Emergency service workers, teachers, truck drivers and other workers in critical industries will be allowed to work even when considered a close contact of a positive COVID case under changes to isolation requirements to come in to effect next week.
From 11.59pm Tuesday, workers in emergency services, education, critical utilities, custodial facilities, transport and freight will join workers in the food production sector as being eligible for the exemption which allows them to work providing they are asymptomatic, return a negative result on a daily rapid antigen tests for five days, and wear a face mask at all times.
The new categories of workers granted exemption from close contact isolation requirements join those granted to key food and beverage workers to protect supply chains, and which apply to hospital workers, disability workers, residential aged care workers and paramedics.
Premier Daniel Andrews on Thursday confirmed that rapid antigen tests will have to be provided by the employer, causing concern that many businesses will be unable to secure the tests needed to keep their workers on the job because of a shortage of the critical tests.
Committee for Ballarat chief executive Michael Poulton said having to source and provide the RATs was another burden on businesses.
"I think where public safety is not being compromised ... then easing of restrictions and alleviation of some of the constraints has got to be a good thing for the economy and capacity of our economy to continue to move forward," he said.
"The government needs to provide the tools for us to manage in a highly complex public health environment.
"The first important tool has been vaccination. We've got to great position there but the work has not finished. The second one is the capacity for us to utilise RATs as a key frontline defence and to put that responsibility back on the employer I think is government abdicating responsibility.
"RATs need to be a provision of government because it's such a crucial tool in the resources we need to fight this. Government has absolute responsibility to be providing that in terms of availability and in terms of cost."
Across Victoria's health system alone there are at least 5000 workers including nurses, doctors and ambulance officers who cannot report for duty because they have COVID or are a close contact.
Victoria's COVID response commander Jeroen Weimar said the exemption would not apply to all workers in those sectors, only those playing a critical role.
"It is not an open slather for everyone in the sector. It applies to close contacts of a COVID positive case - somebody who lives with somebody who already has COVID and what we allow for is for that person to leave the normal seven-day day quarantine and attend work for the critical work function.
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"For the rest of the time they will be in quarantine. They can go to work and do the critical work and then they are returning to quarantine, unable to do other social activities during the seven-day period."
In addition to being asymptomatic, daily rapid antigen tests and mask wearing, exempt employees must take separate meal breaks so as not to potentially expose other workers, and cannot share transport.
"From the Omicron wave we know that around quarter or half of close contacts will ultimately become infected which is why the daily rapid antigen test and routine is important along with the other controls to minimise further spread from these individuals," Mr Weimar said.
"Clearly if they become symptomatic in that time if they become positive during that time then they have to start a seven day quarantine period as per normal."
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