NT industry groups, unions warn supply chain issues could be ‘disastrous’ if COVID-19 hits workforce

Territorians may struggle to find some grocery items on shelves if the Northern Territory suffers the same COVID-related supply chain issues seen elsewhere  in Australia, industry groups are warning. 

Key points:

  • Transport services, supermarkets and small businesses in the Northern Territory are facing staff shortages due to COVID-19
  • The crisis may see stock shortages on shelves in coming weeks, say unions and industry groups
  • However, the Territory government says its new isolation rules for essential workers will alleviate supply chain issues for now

Their caution comes as Omicron infections surge in nearly every state and territory, crippling supply chains by forcing a high number of transport, distribution and shop workers into isolation.

To help Territorians avoid a similar fate, the Territory government introduced new rules yesterday allowing essential workers identified as close contacts to continue working, provided they do not have symptoms, take rapid antigen tests every day they work and isolate when not working.

Shoppers, Distributive and Allied Employees Alliance (SDA) Northern Territory director Shlok Sharma said members were becoming increasingly concerned about COVID-related staff shortages in the Territory.

"Obviously, COVID is literally being walked into most workplaces right now, so our members are on edge a little bit," he said.

"Many members have had the experience of serving somebody who's [tested positive to] COVID a day or two later."

Catch up on the main COVID-19 news from January 11 with a look back at our blog.

Mr Sharma said he largely supported the government's move to provide more room for workers who are well to continue their role in securing supply chains.

"Our members are quite committed to the work they do. They want to make sure shelves are stocked and that Territorians are able to get the essentials they need," he said.

"We just want to make sure that those workers who are uncomfortable returning to work — or [who] are particularly vulnerable — aren't forced to return to work against their will."

Businesses navigate test result delays, lack of RATs as COVID-19 cases rise

More than 2,000 people — about 1 per cent of the Northern Territory's population — currently have COVID-19. 

The consequences of those case numbers are playing out now for businesses having to alter hours or shut altogether due to a shortage of workers.

Terry Wilkins, who runs a butchery in Darwin, knows this reality all too well

"We've got a few away now awaiting test results and they've been away four or five days," he said.

"So that makes it hard, because they're getting tested, but they've got to wait so long for the results to come back."

Butcher Terry Wilkins says the long turnaround time for processing COVID-19 test results is adding to staffing pressures.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

Mr Wilkins said he recognised the challenges of trying to limit the spread of COVID-19 while keeping businesses open.

"I don't know what the answer is there. Maybe that if people are essential [workers], they get their results back first," he said.

One thing the business owner of more than a decade can guarantee is the ongoing damage that would be caused by closing due to COVID-19.

"The biggest problem is you lose your customer base," he said. 

"If you're not here for a couple of weeks, what do you do?

"Hopefully, we don't get to that stage."

Adding to supply chain concerns is the impact of COVID-19 on freight.

NT Road Transport Association (NTRTA) executive officer Louise Bilato said there were not enough drivers to manage huge case numbers in the Territory.

"[It would be] disastrous very quickly," she said.

"Because we haven't got that casual labour pool, we would have big, big challenges … Trying to find people to take freight into shops or fuel into communities."

NT Road Transport Association (NTRTA) executive officer Louise Bilato says the Territory's transport industry will not be able to cope with major staff shortages.(ABC News: Che Chorley)

She said the NTRTA wanted RAT kits to be made available to companies to distribute to drivers, rather than relying on truck-stop testing or rapid tests provided at border check points.

Acting Health Minister Nicole Manison said the government would monitor the situation closely.

She said the Territory's new isolation rules for essential workers would help alleviate some pressure on supply chains for now. 

"So far, we're doing really well in the Northern Territory, but we're being very realistic about what we have coming up and ahead," Ms Manison said.

Northern Territory's Acting Chief Minister Nicole Manison says the new isolation rules for essential workers will help alleviate some pressure on supply chains.(ABC News: Che Chorley)Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.WatchDuration: 3 minutes 36 seconds3m 36s How to speak to your kids about their COVID-19 vaccinationWhat you need to know about coronavirus:

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Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news

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