COVID isolation exemption in NSW and Victoria could see supermarkets re-stocked in days

New close contact guidelines will see a return of fruit and vegetables to the supermarket shelves across the country within the week.

Supermarkets have been overwhelmed by panic-buying just as transport and logistics companies and suppliers are hit by large proportions of workers calling in sick or dealing with tough COVID-19 quarantine rules.

This week, both NSW and Victoria have announced isolation exemptions for workers critical to food supply.

These workers do not need to isolate if they become a close contact of a COVID-19 case and their employer determines they cannot work from home.

In NSW, the new rule immediately came into effect and applies to biosecurity and food safety personnel, production and manufacturing of food, beverages and cleaning products, food delivery and supermarket workers.

A file photo of supermarket shelves in Sydney
Supermarkets have been hit by panic buying while supplies were disrupted by workers calling in sick. Credit: AAP

Emergency services workers also fall under the exemption if they are critical and cannot work from home.

Victoria also made the change and it will come into effect from 11.59pm on Wednesday.

“Workers in the manufacturing, distribution or packaging of food and beverages including retail supermarket workers may be exempted from close contact isolation requirements in order to attend work, if it is necessary for continuity of operations and other options have been exhausted,” a statement from the Victorian premier read.

These workers must be asymptomatic and as well as recording daily negative rapid antigen tests (RATs), they cannot enter shared break areas.

Empty shelves of delicatessen products are seen at a supermarket in Sydney.
Empty shelves of delicatessen products are seen at a supermarket in Sydney. Credit: MICK TSIKAS/AAPIMAGE

Australian Fresh Produce Alliance chief executive Michael Rogers had warned that fruit and vegetables could rot in the fields because of the supply chain issues and a shortage of workers due to COVID-19.

Guidelines issued by the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee have changed the definition of close contacts for those exposed to COVID-19 working in critical food and grocery production, manufacturing, logistics and distribution facilities.

“The measures that change requirements for close contacts which have been announced are very welcome because they put capacity back in the system, but it’s still going to be a very tight situation,” Mr Rogers said.

He said while the situation escalated “day by day” last week and there had been crop losses, the new guidelines will help ease the situation.

“The decision by Queensland, NSW and Victoria will put fruit and veg back on shelves in those states, the national guidelines go a long way to a nationally consistent approach,” Mr Rogers said.

It is expected supermarket shelves will begin to fill over the next week.

“It will take a couple of days for the retail distribution centres to clear and for transport to improve,” Mr Rogers said.

The rules won’t apply to frontline retail workers such as supermarket checkout operators.

Other industries could soon follow suit, including aviation, with some premiers also seeking new rules to cover the hospitality and catering industries.

The trade union is not backing the exemption.

“Unions will oppose any weakening of health and safety laws for workers and fight any attempts to do so. Employers must take all reasonable and practicable steps to keep workers safe – especially in a pandemic,” Secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions Sally McManus tweeted.

– with AAP

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