Woolworths is a “long way away” from closing its doors to unvaccinated customers but hasn’t ruled it out amid Australia’s worst COVID-19 outbreak.
Woolworths Group CEO Brad Banducci on Thursday played down the idea of forcing shoppers to be vaccinated when asked if the chain can keep its workers safe from customers as the Delta variant surges.
The question came after it emerged that thousands of Woolworths staff are isolating and several essential supermarket workers had been treated in hospital with COVID-19.
Mr Banducci said Woolworths would not need to require vaccines for its customers like other companies, such as Qantas, if shoppers followed public health orders.
“[It’s] really just making sure everyone behaves in a COVID-safe way when they enter our stores,” Mr Banducci told reporters on a media phone call.
“If they do, we can keep them safe without [mandatory vaccinations] having to be an essential to enter our store and use our services.
“We’re a long way away from that [mandatory vaccinations] … we’re very conscious that everyone in Australia needs to be able to access food.”
Thousands of Woolworths staff isolating
It comes amid growing concern that supermarket workers are being exposed to the virus through their contact with customers as authorities in NSW and Victoria attempt to curb the highly contagious Delta variant.
Mr Banducci revealed on Thursday that 3300 Woolworths staff were in isolation and three were in hospital with COVID-19 amid the latest outbreaks.
Supermarket workers living in Sydney’s 12 high-risk LGAs are now required to either get vaccinated or take regular rapid antigen tests if they want to continue working.
The new measures will affect an estimated 10,000 Woolworths workers from Monday, August 30.
Mr Banducci said Woolworths is working with NSW Health to ensure the new rules do not disrupt supermarket operations.
But he said there weren’t enough COVID-19 tests available for workers to comply with the rules on such short notice.
“The actual intent we’re very supportive of, but the practical reality of standing it up is a challenge,” Mr Banducci said.
Woolworths has secured priority vaccination for many of its staff already and has set up dedicated clinics to help workers get their jabs.
But the company has so far stopped short of requiring its workers to get vaccinated.
Mr Banducci dodged questions about this on Thursday.
Instead, he said the chain was improving access to vaccination and encouraging staff to get the jab.
Other firms, such as SPC and Qantas, have introduced vaccine mandates for their workers.
Woolworths profit surge
On Thursday morning, Woolworths reported bumper sales and profits for the 2020-21 financial year, revealing a $2 billion share buyback that excited investors.
Woolworths Group sales rose 5.7 per cent to $67.2 billion for the year ended June 27, while after-tax profits rose 22.9 per cent to $1.9 billion.
But Mr Banducci said the Delta strain was miring the business in uncertainty heading into Christmas, particularly for its department store Big W.
“Our priority between now and Christmas is COVID safety and doing everything to get food and essentials into our stores,” he said.
“We hope that once we get through this first half we’ll have more clear air to progress the rest of our agenda.”
Big W has historically been an underperformer for Woolworths.
The pandemic-induced retail boom last financial year brought some temporary respite, with the discount department store booking double-digit sales growth and earnings worth $172 million in what Mr Banducci described as a “fantastic year” for the chain.
But this year has seen a return to business as usual.
Over the first two months of the 2021-22 financial year, Big W’s sales fell by 15 per cent.
About four in five Big W stores are experiencing COVID restrictions and hundreds of workers are being forced to isolate in their homes, Mr Banducci said.
The Delta strain is also making life difficult for Woolworths supermarkets, with supply chain disruptions plaguing operations in New Zealand after the country was placed into lockdown.
In Australia, Woolworths supermarkets experienced a 4.5 per cent increase in sales during the 2020-21 financial year – a strong result that built on double-digit sales growth seen during the first wave of panic buying in the last six months of 2019-20.
The result compares favourably to that of rival Coles, which recorded a 3.1 per cent sales increase to $38.6 billion during the 2020-21 financial year.