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'Virus hitching a ride': Hidden issue behind empty shop shelves

·3-min read
Empty supermarket shelf with sign reading, 'Sorry, these products are out of stock'
Supermarkets are facing shortages due to COVID-19. (Source: Getty)

Truck drivers forced to isolate are hamstringing the national supply chain and leaving grocery shelves bare, a union has said, calling for the industry to have expanded access to rapid antigen tests (RATs).

Large logistics operators have reported major worker shortages due to testing delays, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) said on Wednesday, with as many as 50 per cent of truck drivers unable to work.

TWU national secretary Michael Kaine said the Government needed to prioritise providing RATs to transport workers, or risk worsening supply issues.

Read more about rapid antigen tests:

"We need to prioritise critical industries like transport,” Kaine said.

“These tests are an important weapon in the fight against the virus and, without them, the virus is hitching a ride through transport supply chains, putting workers and the industry in danger.”

He said the TWU first wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison about the need for a readily available supply of RATs in October.

He said the industry’s request had not been met.

"Instead, we have a completely predictable scenario where drivers are delivering rapid tests to be sold on the shelves of supermarkets and pharmacies, but they - like most Australians - can't access them themselves,” Kaine said.

“It is vital that rapid tests are free and readily available. The government must prioritise access to transport workers and their employers, who the community is again depending upon to keep Australia moving safely.”

The meat-processing sector, which also faces worker shortages, has joined the calls for the government to provide free or low-cost RATs.

“We are experiencing an unprecedented wave of staffing unpredictability,” Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC) CEO Patrick Hutchinson said.

“As COVID spreads in the community, our industry workers are unable to present for work for at least seven days, should someone in their family or household test positive, under the current national COVID protocol.

“In some instances, we are hearing that under 30 per cent of rostered workers have presented for work.”

He said the meat industry also needed prioritised PCR testing and for asymptomatic close contacts in the meat industry to be able to work.

“We don’t want to see a return of the early 2020 situation, with widespread supply shortages exacerbated by panic buying,” he said.

Supermarkets have also warned that worker shortages will affect consumers over the coming weeks.

"Due to Covid related impacts on our supply chain operations, we’re experiencing delays with some of our stock deliveries to stores," a Woolworths spokesperson told Yahoo News.

"Our teams are doing all they can to replenish stock as quickly as possible.

"We thank our customers for their patience and apologise for the inconvenience."

The spokesperson couldn't say how many staff were isolating.

“We were facing a number of supply chain challenges already – a shortage of pallets and a shortage of truck drivers,” Coles chief operating officer Matthew Swindells added to the Today show.

“[After the Christmas rush] we’re somewhat on the back foot trying to make sure that we can keep the food supply lines going.

“We’ve got probably another couple of difficult weeks.”

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