Omicron a challenge for employers, schools

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    New Zealand's Aluminium Smelter chief executive Chris Blenkiron.

    The firm grip of the Omicron pandemic is being felt across the province — particularly by 24/7 employers who are struggling to fill staff absences.

    Tiwai Point aluminium smelter chief executive Chris Blenkiron said smelter operations had been dealing with staffing challenges from the pandemic with more than 90 staff unable to come to work at some points.

    ‘‘Like the rest of our community, many of our team at Tiwai are either suffering the effects of Omicron or isolating with sick family members.’’

    He was grateful for the camaraderie the team members were showing by looking out for colleagues stuck at home, ensuring shopping was delivered.

    ‘‘It’s tough for us all with those remaining at site, working very hard and I would like to thank everyone for making sure we get through this together,’’ he said.

    Rio Tinto employed about 1000 people spread across a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day roster at the Tiwai Point site.

    Fonterra New Zealand manufacturing director Alan van der Nagel said while Omicron had presented a new challenge due to its higher transmission rate, the company was committed to keeping staff safe and ensuring the collection of milk from suppliers.

    ‘‘We are at a point in the season where we have been lucky enough we are not in the season’s peak and have strict contingencies in place that have allowed us to continue our operations to collect milk.’’

    Shift bubbles and regular rapid antigen tests had helped to minimise the impact on operations, he said.

    ‘‘This means milk collections are still happening, our manufacturing plants are continuing to operate and we are getting products to our customers.’’

    Schools were also feeling the effects of the pandemic and struggling to maintain staffing levels, Invercargill Primary School Principal Association president Jamin Lietze said.

    Schools had been anticipating the Omicron surge and had tried to proactively prepare for it.

    There were still schools not experiencing large case numbers. However, Myross Bush School had between 25 and 33% of the school absent in the past two weeks with nearly 25% of the school being infected with Omicron at some point.

    But he understood many of the absences were not all Omicron-related.

    Parents had been encouraged and vigilant around keeping children at home if they were showing any signs of being unwell.

    ‘‘The communities had been great working together, keeping kids away from school if they have been unwell. Schools have been a relatively safe place, in my mind. There has been very little sickness happening at school, with many of the Covid connections happening
    outside of school.’’

    Children appeared to be picking up infection from other events such as family events, weekend clubs or sports.

    Mr Lietze believed the pandemic was yet to peak.

    Maintaining staffing levels across schools had been challenging and varied from school to school, he said.

    ‘‘Some schools have had to close for a few days. But most of us have been able to manage with relief teachers or principals doing release,’’ he said.

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