Unions decry wind-back on Covid isolation rules

TWU calls NSW move reckless and a health and safety risk to employees

Unions decry wind-back on Covid isolation rules
Michael Kaine at a TWU rally last year


The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and the Transport Workers Union (TWU) have both issued vociferous responses to the easing of Covid rules in New South Wales and related federal talks.

The exemptions were made in response to supply-chain disruption being felt in food logistics and manufacturing, as shortages bite at certain supermarkets.

The changes, announced by NSW Health, allow non-symptomatic workers to leave self-isolation and mirror that affecting health workers.

"Workers will only be eligible to leave self-isolation if their employer determines that their absence from the workplace poses a high risk of disruption to the delivery of critical services or activities, and they are unable to work from home," the announcement reads.

"These workers must wear a mask and comply with risk-management strategies put in place by their employer, including daily Rapid Antigen Tests [RATS].

  • agriculture (biosecurity and food safety personnel undertaking critical duties)
  • manufacturing (production and manufacturing of food, beverages, groceries, cleaning and sanitary products)
  • transport, postal and warehousing (food logistics, delivery and grocery fulfilment)."

However, home and office removals staff are excluded.

The TWU claimed transport workers are being "thrown to the wolves" by the decision to end Covid-19 isolation requirements.

Concerned that it will mean employers will be able to prioritise operational matters over the safety of workers, the union saw the decision as likely to exacerbate disruption within the supply chain, as it calls on the prime minister to meet with concerned unions.

"Scrapping isolation requirements for transport workers is beyond reckless – workers are being thrown to the wolves by a government that continues to ignore all the warnings," TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said.

"We know even if you’re asymptomatic you can still spread the virus. Requiring potentially sick people to go to work won't make supply chains healthy. Sick drivers won't get stock onto supermarket shelves any faster but it will certainly help the virus hitch a ride across Australia."

The union said RATs alone don't offer enough protection as they won't pick up every Covid-19 case.

"Someone who is a close contact is by definition the greatest risk of passing it on – the NSW government is effectively scrapping the last buffer we had left to protect workplaces," Kaine added.

"To rebuild a healthy workforce we need to have isolation requirements and rapid testing working together - we can't have one without the other. Testing combined with precautionary isolation is our best defence against this virus.

"The TWU wrote to the Prime Minister and National Cabinet in September and October urging governments to provide rapid tests to road transport workers to avoid unnecessary delays and keep drivers on the road.

"Instead, we have a completely predictable scenario where drivers are delivering rapid tests to be sold on the shelves of supermarkets and pharmacies – but they, like most Australians, can't access them themselves."

Meanwhile, the TWU accused the federal government of holding a closed-door meeting with employers yesterday on the issue.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, the Government worked with business and unions to keep businesses open, workplaces free from Covid and all Australians safe," ACTU acting secretary Liam O’Brien said.

"Now, Scott Morrison is turning his back on workers and jeopardising the safety and security of the entire community, with secret plans hatched at closed-door meetings with employers.

"The Australian Council of Trade Unions joins with the Transport Workers Union in urging Prime Minister Scott Morrison against proceeding with his reckless plan to force supply chain workers back to the front-line despite being possibly infected with the Covid virus.

"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.

"Instead of turning his back on them, Scott Morrison should meet with workers and their representatives and listen to their demands of Australians to make Rapid Antigen Tests free and accessible for all."

More information on the NSW self-isolation order can be found here.


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