Jennifer Westacott interview with Fran Kelly, ABC RN Breakfast

07 July 2021

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Fran Kelly, ABC RN Breakfast

Speakers: Fran Kelly, host; Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia

Date: 7 July 2021

Topics: Vaccine rollout, COVID management


Fran Kelly, host RN Breakfast: Jennifer Westacott is the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia. She'll be at this meeting. Jennifer Westacott welcome back to breakfast.

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: Thanks very much Fran. 

Fran: The business community has a lot of skin in the game. How keen is business to jump in and start up its own vaccination programs?

Jennifer: Look we're very keen to help. We believe business can play a huge role in supercharging the vaccine when the supply arrives. Things like setting up mass vaccination centres in convenient locations - in shopping centres when the supply arrives. We can also crucially give our teams the vaccine through the accredited providers particularly flu providers. Corporate Australia has been giving people their flu vaccines. We could get those providers accredited. We can do things like give admin hit squads to mass vaccination centres. This is what we did in the fires, send in people just to help with a lot of the admin work that has to be done so that the health staff are freed up to give the vaccine. And continuing to play a really positive role in promoting the roll out. Our role Fran is to take pressure off the public system, corporate Australia and institutions like universities can play that role. And say you take 20,000 people a week into that system, that's 20,000 people a week who are not going to their GP, not going to the pharmacy, not putting pressure on the existing system. And we'll make sure we work really closely with state health officials to make sure that we're adding capacity not taking it away. We'll work really closely with the ACTU to make sure all of the industrial provisions are in place.

Fran: It's not all altruistic though on the part of business. Business has been clamouring to do this for a long time because you want to get the vaccines rolled out, so these lockdowns aren't coming and happening again and again. And it's costing businesses a lot. So this is business working out how to protect its bottom line as well isn't it?

Jennifer: Well it's not about protecting the bottom line; it's about protecting people's livelihoods Fran. This Sydney lockdown, who is paying a price for this? The small business person who has closed their doors yet again, who has wasted their inventory that they stocked up a few weeks ago for opening on the weekend. This is about reminding people that business is Australians. It's the Australian community. It's the people who work in business. The 11 million plus Australians who work in a business making sure that we can get the country going, keep people working, keep the country moving, get the skilled workers that we need so the projects can get going. So it is actually in the national interest that we get this vaccine rolled out, that we get it done as fast as we can and get the country going again.

Fran: And how sooner could we get to the sweet spot where the majority of Australians are protected do you think if this is can happen? As you say, businesses I know Woolworths has offered to set up hubs in their shopping centres for instance.

Jennifer: Look I think as soon as the supplies arrive, we can really supercharge this and what we'll be asking today is that we do the preparatory work. So if we're going to do admin squads, if we're going to do these mass vaccination centres, that we get the preparatory work done now so that we're ready to go as soon as the supply is here, we can get swinging into action and start doubling the capacity that would normally be done through the normal channels and try and really get that September/October timeframe based on the information I've got about when the supply will arrive to be that supercharged timeframe so that we do meet that Christmas timetable and then we can start getting that plan to be more specific, more precise so that business can plan with some certainty.

Fran: How frustrated is business that they weren't involved from the very beginning? I know a lot of them from the get-go were saying they could do this? Stepping up and offering to do this. As you say, a lot of them already have in-house flu vaccination programs. Why wasn't it? Is that a failure do you think on the government to not roll this in from the very beginning? And is it simply just about a failure to get enough vaccines?

Jennifer: Look I think supply has always been the limiting factor here. I think there's always been a view that when the supply was ready to go, when the procedures were worked through, that business would be brought in. And now obviously is the time to do that preparatory work. Look obviously we all need now to work together to get this done as quickly as possible. We've been saying for a long time we're ready to go as soon as the supply is ready to go, and I think everyone now is basically on the same page. Let's use the resources of corporate Australia and institutions like universities who are very big institutions to get this done as fast as we can.

Fran: How would it work with unis? What would unis do?

Jennifer: Well they've got a lot staff. 

Fran: Right. So that's an in-house?

Jennifer: That's an in-house capacity. Universities employ a lot of people and they've got a lot of facilities as well. A lot of big facilities. So they could play a role as well. It is really about us all pulling together now as we have throughout this entire pandemic. When the chips have been down people have worked really closely together. Unions and business have worked closely together. Government and business have worked closely together. We've just got to go that last mile and work together to get this done and get the country back to normal as fast as we can and end these lockdowns which are damaging and harmful. And they're harmful for people just getting on with their daily lives Fran.

Fran: The unions. You've mentioned the unions a couple of times. They're not necessarily on board with this yet. One of the initial comments from the ACTU is that they don't want business involved in vaccination rollouts because you can't just compare it to the rollout of the flu shot. The side effects of this vaccine are much more common and more serious than the flu vaccine and this rollout should be left to healthcare professionals to manage.

Jennifer: Well I think everyone accepts that we've got to try and increase capacity. And the job is really finding the best way for corporate Australia to do that. Clearly working side by side with health professionals, making sure that we do this in a way where we've got accredited providers, accredited to give the covid vaccines, accredited to manage the potential side effects. And we will work very closely with health officials as we've done to make sure that there are no additional risks for people getting the vaccine through these methods. But we just have to make sure that we take every step once the supply arrives to get the vaccine rolled out as quickly as possible, as safely as possible so we can get our lives back to normal.

Fran: There are issues that would flow from this in a workplace I suppose. For instance, an employer will know who's vaccinated and who is not which could make it uncomfortable for workers who decide not to get vaccinated which is their right at this moment. Is that going to raise some privacy issues? 

Jennifer: Well I think all of these issues have to be worked through. That's why we want to do the planning now Fran so that we sort some of these issues out. We’d do it in collaboration with unions and health officials and make sure that those issues get managed. But we can't have a situation where we put up lots of barriers to getting the vaccine rolled out. We've got to move out of this complete risk aversion we've got as a country about how this vaccine gets rolled out.

Fran: Is it risk aversion? Or is it just simply the reality of a limited supply? I mean we have the perfect scenario where we need workplace vaccination now, it's in aged care. There's some very big aged care providers who would have the means just like other elements in corporate Australia to roll this out and it's not happened, and it's caused problems with their aged care workforce. Should this have happened by now?

Jennifer: Look I don't think it's helpful now to say what should or shouldn't have happened. We are where we are. We've now just got to find a way of moving forward and that's what we're stepping up ready to do today Fran. To say look when that supply is here we are ready to step up and supercharge the rollout in a safe way, in an industrially appropriate way, to make sure that we end these lockdowns which are doing a lot of damage particularly to small businesses and obviously constraining people's capacity just to get on with their lives. That's got to be the focus now. That we go forward. That we don't spend the next six weeks looking at what should have happened six months ago.

Fran: Sure.

Jennifer: We've got to constantly remember that Australia is in a profoundly different place to other parts of the world. We have not had the catastrophic deaths, the catastrophic loss of life. We are in a different position and our job today is to say, ‘well okay as we go forward, as that supply comes in, let's get cracking.’

Fran: And just very briefly we've only got 30 seconds until the news, but do you have confidence in the four staged plan? Or do you agree with Gladys Berejiklian when she said it should be about timeframes rather than immunisation levels?

Jennifer: We need clear targets, clear thresholds, and more precise timeframes there so that business can actually get on and plan the next six to 12 months.

Fran: Jennifer Westacott thanks for joining us again on breakfast.

Jennifer: You're very welcome.


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