Business crucial to a safe return to normal

This opinion article by Business Council president Tim Reed appeared in The Australian Financial Review on Monday 20 April 2020 

Australia has been incredibly well led during this crisis. Whether it is our Prime Minister and the premiers, our health officials, our business leaders, our union leaders and opposition politicians, we have pulled together to achieve an outstanding and cooperative approach to managing this health and economic crisis. I’ve been proud to see Team Australia at work.

We find ourselves in a vastly better position compared to almost any other country. This now affords us an opportunity to collectively determine how we best manage the virus and the impacts on our society and economy as we move forward.

In this next phase, as we start to re-open and ultimately rebuild the economy, the role of business will be more important than ever – we will be in the front seat right next to the government on the road ahead.

Of course, there can be no doubt that the costs of responding to this pandemic have been high. While Australia has not experienced the scale of desolation that is so raw in many other nations, we haven’t escaped the personal toll, the tragic loss of life and the social consequences of the economic downturn.

These consequences are far reaching, and they could be even worse if we don’t take steps now to maintain our health controls while carefully reviving our economy and our society.

Economic statistics are ultimately about people and the quality of their lives. They are about whether a small business can get back on its feet, or whether the years of effort and hard work of the business owner evaporate and come to nothing.

Unemployment numbers are about much more than the cost of JobSeeker, they are about whether a person in their 50s with low skills can re-enter the workforce or whether they will be forced to endure periods of long unemployment.

Home lockdowns are about more than social isolation, for some it’s about whether they have experienced unacceptable domestic violence, and for others it’s about whether their mental health is so fragile now they cannot see a way forward.

Actions by governments, including the JobKeeper payment, are incredibly important. These are so much more than a financial lifeline - they have provided much needed hope. We must now turn that hope into a recovery.

Last week the Prime Minister outlined three medical safeguards that need to be present for the nation to start to re-open: a more extensive virus testing regime so asymptomatic people could be tested; a robust-enough health system to ensure any outbreak could be corralled; and contact tracing needed to be lifted to "an industrial capability".

Business stands ready to do the heavy lifting with governments to get Australia back on track. We can be the main partner in a gradual and careful return to greater freedoms for normal day-to-day business and personal activity – and more than that we need to be that partner.

Business has set incredibly stringent health and safety standards to keep staff, customers and suppliers safe. These can be further enhanced and more widely promoted. This will provide the foundation for gradually getting people back into workplaces and re-opening certain activities, all based around solid social distancing and health and safety principles.

With the right protocols, business can also step up on testing and contribute to a substantial increase in the number of people who are tested. This measure is essential in continuing to contain the spread of COVID-19.

In the past week, there have been increasing discussions regarding tracing-apps. Well-designed, well-governed, opt-in apps will be crucial to helping employers keep employees, customers and suppliers safe as well as reassuring the community the journey to recovery will be safe.

It would be naïve to ignore the serious privacy concerns that the use of this kind of technology will generate. However, widespread adoption would lead to a collectively safer community and a faster easing of restrictions which benefits everyone. 

To strike this balance, the model must be opt-in, the least intrusive as possible, and it must have value to each citizen. Australians must make an active choice to participate in the scheme, with the potential for participation to lead to easier access to goods and services and a faster return of civil liberties.

There must also be appropriate and stringent privacy safeguards, as well as a crystal-clear sunset provision built into all data arrangements. Oversight should be provided by an independent board of respected community leaders and experts.  Furthermore, trusted Australians need to promote its value to the community – this includes business leaders using their voices and driving adoption.

Business and government need to work together to ensure that Australia’s strategy of safely and gradually returning to more normal business and personal activities is genuinely community based.

Together, we can all build on the incredible leadership that our nation is fortunate to have experienced during this momentous period in our history and once again get our country working again.