states and territories, except Western Australia.

State and territory leaders face growing pressure to sign up on Thursday to a consistent national set of rules governing critical industry workforces, with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and his NSW counterpart Dominic Perrottet already in talks.

Empty shelves at a Coles supermarket at Benowa Gardens, Queensland. Picture: Glenn Hampson

Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said “consistency and conformity” from federal and state leaders were required at Thursday’s national cabinet meeting, noting that many businesses were not able to open at all.

“If we don’t address these problems, it won’t just be a handbrake on the economic recovery, it will be a handbrake on the economy,” Mr Willox said.

“We need to get rules that work across the broader economy. Rules that are consistent between states, and rules that allow businesses to maintain as strong a workforce as possible.”

The Prime Minister on Wednesday will chair a meeting of the National Coordination Mechanism including representatives of the aviation and transport industries. He has asked for an assessment of the impact of worker shortages across the energy, water and fuel sectors.

Mr Morrison is seeking consensus on which businesses should be defined as essential services and therefore qualify for more relaxed isolation requirements, allowing close contacts to stay at work if they test negative on day one. Some services under consideration include road, rail, air and sea transportation; veterinary and animal welfare; education, early childhood and schooling; energy and water supply; sewerage and sanitation as well as waste recovery.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash is working through potential changes to work health and safety rules for businesses with Safe Work Australia, the ACTU and peak employer groups.

Industry leaders representing a range of diverse essential services met on Tuesday night with Acting Small Business Minister Anne Ruston, Small Business Ombudsman Bruce Billson, and Joe Buffone, an official at Home Affairs attending on behalf of the National Coordination Mechanism. Industry attendees included the Australasian Convenience and Petroleum Marketers Association representing 95 per cent of fuel distributors in the country and 75 per cent of the ­nation’s service stations.

Representatives from the Australasian Association of Convenience Stores, the Pharmacy Guild, the Regional Airline Association, the Australian Trucking Association, the Master Grocers Association, the Franchise Council of Australia and the Australian Food and Grocery Council also attended.

Mr Willox, who attended for the Ai Group, said a key issue was how the testing regime would apply to workers in sectors deemed to be essential once the supply crisis had been resolved.

“Part of this is going to be how we take up rapid testing once we get supplies in,” Mr Willox said. “What are the expectations around that?”

Richard Shannon, policy manager of Queensland horticulture body Growcom, said the Omicron variant could disrupt harvests for up to six weeks and predicted food shortages in certain products. He said the mango harvest was under threat, as were avocados, with that harvest underway in fewer than three weeks.

“Queensland is a major supplier of mangoes and avocados which are both large commodities which need to draw on a large workforce,” Mr Shannon said. “We anticipate there will be a four to six-week period of difficulty so we are bracing for a long period of disruption.”

Mr Shannon said changes to isolation requirements this week would provide greater flexibility for essential industries, but warned that farmers in regional areas did not have access to rapid antigen tests to enable new rules to be implemented. “Farmers can’t get their hands on rapid antigen tests,” he said. “We are told supply of the tests is supposed to improve, but our ­­request is for the government to provide RATs as a priority to ­essential industries including agriculture so allowances can be made.”

National Farmers Federation chief Tony Mahar, who attended the Tuesday night meeting, said he met earlier in the day with the National Coordination Mechanism to discuss the impact of the virus hitting the region.

He said he pushed for rapid antigen tests to be made available for critical workers.

Mr Mahar warned that agriculture was already experiencing a workforce crisis due to ­pandemic-induced international border closures. “We applaud pragmatic action by NSW, ­Victorian and Queensland governments to ­reduce the quarantine requirements for critical workers who are deemed close contacts of a Covid-19 positive person,” he said. “It’s imperative that other states and territories follow this lead.

“The last thing farmers want to see is their fresh produce not making it to supermarkets … Perishable commodities will be hit hardest, as any disruption means spoilage and the farmers‘ efforts basically going down the drain.”

Port Macquarie tomato grower Anthony Sarks said he was heavily reliant on pickers for his operation, employing 25 people. He said his business would be “drastically impacted” by an escalation of Covid cases, with tomato crops needing to be harvested as soon as they ripen. “It will be inevitable we all will get exposed to it and staff shortages will be an issue,” Mr Sarks said. “The crop doesn’t slow down because of Covid-19 it just keeps growing. Not much horticulture is picked by machines. It’s all picked by hand and so we rely on human beings for that.”

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