The Government has made some important announcements about operating businesses during the Omicron outbreak.
On Thursday 10 February the Government announced the details of the Close Contact Exemption Scheme and a Critical Services Register that will support businesses during the Omicron outbreak.
All businesses can continue to operate
First, it is important to note that all businesses can continue to operate while we are at the Orange Traffic Light setting. There is no longer an Essential Business Register, and you do not need Government permission to operate. However, a major issue for businesses is that, if staff are household contacts of a COVID-19 case, they will need to isolate for 7 days which could impact on your ability to keep your doors open.
Some exemptions from isolation requirements are possible
The announcements today create a pathway for critical employees in businesses to be exempted from the isolation requirements, in order to keep critical businesses functioning. However, this does carry risks for your business, particularly if it involves public-facing roles, and you will need to think carefully about whether you use this option. If you do, you will need to manage the risk that the person could be carrying COVID-19.
What is a critical service?
Essentially, for the retail sector, a critical service will be about maintaining critical infrastructure and supply chains. There is not a defined list of critical services, but it would include, for example, food supply in supermarkets, butchers, greengrocers and bakeries, critical clothing, critical hardware, and animal care. Your business will need to meet a high bar to be deemed critical, and not all employees will be deemed critical in your business. The general view is that employee will need to be critical to your operations, safety, and not just a general employee.
What are the options?
There are two parts to this policy, and the application will depend on your business and operations:
- The bubble of one – for use when a role in the business can operate without contact with any public or anyone else in the business. This process is by self-assessment, the employee must be fully vaccinated, and able to undertake their role without contact with others. The aim is for the transport sector to use this to enable truck or delivery drivers to continue to move freight, but could also be applicable in a distribution situation if you have one person fulfilling online orders from a store – but the person must not be in contact with others.
- Test to return to work for critical workers – this is to be used if you can’t have a bubble of one. This process will enable a critical worker to return to work if they have been identified as a close contact, but only from Phase Two of the Omicron outbreak onwards, when there are high levels of absenteeism. To be able to skip isolation, the worker must be vaccinated, have proof of a Close Contact notification from the Ministry of Health, return a negative Rapid Antigen Test (RAT) and then undertake daily RATs at work to confirm they remain negative (RATs will be provided by district health boards directly to affected people) . You register for this process through MBIE. This is a self-service model, and officials will not be approving those who register. If you register, you will be provided with information on how to gain any exemption for a specific employee – for use from Phase Two. This scheme is open for registration at business.govt.nz.
Do these provisions override the Health and Safety at Work Act?
No. The Health and Safety At Work Act continues to apply. None of the options in the policy exempt your business from requirements under the Health and Safety at Work Act.
You need to balance the risk of a worker returning to work and the high level of false negatives reported by RATs. In fact, if your team members are exempted from isolation requirements, it is appropriate to consider that the risk of COVID-19 in your business is greater, and you should review your risk matrix and health and safety plan. We suggest introducing a policy to support this process.
What about Rapid Antigen Tests?
While Rapid Antigen Tests will be made available by the Government for specific critical workers, today’s announcements are not about access to Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) for all staff in your business for surveillance testing purposes. If you wish to obtain Rapid Antigen Tests, you are able to do so. You would need to source these directly from a supplier at your cost; and to have a formalised policy on their use (contact the Advice Service if you need support how to consult your teams on such a policy).
Need more info?
This is a lot of information and you may have questions. Our Advice Service is on hand to support you when considering your options around this and you can contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also use the critical worker assessment tool from MBIE before applying.
Do I need to rush?
Finally, you don’t have to rush to register. Please take your time and consider the option that is best for your team and business. We highly recommend putting a plan and processes in place to support your business ahead of your application.