With Australian society opening up just as Omicron takes hold, there is growing pressure on the nation’s food supply.
Warehouse staff and truck drivers experiencing symptoms or identified as close contacts are unable to source enough RATs and are waiting days for PCR test results, forcing them into self-isolation for extended periods – and slowing the movement of food around the nation.
Supermarket shelves are empty, with both Coles and Woolworths warning of food shortages due to worker absences across supply chains.
Richard Forbes, Chief Executive of Independent Food Distributors Australia, said commercial kitchens in already-under-pressure nursing homes and hospitals are “struggling to access essential ingredients to prepare meals for the elderly and sick,” according to a report in The Australian.
Mr Forbes is calling for a national policy on COVID-19 isolation rules and better access to RATs.
“In order to continue these deliveries we must be provided priority access to RATs and at the moment that is extremely limited.
“Any delay in testing close contact isolated staff means a delay in providing food for these facilities,” he said.
One freight company supplying food to 50 hospitals and aged care homes is expecting 175 of its 350 staff to be in isolation in the coming week, according to Mr Forbes.
Food security could also be bolstered by a national approach to close contact isolation rules and states expanding new close contact rules to include food workers, Mr Forbes said.
NSW and Queensland have eased close contact isolation rules in key industries including healthcare, allowing asymptomatic close contacts to return to work. But Mr Forbes said the changes are “ineffective” without a national approach.
Food transport involves freight moving across state borders every day.
Staff shortages also impacting aged care
Anton Hutchinson, whose family has owned and operated Canberra Aged Care for more than two decades, told HelloCare one of their meat suppliers was “behind the pump” with orders after staff had to go into isolation, but it didn’t take long for them to resume regular service.
Overall, Mr Hutchinson said food supplies have been regular and Canberra Aged Care has not experienced food shortages.
Mr Hutchinson said “it would be lovely” if the federal government introduced national “standard rules” for self-isolation that aged care staff could follow if exposed to COVID-19.
He said staff shortages have also been a serious problem in aged care, and the government has shown a lack of “support”, “direction” and “compassion” towards the situation.
Canberra Aged Care has been short staffed during the Omicron outbreak, but only on “a couple of occasions,” Mr Hutchinson said.
Ciarán Foley, Chief Executive of Allambie Heights Village, told HelloCare that their home’s catering contractor has not had trouble with food supplies.
Food always has been, and continues to be, “immensely important” for residents at Allambie Heights, he said.
However, again, staff shortages are a problem, and Allambie Heights Village is taking an “all hands on deck” approach now, Mr Foley said.
Staff are working longer shifts, sometimes double shifts, and part-time staff are working full-time.