Sweeping shortages are playing havoc on New England's butchers, with one claiming "I'm sick to my stomach" over the stress of ever-changing supply chain disruptions.
"Do I buy up big to make sure I have the stock while it's available?" Greg Jackson, owner of Armidale's Jackson's Quality Meats, questioned.
"Or do I just take it as it comes just in case I have to shut the whole place down - and lose thousands of dollars worth of products with a short shelf-life because my staff have to isolate?
"The 'what ifs' makes me sick. I am sick of 'what ifs' - I am going to play what's in front of me and try to do the best I can for my staff and customers."
Mr Jackson is one of three New England Butchers attempting to cope with the results of the Omicron wave, right at a time when stocks were seasonally low as farmers and abattoir workers take breaks over the Christmas and New Years' period.
Inverell's Lennon's Butchery and Tenterfield's Premier Meats have all felt the bite in different ways.
Lennon's Butchery were forced to close for deep cleaning right in their busiest week leading up to Christmas. Now, they are facing a lack of meat supplies this week as abattoir workers and meat inspectors are pulled off the job.
"They [the slaughterhouse] rang and said they can't kill my stock this week. Meat inspectors have been called off the job, and they won't be killing today, and possibly tomorrow," Mr Lennon explained.
"I asked if that meant that they will be able to supply what I normally have, and they said, 'no'."
Tenterfield's Premier Meats haven't as yet had any disruptions to their fresh meat supply, but they have with their boxed meat stocks.
"Our back up, which is the boxed meat that goes to restaurants and other places, it's becoming very tight and very expensive," owner Tim Rose said.
"Wholesalers can jack their prices up on you, and it's making it quite awkward."
Supermarket giants Coles and Woolworths have been experiencing large supply shortages as a result, with Coles implementing product limits in a return to a 'panic buying' mentality.
With residents turning to locals to source their supplies, Mr Lennon said many had come in to stock-up "sensibly".
But while there would be an immediate shortage of meat in his shop this week, fully-stocked shelves will depend on the "rest of the supply chain".
"We have some other suppliers, not just in meat but other dry goods, and they come twice a week, but they are only coming once a week now," he noted.
"It's the same thing for everyone else - retail, fresh foods or whatever - the product, the packaging, the supply of it all has been really affected by COVID."
Mr Jackson said his shortages went back at least three to four months, especially in the sweet meats, but his butchery wasn't impacted as fully because they did their own cutting.
But the true shortages are now being felt as abattoirs go down. This week, he'd put an order in for 45 lambs - but he was only able to get eight.
"They then called and said they'd sent a truck to pick up 200 lambs, but they ended up only getting 100 - and I could have just 10 of those."
He sells around 10 in a single day. As a result, Mr Jackson closed his online ordering system on Monday.
"I'm more than happy to put in phone orders, and then we can discuss availability or when it will be here."
For Mr Rose, the shortage of boxed meat has been felt since Christmas, but he hopes that will change by the end of January.
Those prices had gone up a bit, he said, but his store wouldn't pass that on to customers unless the shortage carries on beyond then - "and hopefully it won't" - to keep their own small business viable.
"A lot of [meat producers] closed over Christmas and the new year, and now they only have half their work force," he said.
Mr Lennon would like to see clearer messaging around isolation requirements for other workers, not just essential workers, as well as more RAT test supplies in the region.
"We've been three staff down this week, and you can't just go out and get a RAT test," he said.
"The other option is to then have to wait for the results from the other test, which can take days.
"It's all a snowball effect though - how do you stop that?"
For Mr Jackson, the question of "what-ifs" would be addressed by the government changing the isolation rules.
From January 9, some critical workers will be permitted to leave self-isolation to attend work, only if they have no COVID-19 symptoms.
A worker will only be eligible for the exemption if their employer determines that their absence from the workplace poses a high risk of disruption to the delivery of critical services or activities; and they are unable to work from home.
The list of critical workers is set out here.
But there is a silver lining to it all. Mr Lennon said of all the new faces coming in last year during the 'panic buying' mania, many of them have since stayed and become regulars.
"It hasn't been dramatic like it was two years ago during the early pandemic," Mr Rose added.
"But I do hope it [shopping local sentiment] keeps going."
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