News National How we can return to work and avoid a second wave of infections

How we can return to work and avoid a second wave of infections

Sally McManus says we must introduce new health and safety regulations to avoid a second wave of infections. Photo: TND
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The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the way we live our lives.

Just as critically, this virus has been like an earthquake in our economy and forced millions from their jobs and workplaces virtually overnight.

With the future so opaque, there is one thing that is certain.

That is, as we work our way out of this crisis, we cannot simply go back to business as usual.

Australia needs to be made ready to go back to work and it can only do this by creating COVID-safe workplaces that protect the health of workers and, in turn, the wider community.

We need a uniform set of regulations that give every Australian worker and business a clear understanding of what is required to ensure workers stay healthy and the economy remains open.

This kind of certainty is crucial to navigating a path out of this crisis.

The collaboration between Australian unions, state and federal governments and health services, combined with the self-discipline of ordinary Australians to maintain social distancing, has helped flatten the curve on the rate of infections successfully.

As we stand on the precipice of reopening the economy, it’s important to recognise that this success is just one victory in a much longer battle.

The rate of infection has slowed, but the virus has not vanished.

If we do not continue our vigilance against the coronavirus as we start working again, another costly lockdown is inevitable.

As many Australians head back to work they will need work health and safety laws that reflect their new working reality; one where social distancing and the highest levels of hygiene are non-negotiable.

Regulations need to be clear, enforceable and uniform so that workers and businesses know where they stand and what their responsibilities are.

Social distancing must remain a non-negotiable in workplaces.

Although it may present added cost and logistical challenges, the simple fact is this is the one effective weapon we have against the virus until a vaccine is found.

The other essential control to avoiding increased community transmission is the early identification and support to isolate people who have or are suspected to have COVID-19.

coronavirus april 2020 jobless
Hundreds of thousands of workers have lost their jobs because of COVID-19. Photo: AAP

Paid pandemic leave for all

Providing paid pandemic leave is essential to removing what our deputy chief health officer said were “financial disincentives” for people to get tested and stay home when sick.

With more than 32 per cent of Australia’s workforce in casual or insecure work, leaving them without sick pay, there is a huge risk that those workers who are feeling mild symptoms will simply “soldier on” so they don’t lose any income.

The consequences of not taking action are unthinkable.

While thankfully we have been able to keep the number of COVID-19 fatalities low, that could all change as we alter our behaviour.

Countries such as Singapore and Japan have learnt a painful lesson as infections and fatalities have spiked after initial success combating the pandemic.

The prospect of a second shutdown as a consequence of a major outbreak would be shattering for economic confidence and would put working Australians, who are already carrying the heaviest burden during this crisis, under further stress.

Let’s not undo our hard work

I understand the urge people have to put these past few months behind us. This pandemic has tested our resilience and asked us all to make sacrifices.

The shutting down of many industries has led to so many workers suffering a considerable loss of income as some now rely on JobSeeker or JobKeeper and even more struggle through with no support, arbitrarily excluded.

Social distancing has also meant many wonderful aspects of our daily lives – going out and enjoying the company of friends, playing sport or visiting the pub – have also ground to a halt.

For any good to come from the painful lessons we have learnt from the past few months of economic and social upheaval, we need to ensure we do not undo all that has worked to limit the spread of the virus.

How we work and what kind of economy we rebuild will be shaped by the choices we make now.

Strong health and safety laws that support continued social distancing and plugging the gap in paid leave with one in three workers having none so they stay home when sick are the clear and obvious steps we should take now.

There is so much we don’t know about what the future holds, but that much is certain.

Sally McManus is secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions