Australian unions have threatened strike action as rapid antigen test (RAT) shortages bring several workforces to their knees.
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) met on Monday to discuss the current Omicron outbreak, which threatens to force as many as 10 per cent of workers into isolation or quarantine at any given time.
Following the meeting, the ACTU said health workers in particular felt abandoned by state and federal governments amid shifting isolation and testing requirements.
“Unions condemn the failure of the Morrison Government to respond to our requests to work with us during this crisis; or our demands for the provision of free rapid antigen tests, improved masks, fixing close-contact definitions and restoring support for businesses and workers,” the ACTU said in a statement.
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It’s now demanding the Government supply rapid tests for the entire community, with a focus on essential workers, and increase the pace of the booster and children’s vaccination roll-out.
Australians have struggled to find RATs due to high demand and low supply. They have also struggled to pay for them, with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission now investigating hundreds of price-gouging claims.
The ACTU is also calling on all employers to work with unions to carry out individual risk assessments for the Omicron variant and develop plans to keep workers safe.
“Where employers do not fulfil their obligations, the union movement determines to do everything within its power to ensure the safety of workers and the community,” the ACTU said.
“This may include ceasing work or banning unsafe practises. Free RATs are needed for the whole community to limit the spread and keep people safe, not just essential workers.”
Health sector slams policy makers
The Australian Institute of Health & Safety (AIHS) also warned that “rancorous, binary thinking” was hamstringing the public health response to Omicron, and that policy makers needed to work together to solve the current RAT shortage.
“The exposure of workers to COVID-19 is a foreseeable risk that must be managed,” AIHS Chairperson Naomi Kemp said.
“The supply of free RATs would enable workers to contribute to the management of workplace infection risk, especially in high-risk settings.
“The Federal Government has signed contracts worth tens of millions for the supply of rapid antigen tests this week, but it is not yet clear where the tests will be deployed or when they will arrive for use.
“They have made a conscious decision to remove a wide range of population-level risk controls against COVID-19 and promoted increased reliance on rapid antigen testing as a frontline risk-management tool.”
As such, Kemp said, the Government had a responsibility to make the tests available to businesses and workers.
Teachers slam suggestion for retired staff
The Independent Education Union (IEU) also took aim at federal and state governments, claiming they had failed to plan for this latest outbreak.
In particular, IEU NSW/ACT acting branch secretary Michael Wright blasted NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet’s suggestion the industry call on retired teachers and fast-track the accreditation of final-year students and support staff.
Wright said a large proportion of retired teachers were also classified as vulnerable members of the population, while warning that fast-tracking accreditation was “also fraught”.
“Support staff undertake work that is essential for schools to function – rushing them into classrooms will only create different shortages,” Wright said.
“There is a clear risk here of undermining the teaching profession, and the consequences will only fall on students. New teachers would be thrown in the deep end without support.”
He said the Government needed to prioritise a safe return-to-school plan, featuring access to free rapid tests, easy access to booster shots and the proper ventilation of facilities.
NSW teachers would be able to access free rapid antigen tests, Perrottet confirmed on Tuesday.
“We will see a rollout of rapid antigen tests and that’s why we procured here in New South Wales tens of millions of them,” Perrottet said.
“And we’ve already seen the first tranche arrive and many more will arrive over this period.”