NSW allows close contacts of Covid cases to work as state faces food shortages

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.

The state government announced the relaxation of restrictions to ease food shortages on Sunday as federal health officials revealed isolation rules may soon ease nationwide.

With Omicron cases spiking in all states except Western Australia, requirements for Covid positive people and their close household contacts to isolate have caused staff shortages resulting in empty supermarket shelves.

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.

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.

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.

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