Australian bosses are gearing up for a record number of workers to take sick leave over the next month as Covid and the flu sweep across the country.
Employers are already grappling with hollowed out rosters as highly-infectious Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5 spark a wave of new infections and hospitalizations nationwide.
Absences are sitting at 50 percent above the average level and sick leave from fever and cough is five times higher than last year.
Hospitals are also overrun with admissions jumping by more than 1000 in the past 10 days to 4000.
But experts say the worst is yet to come – with August expected to usher in an unprecedented rate of sick and carers leaving due to the late season of influenza B and skyrocketing Covid cases.
Former federal deputy chief medical officer Dr Nick Coatsworth said data from labs around Australia showed ‘all the other respiratory viruses were coming back with vengeance’.
‘HR departments and industry need to look towards late August, early September for relief,’ Dr. Coatsworth told the Financial Review.
‘My advice would be it’s better to have people out of the workplace for a couple of days and try to limit the ongoing spread than it is to have your entire workforce come down with it.’
Experts predict workplaces will be rocked by a record number of sick leaves as Covid and the flu wreak havoc across the country. Pictured: Office works arrive in Sydney’s CBD in 2019
The grim forecast could spell trouble for the already struggling economy as businesses are left with skeleton staff to operate.
While employers will be powerless to stop thousands of workers taking entitled sick leave, others will be left to support employees without benefits after the previous government ended the $750 pandemic payments for those forced to isolate.
The latest FluTracking data, which keeps tabs on respiratory illnesses such as influenza and Covid, shows 2.5 percent of people are out of work compared to the five-year average of 1.5 percent.
Absenteeism is already at 50 percent above average levels, but is expected to worsen in coming weeks
However, some industries appear to be more prone to staff deficiencies, with workplace data showing higher absences in aged care and retail over June.
Nationally, 14.5 percent of aged care shifts went unfilled, with the issue particularly pronounced in NSW, where the rate was 36.8 percent.
As for retail, seven percent of retail shifts were vacant across the country last month, with Western Australia boasting the highest rate (9.8 percent) closely followed by NSW (8.1 percent).
But expert predictions suggest that the situation could grow dire in the coming weeks.
In an official statement on Friday, chief health officers warned if action was not taken the rise of the two dominant Omicron strains could see the nation’s cases be similar to January’s BA.1 wave – which saw Australia’s infections peak at more than 100,000 a day.
Unlike other variants, BA.4 and BA.5 are associated with ‘increased immune escape’, making it easier for those previously infected with earlier Covid variants to catch it again, which may also occur as early as four weeks after recovery.
Aged care homes have been particularly hit by staff shortages, with more than a third of shifts going unfilled across NSW in June
“People who test positive for Covid more than 28 days after ending isolation due to previous infection should be reported and managed as new cases,” the statement said.
The warning comes as major business groups reject advice from state and federal health authorities to consider working from home amid fears it will jeopardize the country’s economic recovery.
Although the reintroduction of mask mandates and working from home are currently not on the cards, state governments have not ruled out bringing those orders back if the winter Covid wave intensifies.
Hybrid models that support some days at the office and some at home have been rolled out across many workplaces, however, some health groups are calling for tougher Covid measures as hospitalizations climb.
Ai Group’s Victorian head Tim Piper said reestablishing remote work settings would undo the progress many businesses have made since employees returned to offices earlier this year.
Health authorities have warned Australia’s Covid cases could reach similar rates to the January BA.1 wave, which saw daily cases skyrocket to more than 100,000
‘The suggestion undermines the really good effort that employers and employees have made since Omicron really hit us in January,’ he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
‘The revisiting of masks in offices would be absolutely counter-productive. It’s the one issue that has galvanized people to stay away from work.’
As health authorities seek to curb climbing infection and hospitalization rates, an additional 7.4 million Australian adults will be eligible for Covid treatments and a fourth vaccine dose from Monday.
People over 50 are recommended to get the extra shot while those over 30 are eligible if they wish.
Health Minister Mark Butler announced that Australians over 70 who test positive for the virus will be able to access antivirals on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme from Monday.
Access will also be expanded to people over 50 with two or more risk factors for severe disease and Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people over 30 with two or more risk factors.
Anyone 18 or over and immunocompromised may also be eligible.
Two antivirals are on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme: Lagevrio and Paxlovid. Normally costing more than $1000, they will be available from Monday for $6.80 for concession card holders and about $40 for everyone else.
A new advertising campaign will also be launched to educate Australians about the availability of treatments.
Australian Health Minister Mark Butler speaks to media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra
Australians under 65 will not be asked to get fourth Covid jabs because there’s no evidence they will help, Health Minister Mark Butler has said
The Plan For Covid campaign encourages people to test at the first sign of symptoms, talk to their doctor without delay for advice and seek treatment options.
Mr Butler said hospitals are bracing for increasing cases as winter progresses and encouraged younger Australians in particular to get their third booster.
About 2.5 million people in their 30s and 40s are yet to have their third booster, he said.
I really encourage you to get out and get that (third) dose because that’s the big kicker. That’s the thing that really raises your immunity against severe diseases,’ Mr. Butler told reporters in Adelaide on Sunday.
The fourth dose will give you a boost and that boost is important right now because of the phase of the pandemic we’re going through, this additional third wave.
It’s increasingly clear that (variants) are able to evade the immunity that you might have got from having previously had Covid.
‘We’re seeing people who might only have had Covid several weeks ago being reinfected.’
More than 31,000 new infections and 24 deaths were reported across Australia on Sunday, a slight dip on the previous 48 hours.
There were 4094 Australians in hospital by the end of the weekend, with increasing influenza rates adding to the pressure on healthcare staff.