Businesses involved in food production, healthcare, social welfare and media are among those the Government has identified as "critical services", allowing their workers to use rapid antigen tests (RATs) to return to work early if they are identified as a close contact of a COVID-19 case.
To avoid severe disruptions to critical supply chains from a large number of people isolating, the Government is introducing a close contact exemption scheme. This will come into effect at phase two of the Omicron plan and will exempt participating critical workers from isolation requirements if they return daily negative tests.
An online register has been set up and businesses will be able to self-assess to determine if they meet the criteria as a critical service. Registration will include a declaration and the Government warns this can be checked.
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.
Associate Health Minister Dr Ayesha Verrall said on Thursday that businesses which decide they want to partake in the scheme will need to be aware that bringing close contacts into the workplace comes with risks.
"While the new scheme will help businesses continue to operate, rapid antigen testing is about 80 percent accurate. This may mean they have someone onsite who has COVID-19 and could infect other workers, which could further compromise business operations."
A letter will be provided to businesses that register, enabling eligible workers to use RATs either held by their employer or to collect RATs from a collection site. Workers will be given enough testing kits to cover the period they would have been isolating and collection sites will be highlighted on the Healthpoint website.
Any worker participating in the scheme must be vaccinated and if they return a positive test, will have to undertake a PCR test and then isolate.
"We know isolation is the best way to stop the chain of transmission so businesses and workers involved in the scheme will need to continue to play their part in reducing the spread of the virus by complying with daily symptom checks, and other health measures while at work," Dr Verrall said.
"Workers will also be expected to remain in isolation outside of work hours as they will in many instances be living with household members who have Omicron."
COVID-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said people who work alone or able to can continue working in a "bubble of one" if they are identified as a contact.
"That means for instance farmers, or sole traders including plumbers and residential builders, who operate out of their own space and work alone can continue to do that as long as they are vaccinated, don’t have symptoms and don’t have contact with anyone else.
"These guidelines apply to any workers, not just critical workers, and do not require them to return regular tests."
ACT's David Seymour says that "every worker and business is essential".
"If businesses had been allowed to import or purchase rapid antigen tests, we wouldn’t need Wellington bureaucrats to micromanage them," he said.
"Just like the Government’s ‘essential services’ rules, there will be no logic to the critical workforce rules. Some will miss out and workers won’t get tested if they’re not designated as a critical worker.
"That’s because the isolation rules are unworkable and disincentive getting tested."
He's referring to concerns that the lengthy isolation period for cases is currently putting people off getting tested. If someone tests positive, their household close contacts are also required to isolate.
The second phase of the Omicron plan - when the new return-to-work scheme will begin - will come into play when there is a larger number of COVID-19 cases, and consequently more contacts. The isolation period will drop to seven days for contacts at that stage.