As Omicron surges throughout the community, furloughing thousands upon thousands of workers, empty supermarket shelves have once again become a common sight, at least for those who shop with supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths.
The supply-chain disruptions owe to a combination of acute staff shortages in the transport, processing and distribution sectors, brought about by COVID-19 isolation requirements, and a nation-wide shortfall in readily available rapid antigen tests.
The unhappy, though unsurprising, result is empty supermarket shelves, with toilet paper, paper towel, chicken and red meat chief among those items in short supply in the large supermarket chains. This, in turn, has spurred a degree of panic-buying, though nothing on the scale witnessed in the opening chapters of the pandemic.
Yet the tale is vastly different in local grocery stores that source their produce directly from suppliers.
Melanie Fulcher, business development manager at Wilsons Fruit and Vegetables, said while the Wilsons stores were experiencing modest stock shortages in limited areas, they were nevertheless faring much better than their heavy competitors.
"Because we don't have to go through distribution warehouses, we're doing better than most supermarkets," Ms Fulcher said.
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"Our biggest challenge right now is being short-staffed - as it currently stands, we have about 10 per cent of our staff away due to COVID."
Ms Fulcher said the staff shortage had forced Wilsons to shut the Mair Street store on Sundays, as well as close both stores one hour earlier than usual on other days.
"We just don't want to burn out the staff that are coming to work," she said. "We also have other plans in place, should [the situation] worsen over time."
Elsewhere, the experience of other local grocery stores had been similar.
Brendan Blake, managing director of Maxi Foods Ballarat, said the worst Maxi Foods had endured in recent weeks was what he would term "sporadic" shortages of certain foodstuffs.
"We've experienced limited shortages from our regular warehouse with small staff absences but because they've been sporadic, nothing's really been in short-supply," Mr Blake said.
"We also have the advantage of our own butcher in Ballarat - we don't go to wholesale type abattoirs for supply - so, our meat department is chock-a-block, all of it.
"Toilet paper has been hit again, but I've got two semi trailer loads of toilet paper coming up [to Ballarat] tomorrow [Wednesday]."
Newly relaxed isolation rules for asymptomatic close contacts critical to food supply take effect from 11.59pm tonight, but Ms Fulcher doubted the change - which would still require workers to undergo daily rapid antigen testing - would resolve the supply-chain crisis, given both the expense and general lack of rapid antigen tests.
"The biggest driver of staff shortages in our sector is that we can't currently get any [rapid antigen tests], and so we definitely can't supply our workers with them," she said.
"Even if we could, it suddenly becomes very costly if you're trying to provide your staff with rapid [antigen] tests on top of everything else.
"And I don't think we can ask our staff, who aren't highly paid, to absorb that cost."
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