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From social distancing bracelets to vaccine priority: how NSW supermarkets are tackling Covid

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Steven Saphore/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Steven Saphore/AFP/Getty Images

Some supermarket workers in Sydney will wear bracelets that alert them to social distancing breaches as part of increased efforts to limit the risk of transmitting Covid at their stores and distribution centres.

It’s part of a range of new safety measures in place in response to the outbreak of the Delta variant, and comes as the first supermarket workers in hotpots in Sydney’s south-west are to get vaccinated within days under a new deal giving them priority access to Pfizer.

The four majors – Woolworths, Aldi Coles and Metcash (LGA stores) – have negotiated with the NSW and federal governments to ensure their workers within the hotspots can continue to work and get priority access to vaccines, like other essential workers.

Related: Troops enforcing western Sydney lockdown will alienate community, advocates warn

These include on-site vaccine rollout for workers at distribution centres, most of which are located in the eight LGAs now designated hotspots, and priority access to vaccination for those who work at stores within the hotspot LGAs.

Supermarkets, food outlets and hardware stores regularly feature on the NSW list of exposure sites.

In many instances its because the stores have been visited by Covid-positive customers. But in some instances the duration of the times notified indicates that the infected person is a staff member.

Woolworths said it had introduced a pop-up Covid-19 testing site at its Minchinbury and Yennora distribution centres for surveillance testing of supply chain team members who live in the Fairfield local government area.

The two Woolworths centres service more than 300 supermarkets, and move about 9m cartons a week – about 30% of Woolworths’ national volume of store deliveries, so disruptions at the centres due to Covid outbreaks would be felt city and even nationwide.

On Thursday the NSW government extended requirements for surveillance testing to Canterbury-Bankstown residents who work in authorised industries and leave the hotspot LGA.

Woolworths has also implemented shift splits to limit the crossover of workers at the centres. This allows the company to disinfect surfaces and clean the distribution centres before the next shift comes in.

Social distancing wristbands have also been introduced, which alert team members if they’re within 1.5m of another person. They can also assist with precise contract tracing if required.

In a joint statement the supermarkets said protecting the ongoing operation of distribution sites was absolutely critical to the state.

Supermarkets in the eight hotspot LGAs have become even busier than usual because of restrictions on movement outside these LGAs, while the risk of infection is rising, making vaccination more urgent.

For those who work in supermarkets in the areas, access to the vaccine will be through NSW Health’s Olympic Park Vaccination Centre.

The affected local government areas are Blacktown, Canterbury-Bankstown, Campbelltown, Cumberland, Fairfield, Georges River, Liverpool and Parramatta.

For those who work in the distribution centres, the vaccines are being offered onsite, facilitated with the support of the federal government.

Matt Tyler, head of store, at Bunnings said many of their greater Sydney staff work at stores located within the LGAs where they live.

“Our vulnerable team members located in Greater Sydney, Wollongong, Shellharbour and Central Coast are not required to work during this time and we continue to pay them their regular hours,” he said.

Staff have been given three hours paid leave for each vaccination.

All critical workers who live in the affected LGAs but work in stores in other parts of Sydney, are required to get a Covid test every 72 hours, in line with NSW requirements .

Coles said it was discussing rapid testing with government health authorities to understand what options are available and approved by the Therapeutic Goods Administration for use in Australia.

A spokesperson for Aldi said the company had advocated for early access for its workers in recognition of the importance of maintaining an uninterrupted food supply.

“We are pleased that a select group of our NSW employees have recently been recognised for prioritised access to vaccinations and we’ll continue to work with State and Federal Government to priortise our employees, proportionate to other high priority groups,” he said.

Many of the other protections at stores have become familiar to most shoppers: Perspex screens at the checkout, Covid ambassadors at the entry, QR codes, masks, and hand and trolley sanitising stations.

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A Coles spokesperson said the company had increased the frequency of cleaning in high touchpoint areas including self-checkout screens and keypads, in addition to existing safety and hygiene measures.

Many of the supermarkets are now offering ways to spend less time in stores.

The waits for home delivery have become long and some supermarkets suggest these should be used by the most vulnerable. Woolworths has a “priority assist” service.

It has also introduced a Direct to Boot service in 140 stores, as well as online tools to allow shoppers to spend as little time in-store as possible.

These include building a digital list that will sort it so a shopper can go aisle by aisle, more efficiently.

Related: Australian economy set to suffer more pain as Covid lockdowns keep shops and construction shut

“We have a range of digital planning tools and online shopping services, which can help Sydneysiders get all their essentials while also reducing time in store,” Woolworths Supermarkets managing director, Natalie Davis, said.

“It’s not often you’ll hear a retailer urge customers to spend less time shopping, but that’s exactly what we all need to do right now,” she said.

She urged shoppers to sign in with a QR code and wherever possible, have just one household member do the shopping.

Bunnings is also encouraging online shopping and use of their click and collect services.

If customers do need to visit a store, Tyler urged the use of QR code checkins including at the trade desk.

“We also recommend they plan ahead using our Product Finder app which allows people to create a list and map the fastest route around the store so they can locate the products they need quickly and efficiently, he said.

Coles also offers a similar app to plan a shorter and more efficient aisle-by-aisle shop.

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