Australia’s Covid-19 wave at record levels, prompting push to work from home again

SYDNEY – Australia’s surging Covid-19 outbreak has prompted debate about whether workplaces should again be encouraging staff to work from home.

As hospitalisations reached record levels last Tuesday (July 26), the health authorities and experts have urged employers to allow staff to work from home if feasible.

The nation’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly warned on July 19 that Australia was “at the start of this wave, not the end”, and that staff should talk to their employers to see if they can work from home.

“If it’s possible for you to work from home during the next couple of weeks, that will make a big difference,” he told Channel Seven.

Some of Australia’s biggest firms have heeded this advice.

Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunications firm, said it was “strongly encouraging” staff to work from home if they can.

Westpac, one of the country’s biggest banks, said it had raised its Covid-19 rating to amber, meaning that employees who can work from home are not required to be in the office.

“This is a temporary measure and employees are still welcome to attend the office if they prefer,” said a spokesman.

But some employers have been resistant to allowing staff to work remotely, particularly after finally switching back to normal office arrangements in recent months.

Ms Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, said the authorities should avoid returning to the work-from-home mandates of earlier Covid-19 waves, saying that such a move would damage the economy.

“With one of the world’s highest vaccination rates, whatever we do, we cannot retreat to Delta or early Omicron settings, which will stifle our recovery and cripple small business,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald, referring to the Covid-19 variants.

Australia is battling a worsening Covid-19 outbreak that has left it with one of the world’s highest rates of cases and deaths per capita. There were 5,571 Covid-19 patients in hospitals last Tuesday, a record for the pandemic.

The average daily number of deaths in the past week was 86, a figure that has been steeply rising and is approaching the peak during the worst Covid-19 wave in January. Almost 95 per cent of residents aged 12 and above have had two vaccine doses, but only 62 per cent have had a booster shot.

The outbreak has prompted some trade unions to start pushing for employers to include the right to work from home in workplace contracts.