Food Council demands consistent, nationwide rules on COVID close contacts

Confectionery factory worker in white coat sifting powdered sugar on ready pastry in box.

Nationally consistent rules for managing COVID close contacts among essential workers are urgently needed, according to the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC).

The comments follow worsening staffing challenges for supermarkets and suppliers described by AFGC CEO Tanya Barden as the greatest since the start of the pandemic. Staff shortages are severely impacting producers, shippers and retailers, with many supermarket shelves in parts of NSW and Victoria, particularly, bereft of fresh food and essential supplies.

The NSW, Queensland and Victorian state governments have relaxed isolation requirements for some close contacts of COVID-19-positive people after lobbying by the AFGC. Barden says the easing was vitally important in addressing workforce reductions running as high as 40 per cent among companies trying to maintain the supply of essential items to retailers.

“However, we urge all state and territory governments to develop a uniform approach that will allow asymptomatic workers to return to their critically important jobs, subject to strict controls to protect public health so that they can continue the work of supplying food and groceries to the nation,” Barden said.

Barden also called on the federal government to ensure either priority access to Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) for daily testing of staff working for food and grocery manufacturers or a more pragmatic approach such as the Day 6 testing rule introduced in Queensland.

The same approach to consistent rules and access to testing must include all food and grocery production – including personal care and cleaning products – as well as companies with direct input into the supply chain, such as packaging companies and ingredient suppliers.

Last Friday, the AFGC sent a proposal to the federal government outlining measures to mitigate the risks of household contacts transmitting the COVID-19 virus while continuing to work. Those measures included:

  • Workers travelling directly to and from work, wearing masks if on public transport or in the company of others.
  • Workers wearing masks at work and other PPE and comply with companies’ COVID Safe plans, which have already demonstrated their effectiveness at minimising transmission of the virus.
  • Workers remaining asymptomatic for the duration of the seven-day period following their close contact with a COVID-19 case.
  • Regular testing using RATs, with supplies made available by the government. Workers returning a positive result should immediately self-isolate to comply with public health orders. If RATs are not available, other tests should be, the AFGC said.

This story first appeared on our sister publication Inside Retail