Jennifer Westacott interview with Fran Kelly, ABC RN Breakfast

30 November 2021

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Fran Kelly, ABC RN Breakfast
Speakers: Fran Kelly, host RN Breakfast; Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia
Topics: Omicron COVID-19 variant; National Cabinet; border restrictions


Fran Kelly, host RN Breakfast: Jennifer Westacott is chief executive of the Business Council of Australia. Jennifer, welcome back to Breakfast.

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

Fran: The reopening of the international border for skilled workers and foreign students has been put off until mid-December. Do you support the two-week delay to give health officials the chance to work out omicron's virulence and infection rate?

Jennifer: I think it's a sensible decision. I think the crucial thing though, Fran, is that we've got to stay the course on reopening the domestic economy. We've got to make sure that we get those borders open in the timeframe that was suggested, that we don't go back into the lockdowns, that we don't go back into state-wide lockdowns, that we don't go back to where we were, that we keep on track unless things dramatically change. I think that's the most important thing for business at the moment. And then of course, on the international stuff, we agree with the pausing. But we've got to get the systems in place, Fran, so that we can start getting those international students back. We can start getting the skilled workers back. So that we can really get the momentum going and surge into the new year. So sensible decision, but it shouldn't go on for a day longer than it needs to. Let's get the systems in place.

Fran: Yeah there's no sense it's going to go on for day longer than it needs to, but National Cabinet will meet today. There are different rules around border opening in different states and territories still and around omicron, too. Omicron is only in a few places. Do you understand why some of the states might be putting up the borders or at least bring up quarantine measures to try and keep it out?

Jennifer: Sure. I understand why people want to put the quarantine measures. It would just be useful if we could have similar standards across the country. I think that's what, whether you're a business person or a person trying to visit their family, what I think is bugging people is the unpredictability of it.

Fran: You mean 72 hours in one state and two weeks in another?

Jennifer: Yeah and 14 days in another. If we're kind of acting on health advice, then why isn't that consistent in each state? But based on what we're seeing from the international evidence, there's no basis for recommencing lockdowns. And also we've got 86 per cent of the population vaccinated. I mean, obviously we need more information. It's why I support the international stuff. But here's my other point, Fran. Why can't we get the systems in place to manage this? I mean, there are 24 letters in the Greek alphabet. Everyone assumes that we're going to have more mutations, more variants on this. Let's get the systems in place. Industry based quarantine, where industry pays the cost of bringing skilled workers in, a process for universities to make offers to students, running national permitting systems - go and talk to the people in Wodonga and Albury. They're going crazy with the different rules. That's the sort of thing we are talking about.

Fran: Yeah, sure. But there's unpredictability. I mean, no one knows when the new, very transmissible variant, when and where it's going to emerge. I mean, in terms of getting the systems in place to manage this, hasn't that been done successfully through lockdowns and border closures?

Jennifer: Well, it has. But it's been done inconsistently. But we do know how to do this. It'd be great to sort of say to people, ‘okay, well, when we get to this stage, this is what we'll do in terms of a local lockdown. This will be the trigger for that. This is when we'll reintroduce these health restrictions. These will be the sort of nationally consistent set of public health orders.’ So that businesses, particularly small business can plan going into Christmas. I mean, at the moment, you can't have a situation where people think, ‘oh, I just don't know if I'm going to order that stock or rehire the staff.’ You're absolutely right. We've got the systems. We know what to do. Let's get them in place. Let's get the nationally consistent arrangements in place. Let's not overreact so that people can go into Christmas with a sense of what the plan is.

Fran: It's a hard definition though, what's overreacting, isn't it? We know from polls that generally the population still prefer the health crisis prioritised over the economy. I mean, what are the mistakes of the past you see that you don't want repeated? And how does that chime with keeping people safe?

Jennifer: I think those knee jerk lockdowns that aren't commensurate with the kind of spread of the virus. And of course-

Fran: But it's hard to know that, isn't it? Because if you lock down when there's one case, you don't know if it's because you've locked down that there didn't turn out to be 3,000 cases?

Jennifer: But we know that lockdowns last time, it was still spreading. Now the beauty of the lockdowns obviously was increasing the vaccination rates. Now that's been done very successfully with 86 per cent of people vaccinated. I think it's the sort of suddenness of them. It's the lack of information that goes out. It's lack of communication. It's the lack of consistency. I think everyone knows that we've got to keep people safe. And no one's challenging that. But it's acting on the risk that's in front of us versus acting on polls, which is not actually the way to make those decisions. We need to act on the health information, act consistently and act proportionately to the level of risk involved.

Fran: Would the sensible and proportionate risk be for, on a global scale, the developed world to make sure the developing world is vaccinated? I mean, you've got the South African President, you've got all sorts of health experts including the WHO suggesting vaccine inequity is the reason for these variants. As a senior business leader in this country, are you calling on our government to do more to get the world, the developed world, the rich world, to assist and provide vaccines? I mean, in the African continent, it's only seven and half per cent of people vaccinated.

Jennifer: Well, I think that's absolutely right. I don't think it's just governments. I think we all have to step up on the developing world. I mean, many-

Fran: Well, we can't provide vaccines.

Jennifer: No, but business has been very effective in giving those to employees and we operate in many countries. But absolutely we should step up. And we should step up in concert with other countries. And it's not just about sending the vaccine, Fran. My understanding is that many countries do not have the systems in place to administer them. So if that's about joint - let's just say, hit squads or a peacekeeping force that developed countries join together, get in on the ground, get the systems in place, get the infrastructure in place, get the thing distributed. There's no point just leaving it on the tarmac and saying, ‘go and administer this.’ My understanding is that people don't have the systems, that because they don't have the sophisticated health systems. We should be doing that because what we can't have is these strains breaking out all the time in countries where the vaccine rates are very low. So you're absolutely right. We've got to get a concerted international effort to get developing countries vaccinated.

Fran: What about a national effort on quarantine? If this omicron runs, we don't know how serious this going to be. But if it turns out to be not just very transmissible, but also dangerous. Are we going to need – we’ve only got one dedicated quarantine facility in Howard Springs. The national double vaccination rate nearly 87 per cent. But in some vulnerable communities, it's more than 25 per cent below that. Has been enough done do you think to prepare for new COVID strains? Should we have more standalone purpose-built quarantine capacity?

Jennifer: Well, I think we should. But we also can have quarantine systems, too. Industry can stand those up. And there's a scheme at the moment where Aspen Medical will do the medical checking, manage the quarantine and industry will pay for that...

Fran: Well we can do it, but should we have that all sorted? Should the federal government be leading that with business?

Jennifer: Well, yeah we should sort that. Because that's what I'm saying, we don't know. The mindset problem we've got, Fran, is that every time we sort of think we've conquered this, another strain emerges. And yet all of the evidence pointed to the fact that we were going to have multiple strains of this. So it's not too late to stand these things up, whether it's dedicated quarantine facilities or whether it's particular systems that industry pays for so that we can keep things moving and get momentum into the economy and give people hope and optimism going forward.

Fran: To switch to the economy, if we do end up with more lockdowns because of omicron, what are the consequences for business and the economic recovery? What's the tolerance for more uncertainty do you think?

Jennifer: Well, I think it varies across sectors. I mean, obviously hospitality, tourism. I'm not sure how much more this sector can kind of cope with. I mean, the national accounts come out this week. We'll see I think a big contraction in the economy. But the economy has been very resilient. But I guess the kind of core point to your point is that you just can't keep going indefinitely with these stop start lockdowns. We have to find a way that we can keep the economy on a kind of even keel so that we can get that sustained recovery. And we'll see tomorrow just how big the impact is. I think on some sectors it's extremely severe. And look, you walk around Sydney and Melbourne or any city at the moment, the national accounts tell you one thing, what they don't tell you is the misery and distress of some of those small business owners who've just walked away.

Fran: No, they do tell you what's happening, I suppose, in terms of commerce, but through the revision mirror. Since then, we know there's been a post-lockdown rebound in some areas. Retail spending is roaring back, up five percent. Will all this pent-up demand make sure there's a strong economic correction? Is that going to start putting sort of an end to some of that misery?

Jennifer: Well, I hope so. But one of the things that will hold us back, and this is where we get into sort of double-edged sword is the lack of labour. So whenever I talk to business they say we just can't get people. We can't get people, whether it's in hospitality, retail, IT workers. So we have to find that way of opening up our international border safely, being able to flex up quarantine when we need it. We have to be able to get those international students back because if universities aren't making offers now for next year, other universities around the world will be. That's a huge part of our economy. It's a very important labour force is students. So we’ve just got to try and find a way of getting this on a track that we can manage over the long term.

Fran: Okay. Just finally and briefly, the federal government's pencilled in a federal budget for March the 29th, which means an election in May. The Prime Minister says it's due, ‘in the third week of May’ which is as strong a hint as any that we're going to go full term. Does that suit business or are you worried it'll condemn the country to an almost six-month election campaign?

Jennifer: I think business is less worried about when the election is as opposed to what the election is about. I think if the election is about how do we sustain recovery? How do we make our country more competitive? How do we put more money in the pockets of Australians? How do we get business growing? How do we get more jobs created? How do we pay people more? If the election is about that, I think business will be very happy. I don't think they're as interested in when it's going to be.

Fran: Jennifer Westacott, thanks very much for joining us.

Jennifer: Before I go, I just want to say, Fran, it's the last time we'll be interviewing each other. I just want to say your contribution to public broadcasting has been outstanding. You've set the agenda every day for Australia and I really want to thank you for everything you've done.

Fran: Oh, Jennifer Westacott. Thank you very much. Thank you very much for being a consistent guest here on Breakfast. We do appreciate you fronting up and all I can say is never say never. Thank you.

Jennifer: You're welcome.

Fran: Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the Business Council of Australia.


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