What are “essential services” really and who decides?

The Morrison government keep using the word “essential” to describe employees, public gatherings, services and companies which are still allowed and unrestricted as they try to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

But what is essential and who decides?

By his very definitionessential means “something necessary, indispensable or unavoidable”.



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When it comes to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, there are no recent precedents for governments. There is no predetermined list in place of what is an essential service. Instead, “the essential” appears as a moving beast that is constantly changing and can be confusing.

Confused posts

On March 22, Victorian Prime Minister Daniel Andrews called for “a cessation of all non-essential activities” within 48 hours. Supermarkets, banks and pharmacies were among the things he called essential, but he did not provide an exhaustive list of what was considered an essential service.

Naturally confusion reigned. For examplein the rural Victorian town of Ballan, some shops closed while others remained open.

We have now seen a number of retailers decide to voluntarily close stores for the safety of their workers and the public, considering their businesses to be “non-essential”.

On Sunday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said a national cabinet meeting agreed on a series of new restrictions, such as limit “shop for what you need, food and other essential supplies”.

But he also described his wife’s recent purchase of a number of puzzles for the family as “absolutely essential”. While toy and hobby retailers may find comfort in this statement, in reality, these businesses may not be considered “essential.”

Pistols and pastries, essential?

There are also differences overseas in what people consider essential under any COVID-19 restrictions.

In the USA, it is recommended employees of gun shops and arms manufacturers should be considered ‘essential’ workers, says a note of the Department of Homeland Security.

Whereas in Europe, the “necessities” are said to include Belgian fries, French baguettes and Dutch cannabis. In France, there are also shops specializing in pastries, wine and cheese would have said essential businesses.

In Ireland, the reports say the government has published a detailed list of what it considers to be “essential workers”. As for essential retailersthey include pharmacies, gas stations and pet stores, but not opticians, car repair shops and bicycle repair shops.

The essential essentials

Here in Australia there is broad agreement supermarkets, gas stations, paramedics (pharmacy, chiropractic, physiotherapy, psychology, dental) and banks are essential businesses and services.

Likewise, freight, logistics and door-to-door delivery are also considered essential. Australia Post said the postal workers and the delivery men continue but some post offices are temporarily closed.

Some bottle shops may stay open, but many are now impose restrictions on how much people can buy.

The government has decided to gradually add more businesses, services and activities to its ‘non-essential services’ listing.

This includes cafes, food courts, pubs, licensed clubs (sports clubs), bars, beauty and personal care services, entertainment venues, recreation and recreation (gyms, theme parks) , galleries, museums and libraries.

Some of these entities have exceptions. A cafe may remain open only for take-out. A hairstylist or barber can trade if they follow the rule of one person per four square meters.

Others remain convoluted, like external and internal markets (farmers markets), which are the decision of each state and territory.

In and out of work

In reality, no worker should ever be considered or think of themselves as “non-essential”.

But because of the way the restrictions have been widely enforced, some workers in a sector may now find themselves out of work, while others in that same sector remain fully employed.



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Take, for example, cooks. Due to the banning of licensed restaurants and clubs, chefs there are removed, but hotel chefs can continue to cook and provide in-room dining.

A barista in a coffee shop can still have a paid job, as long as they only make coffee to go, but a barista in a licensed sports club is unfortunately dismissed.

Other Restrictions and Essentials

While we have seen many businesses reduce operations and several retailers voluntarily close their doors, many are standing pending further announcements to potentially close all “non-essential” services.

What should the government consider before deciding what is and is not considered essential?



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Some decisions are easy: we need health workers, police, firefighters and other emergency service workers, and we need those who maintain services to the public such as food supply, l drinking water, sewage, etc.

But we also need the services necessary to keep these people functioning. The military describes this as a tooth-to-tail ratio: the number of people needed to keep a soldier on the battlefield (estimated up to three for each soldier).

In the civilian context, this includes those responsible for providing consumables, personal protective equipment, transportation, electricity, fuel, computer systems, and someone to care for their family while they are away. do the heavy lifting.

Michelle J. Kelley