CANBERRA, AAP – The federal government has flagged filling gaps in essential service roles with temporary visa holders, older Australians and the unemployed.

Acting Small Business Minister Anne Ruston met with industry groups on Tuesday night to discuss disruptions to a range of industries caused by thousands of workers being affected by COVID-19.

Further meetings are being held with Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday ahead of a national cabinet meeting on Thursday.

“A very high number of the workforce are currently furloughed either because they have COVID, are caring for someone with COVID or are a close contact,” Senator Ruston told Sky News on Wednesday.

“(We are) working through ways to make sure our essential services, currently food and grocery are our number one priority, … keep moving.”


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Senator Ruston said the government was working towards “unshackling” employment opportunities for cohorts like temporary visa holders and those on unemployment benefits.

“Anybody who is currently on unemployment benefits who is able to work, we would be really keen for them to undertake some really active investigations about how they could help out with these workforce shortages,” she said.

“Many older Australians, I am sure, will be happy to do a few extra hours to help out at the moment.”

Businesses also discussed the need for national consistency and clarity around isolation and testing requirements with the acting minister.

This included ensuring adequate and consistent supplies of rapid antigen tests are delivered where they’re needed.

The roundtable addressing supply chain shortages included representatives from food and retail associations, transport and distribution associations, the National Farmers Federation, the Pharmacy Guild, the small business chamber and the Regional Airline Association.

Mr Morrison is considering which businesses should be defined as essential services and covered by less stringent isolation requirements as the attorney-general, Safe Work Australia, the ACTU and other employment groups meet on Wednesday.

The health and home affairs departments are meeting with the health and transport sectors, respectively, as well, while work health and safety ministers are working on whether businesses in non-critical industries should stop requiring workers to produce negative rapid antigen tests as they recover.