Jennifer Westacott interview with Kieran Gilbert, Afternoon Agenda

22 July 2021

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Kieran Gilbert, Afternoon Agenda

Speakers: Kieran Gilbert, host Afternoon Agenda, Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia

Date: 22 July 2021

Topics: Covid management, National Cabinet


Kieran Gilbert, host Sky News: We're joined now by Jennifer Westacott. She's the Business Council of Australia CEO. Jennifer thanks very much for your time. Let's start with how we look at this broader challenge. I'm really interested in how you see this challenge in broad terms, and how it's being framed with lockdown after lockdown. Businesses getting ad hoc support. How do you see the challenge we face as a nation?

Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: Yeah look I think the first thing we have to do is get this current situation under control. So, in New South Wales, it's about getting construction up and running as soon as possible. And we have to I think move from snap lockdowns, if you will, to smart lockdowns. And what I mean by that is, we've got to get a consistent national set of public health orders. Use the NSW ones and the Victorian ones. They've been worked up very extensively with business. If the Delta strain is so much more contagious then we've got to revisit the national hotspot definition. Well then let's get one definition through national cabinet because that triggers the disaster relief funding, the disaster payment and obviously I think we do need to look at that two-week period. And we need to be very clear on the objective of what we're trying to solve. And obviously, the NSW Premier is very clear that it's those people in the community, and Victoria making the same kind of point, it's the people who are in the community who have not been in quarantine. Then we've got to get the vaccine obviously rolling out. And that's about clearing up the advice which you were obviously just talking about. Getting as many sites as possible offering the AstraZeneca, and obviously the new vaccines when they come in – pharmacies, GPs. And then get ready for this huge push and obviously, you know I've talked about this before, business can play a big role here - sites, helping their employees, helping the broader community, helping remote communities, getting ready for this big push. And then finally we need to get that roadmap to send some really clear signals and some clear thresholds. So for example, and I'm not a doctor, this is obviously going to be, you know, more professional experts than me but, you know, let's get some thresholds. Is it 70 per cent of vulnerable people, 50 per cent of the broader population, where at that point, we say no more state border closures, no more total state-wide lockdowns, focus on local containment. That's the sort of stuff we need Kieran. Because we might be here until December. And whilst people will question the value of the lockdowns, we are where we are. What I think business wants is a consistent set of rules, a predictable way of operating. Let's get a national permitting system up if people have to travel so that we can go through this without having to revisit it all the time. And the chaos for national companies who are now dealing with multiple rules across the federation.

Kieran: And the Treasurer today revealing the cost is $300 million a day to the economy, $2 billion a week from these three states currently in lockdown. Given that hit, can we expect another V-shaped recovery, or I guess a W-shaped recovery given the previous recession Jennifer?

Jennifer: I think the good news is that the economy is very resilient, and it has shown over the last 12 months this capacity to bounce back. You look at those unemployment figures, a couple of weeks ago and you know, four per cent, just over four per cent. The economy is still very strong, very resilient. But this is going to have a national GDP effect. This is going to have a big hit. And that's why we've got to get the rules right, get things contained, get it under control, make sure that we're not going in and out of these things with chaos. That we're doing it in an orderly way at least. And then really start to focus on getting that vaccine absolutely supercharged. Because the hits are very hard on the economy. My concern is, people look at the macro numbers, but it's the individual effects that still bother me. It's the family that's sitting there today and they cannot see how they're going to pay their bills in a couple of weeks. It's the small business person who, this will be, in the case of Victoria, the fifth time. And starting up a business again it's not just a money thing, it's an emotional thing. ‘Can I keep doing this?’ That's the toll, it's not just the big numbers.

Kieran: Fundamentally, though, if we return to where we began. From your perspective, it's about certainty, and it's about our nation's leaders basically giving business a set of rules within which they can plan for their future. Because at the moment it's ad hoc, it's uncertain and as you say, it's very hard for businesses small and large to live in that sort of climate.

Jennifer: Look it's very hard to shut things down. It's very hard and sometimes it's actually quite dangerous to shut them down without taking away health and safety procedures and companies do that. So we need that certainty, we need a consistent set of rules, and we need to know those trigger points. That's why I'd like to see the roadmap saying, ‘when we reach this milestone we won't be doing any more border closures, we won't be doing state-wide lockdowns, we'll be doing local containment.’ If we need to revise that hotspot definition because of the Delta strength, let's revise it. But let's have one definition. And then people can work it out. And similarly with the notification about any lockdown. Let's say, ‘well we're going to give you five days' notice.’ I think, when I talk to businesses, large and small, they say we'd prefer that subject to the rules being right, obviously construction is a big issue in NSW. Subject to the rules being right, subject to working that through with business, we prefer that we've got like a longer date, this is particularly for small business, so that we don't ramp up and then have to ramp down. So if you're waiting on a day-to-day basis, do you hire your casual staff, do you buy your stock? Particularly for small business. If we're going to be here until December, let's just try and get some common sense, some national consistency. What's good though in states like NSW, they always sit down with business, they always consult, they always problem solve with you. South Australia did the other day. We've got to get more of that as well, and more of that Team Australia coming back as we got it right so much last year. And work together to say how do we manage this now?

Kieran: And just finally, are the banks on board with that? Because I know they did a lot to rehabilitate their image certainly in the first lockdown, there's no doubt about that with the way they were flexible with individuals and business. I think that was a big moment for that industry. Are they of similar mind this time? And what about business in terms of the vaccine rollout? Are they willing to step up as well when called upon in terms of playing a part on that front too?

Jennifer: Absolutely, well on the banks assisting people, you would have seen they've made another announcement this week. They are constantly looking at how they can assist businesses, how they can assist families, how they can defer mortgage repayments. They've made a number of announcements. But all of the businesses we've talked to want to help with the vaccine, whether it's vaccinating new employees and their families, whether it's helping people in remote communities, whether it's standing up more mass vaccine sites. And of course, all of us need, once we get those supplies, we need a big coordinated, simple, communication campaign that encourages people to get the vaccine as quickly as they can. But businesses are ready, we need to do the work now, like accrediting flu vaccine providers and so on. Let's get it done so that we can have that big push, and let's work out a more kind of seamless way if you will, of managing these lockdowns.

Kieran: Jennifer Westacott, thank you. Talk to you soon.


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