Jennifer Westacott interview with Gareth Parker, 6PR Breakfast

22 February 2021

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Gareth Parker, 6PR Breakfast
Speakers: Gareth Parker, host 6PR Breakfast; Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia
Topics: National COVID-19 vaccine rollout; COVID-19 response


Gareth Parker, host 6PR Breakfast: I want to talk to Jennifer Westacott, the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia about all of this. She joins me on the program. Jennifer thank you for your time.

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: You're welcome. Thank you.

Gareth: So it's obviously a good news day today. What do you see as the way forward here?

Jennifer: It's a great news day. This should really start to build confidence in the Australian community that we can continue to reopen the economy, continue to accelerate it, continue to get people working again, businesses open. What we're saying is now is the time to track alongside the rollout of the vaccine more of the economy being allowed to open gradually, carefully, starting to get some international students back, obviously returning Australians, maybe some skilled migrants, and of course, we've always had the view, as you know, that state border closures are an unnecessary thing to do. Particularly with low numbers of cases. But surely as the vaccine rolls out we should not have state border closures any longer. And we're certainly advocating for that.

Gareth: So do you just want to see that measure just thrown into the bin from the toolkit that state governments have at their disposal?

Jennifer: Look I think with the case numbers as low as they are, you only have to say what is the point of shutting a state border? When New South Wales has demonstrated that even with actually cases getting above ten, above fifteen, they've been able to manage those local outbreaks really effectively without shutting borders. And these border closures have been very damaging to many businesses as you can see particularly in the tourist sector, in the hospitality sector, these kinds of overnight decisions. So the question is were they ever necessary? But as the vaccine rolls out, they are certainly not necessary. And we should set a point at which the vaccines have rolled out where we say from this date we should not be closing a state border again unless this kind of circumstance occurs. And you'd be talking about a lot of cases at that point. So, I don't believe they've ever been necessary. I don't believe it's been the right thing to do. There are different views about that. But certainly, as we roll the vaccine out, I think the case for them becomes even weaker.

Gareth: I just mentioned the Newspoll on Mark McGowan's popularity. Can I put it to you that whilst you might not think that they are necessary, that they have been incredibly popular with voters?

Jennifer: I absolutely understand that.

Gareth: Politicians tend to do what gets them votes.

Jennifer: I understand that and look obviously the Western Australian economy is going really well. Mining has continued to support that. I think the question I'd put is how long in the foreseeable future can you say that the west and east coasts are detached from each other? How long can the Western Australian economy go on with being completely detached from the east coast economy? And at some point we need to say at this point in the vaccine rollout we don't believe that's necessary any longer. Similarly, we need to find a way that we can open those travel bubbles with other countries where the vaccine rate is high, where the community transmission is low. But I understand the community on this. I really do. But we've got to start saying we're going to have to live with this still for quite a long time. And we've got to make sure that every state has still got the right tracking and tracing systems so that we can manage local outbreaks. But I understand Gareth why the community says that. But from a national business point of view. We have to get used to living with this for quite a long time. And we have to make decisions that are balanced and careful and based on the evidence.

Gareth: This is where I think it gets really interesting okay? I've said and we agree that today is a great day for the country. The vaccine program begins and commences. It's going to take time, it's going to take months, and we are going to need to be patient. But we've got ourselves in a situation. I don't want to say we're a victim of our own success because I don't think that's the right way to phrase it. But the reality is that we've basically got ourselves into a situation in this country where COVID is not present and our community tolerance for COVID is zero. Now even a 95 per cent effective vaccine is very difficult to improve upon zero.

Jennifer: You are so right on this.

Gareth: So at some point the community is going to have to have a discussion or a debate. I don't know who is going to lead it, maybe it's people like you, maybe it's the Prime Minister and the premiers, on what is an acceptable level of virus. Is it greater than zero or is it zero?

Jennifer: You are so spot on about this. Because as we roll the vaccine out, instead of people getting up every day and saying there's one positive case, we need to be talking about well how many people are in hospital? How many people are in ICU? How many people have been vaccinated the first time? How many people have been vaccinated the second time? And we've got to build that confidence and trust in the community that what we're now really looking for is have we looked after the most vulnerable people and is anybody sick? Versus, to your point, anything above zero being seen as a catastrophe or a policy failure or something for people to get very anxious about. We've got to change that perception. Because that is not sustainable. Because there will be mistakes in quarantine. We'd like to think there won't be but there will be. And we've got to say, to your point, well at this point we can manage that number of cases within the community because we've got 60 per cent of people vaccinated. We've got to, you're absolutely spot on about this, we've really got to change how we talk about this in our society. Otherwise, people are going to say, ‘well hang on how does that work?’ And we've got to build trust and confidence in people.

Gareth: I've got to say I won't miss the short, sharp lockdown which is the new innovation that the states have each had an experience with except for New South Wales in recent months anyhow.

Jennifer: Just think about how that works for a business though. If you think about Melbourne a couple of weeks ago. Their busiest day of the year for some of those restaurants - Valentine’s Day. All of them would have stocked up on their food. They would have hired some extra casuals. Someone would have been looking to working a double shift and they get a call on the Thursday it's all over. And they're throwing food out and they're telling staff you're not going to be working. I always put this in the perspective what does that mean for someone's life? Someone who thought, great I'm going to get an extra bit of work, I can do x, y, and z. Suddenly, they get that call on Thursday, no you're not working. And it's devastating for people.

Gareth: Just briefly, are businesses clear on their rights and responsibilities when it comes to vaccines and their staff and their customers?

Jennifer: Yeah there's a bit of grey area here. I think there's always going to be some grey area here. I think the main thing is that the government's made it very clear it's not going to be mandatory. We've got to really try and build community confidence, get as many people as we can getting vaccinated, getting vaccinated twice, be as clear with people about where they get vaccinated. Where I think there's going to be some stuff to sort through is for airlines and airports that are in contact with international travel. Now I say that because if you don't allow Qantas, just, for example, to mandate that its international customer facing team have to be vaccinated, if you say they don't need to do that then the quarantine system loses integrity again. So I think that's an area where we've got to sort that out pretty quickly. Because otherwise what's the point of saying to people we're going to require you to have a vaccine to get into the country but we're not going to allow Qantas to mandate that its international crew have the vaccine. And we want that to be done through public health orders not through saying to employers well you just work it out. Because that's not going to solve the problem. So overwhelmingly the big companies I talk to they are happy with a voluntary system providing that we're really clear about the timing and we're going to really step up and make sure people have got the right information in the business community. Where I think there's a bit of stuff to sort out is the people who've got contact with international travel.

Gareth: Jennifer thank you for your time. Appreciate it.

Jennifer: You’re very welcome, thanks a lot.


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