Experts say New South Wales should introduce payments for workers isolating and awaiting Covid test results, amid fears long wait times will discourage those most at risk of contracting the virus from getting tested.
The federal government offers financial support to those who have to self-isolate if they have Covid-19, or are a close contact, but no compensation is offered in NSW for workers who are isolating while waiting for test results, in some cases up to four days.
In Victoria, the state government introduced a $450 coronavirus test isolation payment which some experts say has been critical in bringing down case numbers.
Catherine Bennett, professor and chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, said casual workers who don’t have sick leave and work in essential jobs, often across multiple workplaces, are most at risk of the disease.
She said the record 133,840 tests reported on Monday and the 95,037 tests reported on Tuesday “looks like a lot of tests, but it’s not just about the numbers but making sure those most at risk are getting tested”.
Emma McBryde, professor in epidemiology at James Cook University, said “it’s a good idea to have payments like the test isolation payment because the people we are really concerned about are the people who are worried if they get tested they’ll miss a shift, and won’t get further work. Or if they test positive, might lose their job if they have to isolate”.
Bennett said the uptake of the test isolation payment in Victoria indicated there were people in need and this was an important initiative.
“We look after them, we look after the whole community.
“Anything we can do to remove barriers to testing is important,” Bennett said. “I always say testing is our eyes. You want good testing rates. It’s as important to know where the virus isn’t as where it is.”
Mark Morey, the secretary of Unions NSW, said the lack of an isolation payment had created a situation for casual workers in which “there’s a choice between economic security, putting dinner on the table, or taking hours off to get tested or vaccinated”.
“We should be removing those financial disincentives that make people think twice before they go and do any of those things,” Morey said.
A survey of almost 3,000 workers conducted by Unions NSW between 28 July and 4 August showed two out of five workers were worried about their exposure to Covid-19 at worksites, at the same time as two out of three felt their economic conditions would worsen in the coming months.
Morey said many workers were under financial pressure before Covid-19 hit, but these circumstances really highlighted the link between economic security and health.
These casual workers most affected are “the engine room of the economy” and “when they feel economically secure, they’ll look after their health rather than second guess what they should do”.
He said the uptake of the test isolation leave in Victoria shows that “it does help”. Morey said otherwise, “if you’ve had a long day, queuing up for one or two hours, especially if you have caring duties, makes testing … hard”.
When asked about Victoria’s payments at a press conference on Monday and whether NSW would follow suit, the premier, Gladys Berejiklian, pointed to the commonwealth crisis payment, which is only available for people who have to isolate as a result of either having Covid-19 or being a close contact.
NSW Health directed Guardian Australia’s request for comment towards the treasury.