New rules for keeping schools open during the pandemic are on the way and strict isolation rules are set to loosen for more critical workers, particularly transport and logistic workers, as Australia battles the current surge in COVID-19 cases.
A combined wave of Omicron and Delta variants, including 100,000 daily COVID cases, are being felt nation-wide including widespread staff shortages and severe impacts on critical supply chains, including empty shelves in supermarkets. National Cabinet is meeting tomorrow on Thursday and there's been a series of crisis meetings this week between the federal government and industry groups.
There are also government moves to ease the rules to get international students and welfare recipients, such as those on JobSeeker, into the affected sectors.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday noted the "serious escalation" in COVID cases, but he said patience was needed as Australia "rides the wave" of the pandemic.
"It's important that we continue to problem solve right across all of these areas being in transport, healthcare, aged care, as we've already been doing," Mr Morrison said in Canberra.
"But of course, we require a fair bit of patience through this process as well. Because with so many people getting COVID that is clearly going to take more and more people out of the workforce. So the goal is to get as many people as safely at work in these critical sectors that keep Australia moving as possible while continuing the rollout of the boosters."
Changes this week in NSW, Victoria and Queensland to close contact arrangements for "critical" workers in the grocery and manufacturing sectors are being reported by industry groups as "positive" and are expected to improve food and grocery supply chains over coming days. However, the moves have been criticised by unions as risky and panicked.
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But the Morrison government wants to go further and is particularly targeting transport and logistics. It says it is advised that 20 to 50 per cent of trucking and logistics workers are out of action in isolation or affected by COVID.
The government also wants to bolster depleted workforces by allowing welfare recipients, like the unemployed or older people, to be brought in as well as letting international students to temporarily work more than 40 hours a fortnight. Welfare groups are also unhappy about people on social security being used for emergency work while they live in poverty and seek sustainable, longer term jobs.
The nation's top health panel, the AHPPC, has recommended, in "interim guidance", a long list of services and workers be included in new COVID-19 isolation exemptions.
The state and territory leaders will on Thursday discuss this draft model for situations where there is extreme pressure on services, as well as previously announced plans to make rapid antigen tests free for concession card holders.
And amid pressure from health experts, doctors, academics and community leaders to affirm the safety of schools during the pandemic, national cabinet is set to discuss newly devised national principles for keeping schools open.
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