Australia returns to training – What’s next?

(This article by CCA CEO Dr Don Perlgut examines what Australian training providers can do as they “return to training” as government restrictions ease.)

Australian training providers being encouraged to return to training, with the official ending of lockdowns in New South Wales and the ACT. In NSW, this will be followed by imminent and progressive re-opening this month (with 80% vaccination rate reached), and in early December (when 90% reached), with Victoria likely not far behind.

What happens next?

In the absence of strong NSW state government vaccination mandates for training environments, much of the responsibility has been thrown back on the training providers – and employers generally – to make their own decisions and policies. CCA agrees with the Committee for Sydney, whose Deputy CEO said: “The government should support employers to require vaccinations of their workforces. That means putting in place public health orders that remove as much legal risk as possible, and clearly outline its expectations regarding vaccination mandates in critical industries. It simply cannot be left to businesses to navigate the legal minefield when it comes to keeping their workers and customers safe.”

Unfortunately this has not occurred: NSW training providers are referred to Fair Work and Safe Work Australia for guidance, and told to “consider their workplace circumstances”, in order “to make their own decisions on how best to manage unvaccinated students and vaccinated students. This could include different classes, some content delivered virtually, online etc.”

The situation in Victoria is different, with a Public Health Order that specifies that COVID-19 vaccination will be required for “staff who work onsite in higher education, TAFE, training and adult education services. From 15 October, unvaccinated staff cannot work onsite and must work from home.”

Freedom Day

Among the cries of “Freedom Day” that welcomed the end of lockdown in NSW, there is an important note of caution from Stephen Duckett: “Vaccination alone won’t guarantee a COVID-safe workplace. Even double-vaccinated people can be infected. Vaccination reduces the chance of infection … and double-vaccinated people can also transmit the virus, although again at a much lower rate.” And remember who is not vaccinated, many of them not by choice – as ACOSS points out: immuno-compromised, rural/regional/remote residents, Indigenous Australians (infected at twice the rate as non-Indigenous people) and people with disabilities.

New South Wales has done extremely well in vaccination rates, thankfully for those of us who live in the state, beating even the most optimistic projections. As of 15 October, a full 78.8% of NSW adults (age 16+) are fully vaccinated, and an astonishing 91.7% have had at least one dose.

But the coming weeks, as vaccinated and unvaccinated people mix freely – irrespective of the rules – may be challenging for growth in COVID-19 cases, even with great vaccination results. For example, earlier this week, Tamworth Council in northern NSW – with a population of 32,000 – had 19 infections one day, the equivalent of Sydney turning up with 3,000 infections.

What Australian Training Providers Can Do

The scientific advisory group OzSAGE has issued guidance to employers about creating COVID-safe working environments. Their straightforward four-level hierarchy of COVID controls:

Level 1: Vaccination and working from home. The most effective protections against COVID are vaccinating to reduce the risk of infection, and limiting interactions with infected people. These are the two standard public health measures seen in state public health orders.

Level 2: Safe indoor air. Poor ventilation (stagnant air) in public buildings, workplaces, schools, hospitals, and aged care homes contributes to viral spread. It is recommended to invest in HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filtering to reduce risk.

Level 3: Administrative measures. Organisations should be ready to manage COVID outbreaks – especially in New South Wales and Victoria, where public health contact tracing is at capacity.

Level 4: Masks. COVID-19 is an airborne disease, so the use of masks is integral to reduce transmission and to offer some protection if there is any breakdown of other controls.

Masks are also essential because 30–70% of transmission may be asymptomatic: from infected people who look and feel well and may not be aware they are infected.

Vaccination Status Does Not Fall Under Australian Discrimination Rules

NSW Government advice to training providers reminds them that “Not being allowed onto a worksite/training site because an employee is not vaccinated does not fall under discrimination rules, according to Fair Work Australia. Being unvaccinated is not a protected attribute in the Fair Work Act. Protected attributes include: race, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental disability, marital status, family or carer’s responsibilities, pregnancy, religion, political opinion, national extraction, social origin.

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