‘Critical’ workers will get the vaccine first. Just who is that?
Businesses and unions are lobbying for frontline workers such as bus drivers and checkout assistants to jump the queue for coronavirus vaccines to ensure their industries can leave COVID-19 restrictions behind without risking outbreaks.
Industries are jockeying for priority treatment for their workers as the government brings forward its vaccine roll-out in the face of new and more infectious coronavirus strains out of the United Kingdom and South Africa.
Retail workers, who kept the country fed during the height of panic buying, are one group unions and business want to have early vaccine access.Credit:Janie Barrett
Those lobbying the Morrison government are driven by fears some workers in constant contact with customers and delivering essential services will not get the vaccine soon enough, and that others in spheres including education, tourism and trade will lose key overseas contacts if they do not get a vaccine to travel.
The intense jockeying puts pressure on the government to clarify its vaccine rollout, which has already been pushed forward from an expected late March start to February and will begin with hotel quarantine and aged care employees.
"Critical and high-risk" workers are among the second tranche of employees to be vaccinated, a group that includes the emergency services personnel and meat workers, who were among the first to catch the coronavirus from work during Victoria's second wave.
But other workers governments have described as "essential" during the pandemic, such as shop staff and public transport drivers, are not listed, raising concerns from the Australian Council of Trade Unions they will be included later in the roll-out.
"Vaccinating medical personnel, aged care workers and quarantine hotel staff is critical, but what about the bus driver who gets these people home, the retail assistant who helps them at the supermarket, the hospitality worker who provides them with food and drink?" said ACTU acting secretary Liam O'Brien.
"Many essential workers are in regular close proximity with large sections of the community and often unable to distance themselves by virtue of the nature of their work."
The Australian Retailers Association, which represents major chains including 7-Eleven and Bunnings, is also pushing for early access.
"We would like retail staff to be given priority in the roll-out given their frontline and essential services status and this is something we will be discussing with government," said Fleur Brown, the ARA's head of industry affairs.
Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association national secretary Gerard Dwyer, whose union is one of the largest in the country, wrote to Health Minister Greg Hunt before Christmas.
"In light of the critical services they are providing, these workers must be given priority in accessing any vaccines when they become available," Mr Dwyer wrote.
Mr Hunt's office referred a request for comment to the Health Department, which said the vaccine strategy was based on medical advice prioritising people who were vulnerable to coronavirus, at increased risk of exposure and working in jobs society needed to keep functioning.
Restaurant and Catering Association boss Wes Lambert said the restrictions placed on his industry meant that hospitality workers should be near the front of the line, after essential health and quarantine workers in any industry-by-industry rollout.
And Hugh McMaster from the Australian Road Transport Industrial Organisation has written to the Deputy Prime Minister asking for truck drivers to get priority access to ensure freight and food supplies are not disrupted.
"Drivers have the potential to unknowingly carry the disease around the country," if they are not vaccinated, Mr McMaster warned.
Less expected groups also want vaccine access. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has urged the government to put exporters, including tourism and travel industry managers, on the list for early vaccines so they can travel abroad.
"Our key exporters … are losing contacts and connections with their international buyers and are not able to compete with competitor countries that are able to visit face to face," the chamber's acting chief executive Jenny Lambert said.
One in five jobs in Australia are reliant on trade, Ms Lambert said, but vaccinating the sector would only require jabs for about 100,000 people.
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