Supermarkets may have passed the worst of the Omicron supply chain crisis after close contacts were allowed to return to work if they posted negative tests.
But shoppers will likely struggle to find all the goods they want – and face purchase limits on sought-after products such as chicken and painkillers – until virus case numbers have peaked.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested that the worst of the Omicron staffing crisis may be over and his comments were backed by major supermarkets and poultry suppliers.
The federal government is nonetheless “actively considering” shortening the isolation period for COVID-positive workers from seven days to five in a move that would help thousands of essential workers return to work and bring Australia in line with the US and UK.
The government may also extend to the hospitality and retail sectors recent changes to isolation rules allowing close contacts in essential industries to return to work if they post negative tests.
Days after threatening to lead strikes if their health-and-safety demands were not met, unions criticised the potential rule changes as dangerous and unsafe.
“Workers are being told to keep supply chains going at any cost, that their health is worth less than the goods they transport,” Transport Workers Union national assistant secretary Nick McIntosh said.
Coles optimistic on shortages
The good news is that there are signs food shortages are improving.
In a statement to The New Daily on Wednesday, Coles said shoppers should start seeing more food on shelves in coming weeks.
“We are working collaboratively with our suppliers to improve the supply of all products for our customers and we are optimistic that we will see some improvements in coming weeks,” a Coles spokesperson said.
“We thank our customers for their patience as we work with our suppliers and transport partners to increase deliveries and return a full range of products to our stores.”
A Woolworths spokesperson said its stores continue to experience delays, but the company has no purchase limits for meat outside of Western Australia.
“Supply chain challenges continue to impact stock levels across the country [as] we experience delays with deliveries to our stores due to the impacts of COVID-19 and high rates of absenteeism,” they said.
The comments came after Prime Minister Scott Morrison suggested the worst of the food shortages – caused by thousands of workers isolating with COVID-19 – are now in the past.
Mr Morrison has been meeting regularly with business groups about the shortages.
“We’re seeing some relief,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Canberra.
“It’s not back to where we’d want it to be, but the trajectory is right.”
Mr Morrison was referring specifically to chicken shortages that have forced supermarkets to introduce purchase limits and KFC to sell a reduced menu over the past week.
National cabinet began allowing workers in food supply chains to start skipping COVID-19 quarantine last week in a bid to ease the pressure on hard-hit chicken suppliers, which was welcomed by industry leaders.
Vivien Kite, executive director of peak body the Australian Chicken Meat Federation, said she was optimistic that the situation was starting to improve and that “the worst is behind us”.
But all businesses are struggling with high rates of absenteeism and some are down to just 50 per cent of their workforce, she said.
“We expect ongoing supply issues for the next couple of weeks as COVID-related staff absenteeism remains at a concerning level.”
Government considers further easing
The Morrison government is now “actively considering” further easing isolation rules for workers across the economy to hasten this recovery.
Mr Morrison said on Wednesday that, subject to revised health advice, Australia may follow in the footsteps of the US and UK by reducing the COVID-19 mandatory isolation period from seven to five days.
“The most recent information that we have is that post-five days you still have got 30 per cent [of workers] remaining infectious,” he said.
“And so that is a calibrated decision you’ve got to make.”
The government may also bow to demands from industry groups for an easing of isolation requirements for essential workers to be extended to other parts of the economy, such as hospitality and retail workers.
“Those issues are quite relevant in terms of when you could look at broader-scale changes,” Mr Morrison said.
“Those sorts of things are certainly not off the table, and if they’re safe to do they would make a lot of sense to do.”
Mr Morrison said all policy changes would be based on health advice, but added “you can expect that’s not too far away” when asked about a possible extension of eased isolation rules beyond essential workers.
Unions immediately attacked the suggestion, saying Mr Morrison is attempting to “slash” work health-and-safety protections to paper over the government’s failure to secure enough rapid antigen tests (RAT).
Business groups have also criticised the government over a severe shortage of RATs, warning that the eased isolation rules will not address staffing shortages unless employers can get their hands on more tests.
“It’s shameful that it is easier to catch COVID than it is to find a test kit,” ACTU secretary Sally McManus said in a statement on Wednesday.
“We can limit admissions to hospitals, keep workplaces open and supply chains operating if we have free and accessible RATs.”
Mr McIntosh said the TWU would oppose shortening isolation periods.
“COVID-positive transport workers must not be brought back into the workplace after only five days of isolation,” he said in a statement.
“This will only run the risk of triggering long COVID and make more workers and their families sick. In that horrifying scenario, everybody loses.
“Supply chains rely on healthy workers.”
Superannuation funds have made dramatic gains over the past three years, with top performing sustainable funds topping traditional ones.
New figures from Rainmaker show the top default super funds – those where most Australians have their retirement savings invested by their bosses – returned more than 12 per cent a year in the past three years.
That’s despite the massive stockmarket crash at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020. Top-performing fund Aware Super returned 12.9 per cent while the GuildSuper Personal fund returned 12.3 per cent.
Retail fund Virgin Money Lifecycle returned 12 per cent, demonstrating that the lifecycle sector, which automatically moves members to less aggressive investment positions as they age, is now performing as well as traditional balanced funds, which leave their holdings in one place.
Figures from Chant West due in the coming days are expected to show the median balanced fund returned just under 12 per cent during 2021.
‘Stunning stuff’: Sharemarket drives gains
Strong sharemarket growth drove gains for all fund types in 2021.
“The Australian stockmarket over 2021 rose 17.2 per cent,” Rainmaker director Alex Dunnin said.
“The international market was a bit higher, so all this is pretty stunning stuff.”
That lines up with data released by Oxfam this week which found that Australia’s 47 billionaires had doubled their wealth over the pandemic to $255 billion – last year was a very good one for those with assets.
“If you had $100,000 in super and a house worth $700,000 then you would have made $170,000 [on higher asset values],” Mr Dunnin said.
Sustainable funds outperform
What’s even more stunning than the returns on default super though has been the performance of funds with sustainable investments.
The top sustainable asset allocation, UniSuper’s global environmental fund, returned 25.4 per cent for the year ended in November 2021.
Australian Ethical’s international shares fund wasn’t far behind it, while Perpetual’s Sustainable and Responsible fund returned 22.9 per cent.
The performance of sustainable funds over the past three years is even more impressive.
UniSuper’s global sustainable option shot the lights out with a 27.9 per cent return, while two other funds reached at least 12.8 per cent.
That performance was also a result of sharemarket movements, with Mr Dunnin saying “there’s been a tilt towards ESG [environment, sustainability and governance] in the equity space”.
Cassandra Williams, ratings leader at the Responsible Investment Association of Australasia, said there has been a “dramatic” capital shift towards sustainable investments, fuelled by rising member demand.
Though there’s been some easing of that phenomena recently.
“There has been an increased demand for fossil fuel stocks, with the coal price increasing,” Mr Dunnin said.
Sky-high returns won’t last
Investment adviser Rob Goudie, principal of Consortium Private Wealth, said those 25 per cent-plus returns won’t last.
“We see average returns of 10 or 11 per cent in most markets around the world,” he said.
“Those figures include some big falls that even out large rises like we’ve seen recently.”
Over the longer term, sustainable investment returns were closer to overall averages of 10 or 11 per cent, Mr Goudie said.
“AustralianSuper made 10 per cent, Care Super was 9.1 per cent and Mercer at No.3 averaged 8.8 per cent,” he said.
There will still be strong drivers for sustainable investments though.
“Companies like Coles and Woolworths have committed themselves to net-zero emissions by 2025 and others aim at 2030,” Mr Goudie said.
“That’s going to take a huge investment by companies to achieve those targets so industries that support those goals will have a huge investment tailwind driving them.”
The New Daily is owned by Industry Super Holdings