State and territory leaders will consider relaxing isolation requirements for the trucking and logistics sector, as the prime minister, Scott Morrison, calls for patience over the country’s disrupted supply chains.
With estimates from industry that between 20% and 50% of the transport and logistics workforce is currently out of action as a result of Covid exposure, the government is also pushing for national cabinet to agree to scrap testing requirements for border crossings.
The federal government is also set to allow international students to work more than 40 hours a fortnight in affected sectors, in an attempt to ease workforce pressures in critical industries.
After urgent talks with industry groups and unions on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, Morrison convened a meeting of the national coordinating mechanism on Wednesday, which was also attended by senior ministers and the heads of the infrastructure, treasury and health departments.
Morrison said that the challenge being posed by escalating case numbers linked to the Omicron outbreak was “keeping things moving”.
“That’s what riding this wave of Covid means, and of course … with so many cases appearing every day and that expected to continue until its peak, this will have an obvious impact right across our supply chains,” he said.
“It’s important that we continue to problem solve right across all of these areas … in transport, health care, aged care, as we’ve already been doing.
“But of course, we require a fair bit of patience through this process as well, because with so many people getting Covid, that is clearly going to take more and more people out of the workforce.”
Morrison said the goal was to “get as many people” to work as possible, while continuing to roll out the booster shot program.
“Keeping that rolling and keeping the country rolling by ensuring we keep these supply chains intact, is the task,” the prime minister said.
Acting small business minister Anne Ruston, who held a roundtable meeting with representatives from the retail, grocery, farming, transport, pharmacy and aviation sectors on Wednesday, said the government was looking at ways to increase the number of people available to work.
“[We are] making sure that we look at other innovative ways that we can activate or unshackle potential other employment opportunities,” Ruston told Sky News.
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“Many older Australians I’m sure would be happy to do a few extra hours work to help out at the moment so we’re looking at how we can help them do that [and] our temporary visa holders in Australia that are all still here.
“But also making sure that anybody who is currently on unemployment benefits who are able to work, we’d be really keen for them to undertake some really active investigation about how they can help out with these workforce shortages as well.”
Ruston said one of the key demands from industry was for national consistency and clarity around requirements and rules for isolation, testing and workplace activities.
National cabinet will consider the changes to isolation requirements on Thursday, and will look to relax isolation rules for other areas deemed essential services, beyond frontline health workers and those in the food manufacturing and distribution sectors.
While transport and logistics workers will be the priority, other sectors under consideration for eased isolation requirements also include teachers and childcare workers, mental health and physiotherapy services, veterinarians, and civic services such as rubbish collection and water and energy services.
The government is also working on what other requirements should be in place for essential workers who return to work in such circumstances, including booster shots, social distancing measures and hygiene standards.
National cabinet will also sign off on new arrangements for pharmacies to distribute rapid antigen tests free for concession card holders, amid concern from the sector that they would be forced to source their own supplies under the scheme.
The government is yet to confirm a start date for the scheme.
The Treasury secretary, Steven Kennedy, will give a presentation on economic impacts and the importance of keeping schools open, which will be considered along with health advice that has been finalised by state and commonwealth officials.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese said that any changes to isolation requirements needed to be made on the basis of medical advice.
“We need to take that advice because where medical advice has been ignored, or short-circuited, the end economic consequences have been more dire than if the medical advice had been followed,” Albanese said.
He said workers were already stepping up to help, but were being let down by the federal government.
“Working people have made incredible sacrifices and stepped up. They did their part of the bargain, the federal government has not done its part,” he said.