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Debunking the mystery: What counts as essential work or an essential item?

  • July 14 2021
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Debunking the mystery: What counts as essential work or an essential item?

By Cameron Micallef
July 14 2021

The NSW government has refused to define what essential work is or what it considers an essential good, despite placing Sydneysiders under strict stay-at-home orders which prohibit people leaving home for non-essential reasons.

What counts as essential work or an essential item

Debunking the mystery: What counts as essential work or an essential item?

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  • July 14 2021
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The NSW government has refused to define what essential work is or what it considers an essential good, despite placing Sydneysiders under strict stay-at-home orders which prohibit people leaving home for non-essential reasons.

What counts as essential work or an essential item

The NSW government is relying on people to take a "common sense" approach when determining whether they can or can’t leave home. This is because the public health order that plunged the Greater Sydney area into a lockdown, doesn't actually define essential goods or an essential retailer. 

According to Premier Gladys Berejiklian, offering a definition is "so, so difficult". Instead, her government is happy to rely on people's common sense. But, given the absence of firm definitions, Sydneysiders are questioning the guidelines used by police officers when issuing fines to individuals found to be breaking these orders. 

“It is so, so difficult to have a precise rule for every single thing,” Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters on Tuesday.

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“That’s why we rely on common sense (and why) we rely on people to respect the intent of the health orders as well as the letter of the health orders.”

‘They’ve done a terrific job confusing everyone’

With confusion brewing, nestegg reached out to Marque Lawyers’ managing director, Michael Bradley, for some clarity. 

Mr Bradley too agreed that the government has done a "terrific job confusing everyone".

“The public health orders have not been changed with respect to workers generally; the legal position remains that one of the four reasonable excuses for which anyone in Greater Sydney can leave their home is ‘for the purposes of work if it is not possible to do it at home’. There’s nothing about essential or non-essential workers in that,” he said.

The lawyer highlighted that the government has implemented two extra rules, effective from tomorrow.

“One is that workers who live in the City of Fairfield can’t work outside that area unless they’ve been tested for COVID in the previous 72 hours,” Mr Bradley said. 

The other is that nobody in Greater Sydney can work more than 50km outside that area unless they’ve been tested within the previous seven days.

However, workers should not worry.

“There is therefore no legal risk at the moment for anyone going to work in Sydney, unless they live in Fairfield, if they can make a legitimate claim that they can’t work at home. Doesn’t matter whether they’re essential or not. For example, if a jewellery shop is open (the law doesn’t currently prevent that either), then the people who work in it still have a reasonable excuse to travel across Sydney to be there,” he explained.

He also highlighted that those who theoretically were fined for going to work or for going to the shops could have legal grounds to fight the fine.

“Anyone being served with an infringement notice would be wise to get legal advice, as the police are probably struggling to make sense of this constantly changing nonsensical mess as much as everyone else, and there’s a good chance they’ll inadvertently get it wrong,” Mr Bradley explained.

Remember, last year during the nation-wide lockdown, Prime Minister Scott Morrison insisted that "everyone working is essential". 

What is an essential item?

Similar to workers, Sydneysiders are only allowed to leave home to purchase “essential goods”, leaving many perplexed why clothing, electronics, toy, jewellery and luxury stores have been allowed to remain open.

On Sunday, Ms Berejiklian advised only one person from each household could venture out to the shops to buy essential items, but browsing has now been strictly forbidden. 

“Browsing is not allowed,” she said.

“Whether you are in a supermarket or anywhere else buying essential items, [you] have to think about, before you leave the home, can I get this online?

“Do I need to leave the house to go shopping? If I am leaving the house, you have to plan your visit. What do I need to get and how can I get those essential items without coming into contact with a lot of people.”

Given her firm orders, Sydneysiders are still confused as to whether purchasing clothing items is an essential reason to leave home. 

According to APAC's definition of essential goods, for the purpose of trade, these items include food, agricultural products, medicine and medical supplies, and personal and protective equipment. "Chemicals" too are on the list, but we'll leave that one out. 

And while the NSW government refuses to define these goods, it's safe to say that their list could look a lot like APAC's, minus the chemicals. 

Counting the costs

While the definition of what is essential remains unclear even to the government, leading economists suggest the current lockdown will cost billions.

In his latest economic update, AMP Capital’s chief economist, Shane Oliver, highlighted that NSW is the largest state and accounts for a third of Australia’s output, meaning it will be a drain on the national economy. 

If the lockdown drags on for another month, it could lead to a $7-billion hit to the Australian economy, according to the economist.

“My estimate is that it’s costing the NSW economy, and therefore by definition the national economy, about $1 billion a week,” Dr Oliver said.

He also said the consequences of a prolonged lockdown is that it will take more time for Australia’s economy to recover, and “slow progress in reducing unemployment”.

At the time of writing nestegg reached out to NSW Health for clarity on these definitions, but has not received a response. 

Debunking the mystery: What counts as essential work or an essential item?
What counts as essential work or an essential item
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About the author

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Cameron is a journalist for Momentum Media's nestegg and Smart Property Investment. He enjoys giving Aussies practical financial tips and tricks to help grow their wealth and achieve financial independence. As a self-confessed finance nerd, Cameron enjoys chatting with industry experts and commentators to leverage their insights to grow your portfolio.

About the author

author image
Cameron Micallef

Cameron is a journalist for Momentum Media's nestegg and Smart Property Investment. He enjoys giving Aussies practical financial tips and tricks to help grow their wealth and achieve financial independence. As a self-confessed finance nerd, Cameron enjoys chatting with industry experts and commentators to leverage their insights to grow your portfolio.

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