Australia’s top doctors have warned rushing workers back to offices could lead to “health and economic hell”, and plans to get public servants back to their desks could spark new outbreaks and lockdowns.
“Now is not the time to drop the ball and run the risk of future lockdowns,” Australian Medical Association president Dr Omar Khorshid said.
It comes as the Community and Public Sector Union touted a report saying public servants were more productive when working from home.
The AMA has pushed back against federal government plans to get public servants back into offices, saying “complacency” was an issue.
The Public Service Commission issued new advice this week, saying “where there is limited or no community transmission of COVID-19, employees should return to their usual workplaces, where it is safe to do so”.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison backed that plan, saying on Tuesday it was important “for public servants to be back in their offices, buying their lunch at the local cafe, and doing all of those things which support particularly those CBD economies”.
Mr Morrison said people should return to work “where the health advice enables it”, with “customised home-grown, COVID-safe plans … targeted to the locality”.
“I think people have learned an enormous amount over the last six months about how to do that in a COVID-safe way, and it’s time to get our CBDs humming again,” the PM said.
“For example, if your head office is in Melbourne, that doesn’t mean that your office in Perth should be operating on the same COVID-safe plan to the one in Melbourne.”
Working from home minimises the possibility of workplace transmission, reduces the geographic spread of the virus and makes our public transport systems safer. We don’t want people flooding our trains and buses and spreading this virus. #auspol
— AMA Media (@ama_media) September 30, 2020
But the AMA came out against the push, in a rare public rebuke of the government.
“In reality, the world is at least a year away from a broad rollout of a COVID-19 vaccine. We can’t become complacent,’’ the AMA wrote on Twitter.
“Personal hygiene, physical distancing and working from home are still some of our biggest defences against this virus.”
The AMA said workers “should continue to be encouraged to work from home”, adding that “flooding” public transport could help spread the virus.
Now is not the time to drop the ball and run the risk of future lockdowns. Working from home helps keep our CBDs safe. All workplaces must be COVID cautious, having COVID Safe plans ensures that employees who are ill are supported to self-isolate and get a COVID-19 test. #Auspol
— AMA President (@amapresident) September 30, 2020
Speaking to The New Daily, AMA vice president Dr Chris Moy raised further alarm at the prospect of people rushing back to offices.
“People need to understand, we need to be in this for the long haul. It requires us all to be onboard, otherwise we’ll have Victorian-type lockdowns again and be back in not only health hell, but economic hell as well,” Dr Moy said.
“I don’t think it’s all over. As we saw in Victoria, spread in workplaces was a major cause of the second wave. Failure to close up early enough was a lesson.”
Dr Moy was concerned about the reduced numbers of COVID tests each day, fearing some people were becoming complacent about the virus.
“For all those people saying Victoria shouldn’t have had Stage 4 lockdowns, well, the health system was about to be overwhelmed. I know that from the frontline troops. They had to do what they had to do,” he said.
“The AMA is not backward in saying the response has been appropriate and needed, and the entire community needs to understand we need to go the whole hog, for the sake of not only health but also the economy.”
Dr Moy said he understood the desire, on an economic level, to get people back to offices and associated benefits around enlivening CBD businesses – but that should take a back seat to the health response.
“Working from home needs to be a part of the fabric of the response in the medium term until we get a cure,” he said.
The CPSU said it was in talks with public sector bosses on return-to-work plans, but said things shouldn’t be rushed, citing basic logistical concerns like how to social distance in elevators and stairwells for office workers.
Michael Tull, CPSU assistant national secretary, said working from home “works” for his members.
“In fact, a recent study from UNSW Canberra and CQUniversity found that during the pandemic working from home allows public sector workers to have more autonomy over their work, be more productive, and was backed by the majority of managers,” he told TND.
“It is essential that return to work is done safely and sensibly, and in full consultation with employees, unions and health and safety representatives. This is the best way to ensure that Australia avoids a dangerous third wave of infections.”