National cabinet lifts isolation rules for childcare workers, teachers

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Federal and state leaders are working on test-to-stay protocols to manage COVID-19 outbreaks in schools, after lifting isolation rules for teachers, childcare workers and food supply chain staff as part of changes aimed at easing the Omicron wave’s impact on the economy.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said national cabinet had “a serious discussion” about the role of surveillance testings with rapid antigen tests in schools and daycare centres at its meeting on Thursday, with details to be agreed upon next week.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced changes to close contact restrictions.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“Parents and teachers and those working in schools, teachers aides and so on, will be well aware of what the arrangements are before school goes back,” Mr Morrison said.

The prime minister also announced the relaxation of restrictions for workers in critical industries who are close household contacts of a COVID-19 case, to get more staff back to work and address growing food and workforce shortages.

The industries covered by the change are healthcare and disability support, transport and logistics, childcare and education, food supply and distribution, emergency services including police and prisons, energy, resources and water, waste management, telecommunications and media.

Under the new rules, workers who are a close contact can return to work if they do not have COVID-19 symptoms and return a negative rapid antigen test result.

Mr Morrison said governments were managing a “very delicate balance” between the economy and public health.

“The less restrictions you put on people to get them to work, the more pressure that could potentially put on your hospital system, and vice-versa,” he said.

“The more you try to protect your hospital system, the more people you are taking out of work, which disrupt supply chains.”

Industry groups for food retailers, farmers and transport companies have supported relaxed isolation rules for their workers, arguing it would help reduce the absentee rate of their staff, which has hit 50 per cent in many facilities.

However, they warn any changes will need a plentiful supply of rapid antigen tests to work, and supplies are expected to remain in short supply for weeks to come.

Concession card holders will be able to access free rapid antigen tests from pharmacists starting January 24, which again depends on more supplies entering the country. Card holders are eligible for 10 tests in total over three months, with a maximum of five a month.

The federal government has allowed international students to temporarily increase their work above the usual limit of 40 hours a fortnight in critical industries.

More to come.

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