COVID-19 Business leader says every worker is critical, medical expert calls for more 'liberal' approach to close contacts as Omicron outbreak spreads

A business leader says every business is critical and every worker should be able to use rapid antigen tests (RATs) to return to work early if they are identified as a close contact of a COVID-19 case.

Last week the Government revealed which industries are included in their close contact exemption scheme. The scheme came into place when New Zealand moved to phase 2 of the Government's Omicron plan on Tuesday and allows essential workers to return to work without isolation if they return a negative RAT. 

Critical services listed by the Government include food production and its supply chain, key public services like health and emergency services, lifeline utilities such as power and water supplies, transport, critical financial services, news media, social welfare, and human and animal welfare.

But Auckland Business Chamber CEO Michael Barnett told AM every worker should be able to use RATs to skip isolation. 

"What we have is a situation where the Government has divided the business community. It says those that are critical and those that aren't but let me tell you every business is critical, every worker is essential they should have the opportunity to work. We shouldn't be destroying businesses or families," Barnett said on Thursday. 

He said businesses across the country are already struggling and the Government needs to be encouraging people back out into the community, not scaring them into isolating "unnecessarily". 

"It's about the Government changing its narrative - at the moment it's negative, it's about red light, it's about stopping and staying at home. We need to change that and the Government needs to talk to businesses to find out what works best for them and for us." 

Barnett said many people in Auckland are worried about visiting businesses because they don't want to come in contact with a positive case.

University of Auckland professor of medicine Des Gorman agreed. Gorman told AM businesses should be coming up with their own plans because soon the Government will realise the current rules are "untenable". 

"It's time to have a more liberal view of how we manage people who are close contacts and I think businesses need to accept that the Government's systems are overwhelmed," he said. "I think businesses need to develop a management strategy for the rest of the year that tries to get a balance between risk and productivity and I actually think it's time for people to go back to work…With the use of rapid antigen tests and daily temperatures and so on, I think it should be able to do that."