ACOSS calls on federal government to establish a Covid Rapid Response Group

People cannot find Rapid Antigen Tests (RAT) on pharmacy shelves, says the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS). Photo: dronepicr/Wikimedia Commons, published under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.

By TILEAH DOBSON

Despite the new ‘stealth’ variant of Omicron being reported in New South Wales, official daily case numbers are going down from the state’s record-breaking 120,000-plus earlier this month.

Yesterday, 7,362 new cases were reported in NSW, with the nation as a whole recording fewer than 40,000 cases, leading some experts to believe the peak has been reached.

With a small moment to take a breath from the mounting case numbers, attention has returned to the government’s response. Officials, experts and citizens have urged National Cabinet to support and assist those most vulnerable to the effects of the virus.

This comes after fresh reports from NSW and the Northern Territory of infections hitting disadvantaged communities the hardest. Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS) CEO Dr Cassandra Goldie held a press conference late last week, calling on the government to address the issues.

“The blunt reality is that Australia is still not ready to deal effectively with Omicron,” Goldie said.

“People with concession cards can’t find RATs on pharmacy shelves even after the government program has commenced. Parents are confused and stressed about what the return to school looks like for their children. People in regional, rural and remote communities remain extremely exposed to the ravages of Covid-19. It’s still a mess, and only decisive and swift government action will remedy it.”

Goldie has called on the government to adopt 51 recommendations and repeated calls for a Covid Rapid Response Group, which would be made up of ACOSS members, unions, public health experts and business leaders. This group would focus on the rampant spread of Omicron, the havoc wreaked by the variant and assist those in need.

Dr Cassandra Goldie has urged the government to create a rapid response team to Covid-19. Photo: acoss.org.au.

“There is an urgent need for better forward planning, crisis management and prioritisation of resources to support those most at risk and with the least means to stay safe. The approach to this emergency is totally inadequate,” Goldie said.

“Whether it’s infection rates, access to vaccinations, access to RATs and other vital health equipment or access to medical services, this pandemic continues to hit people on low incomes, people from diverse backgrounds and with pre-existing vulnerabilities the hardest. It’s been a long, hard slog for people facing the greatest risks of this pandemic, and one month into the New Year, nothing has gotten safer for them.

“Once again, in a vacuum of coordinated national leadership, ACOSS calls for the creation of a civil society Covid Rapid Response Group consisting of ACOSS, unions, business peaks and public health experts to work closely with government to implement a range of policy measures and actions to protect those most at risk.

“It is vital that governments across the country learn the lessons from the first two years of managing the pandemic, heed the updated advice and warnings of health experts and policy advocates, and adopt best practice strategies to mitigate the health risk, economic chaos and social disruption that accompanies the virus,” she said.

Worker’s rights during the pandemic

At the same time, Unions NSW has addressed unclear and murky areas for workers when it comes to being safe in the workplace. With massive supply chains hit due to the pandemic, many workers are unsure of their rights and whether or not they can be forced to work.

Unions NSW has created an online tool that addresses FAQs to help workers, particularly young workers, navigate workplaces in the time of Covid.

Unions NSW Assistant Secretary Thomas Costa said the online tool would assist those most vulnerable to being taken advantage of in the workplace, such as casuals and students.

“It’s a tough conversation standing up to your boss but it’s much easier when you know the rules and have someone in your corner protecting you,” Costa said.

Thomas Costa hopes that with the online tool, workers won’t be taken advantage of and can remain safe during the pandemic. Photo: Unions NSW/Facebook.

“We are so frequently asked the same questions, we decided to put all the answers in the one place so casuals juggling different jobs and time-poor students can get a quick guide to dealing with difficult situations in real-time,” he said.

The online tool is particularly helpful for casuals, who don’t have any sick or annual leave to rely on, Unions NSW said.

The union also said that if employers required employees to undertake a rapid antigen test in order to work, the employer has certain responsibilities to uphold.

“If your workplace requires you take a RAT for work then it should be paid as part of work time and the cost of RAT should be borne by your employer.”

Tileah Dobson is the news and queer editor of the Sydney Sentinel.

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