Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Laura Jayes, Sky News AM Agenda
Speakers: Laura Jayes, host Sky News AM Agenda; Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia
Topics: Omicron COVID-19 variant; National Cabinet; border restrictions
Laura Jayes, host Sky News AM Agenda: Let's go live now to the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westcott. Jennifer, it is such cruel timing. When you a look at two years of closures of our border, we're just days out from reopening, we're weeks out from Christmas, and along comes omicron. Do you accept the need, reluctantly I'm sure, for this two week pause?
Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia: I think on the two week pause, we accept that, because these were, of course, the additional workers that were coming in, which we were very complimentary of the government for making that decision. I think the crucial thing, Laura, is that we have to hold our nerve here. We have to stay calm; we have to get the right information. We have to keep the momentum going on the domestic economy. We shouldn't be going back into lockdowns. We should be assuring business that we're not going to be doing that. We should stay on track for the domestic border reopenings that are scheduled. We should signal to small and large businesses that we'll be going to local containment. But of course, we need more information and as we get that information, then we need to take the appropriate action. I think what business wants this time, Laura, is that actions are proportionate to the risk that's involved, as opposed to the chaotic set of rules we've seen across the Federation, different rules in different states. More importantly, that we get the systems in place so that we can manage these outbreaks as they happen. There are lots of letters in the Greek alphabet, we know that there's going to be a lot of variations to this. So let's get the systems for a permanent industry-based quarantine arrangement we can flex up and flex down as circumstances change. Let's get the national permitting system going. Let's make sure that we are clear about what are we going to do when we have to escalate health requirements? We know how to do this, we've done a pretty good job, but I think what business wants, as you say, coming into this season, is some certainty.
Laura: Okay. All of those things you've just described are largely happening, but what are you talking about in particular in scaling up and scaling down? What would the thresholds be? Do you have that in mind?
Jennifer: Well, I think what we have seen is these things have been in place, but they've been in place inconsistently. So you've got different quarantine arrangements in some states, 72 hours in some states, 14 days in others. So based on the health advice and the health risk, we need the same system across the Federation. Secondly is, industry is willing to step up and do the quarantine. So there is a scheme that involves Aspen Medical, a world-renowned medical organisation that's able to do the quarantine management, do the vaccine assessment. We need to stand that up so that we've got that system in place all the time. So that as circumstances change, we can flex up if its 72 hours, for some categories of people it will be 14 days. We need to be able to start bringing those skilled workers in, and universities need to be able to start making offers to students. Because if they're not making offers, other universities will be. So it's basically getting on to an even keel if you will, and getting that national consistency, that's really important.
Laura: So you're talking about, I mean the hotel quarantine system in New South Wales has worked pretty well. There's always going to be leaks. So you're talking about, that's the way to scale up and scale down?
Jennifer: Yes. But we also may need those purpose-built facilities, and the longer we put that off, the more we'll say, ‘I wish we had that six months ago.’ But also industry is willing to do that hotel-based quarantine. We don't need governments to do it. We just need a predictable system of getting people into the country, knowing what the rules are, having the same system across the federation. Industry is happy to foot that bill, that's not going to come at a cost of government. We just need to make sure that we've got a way of managing this, that we're not doing this stop start approach. Of course the most important assurance that business needs at the moment is that the domestic economy is going to stay on track to stay open and keep open, and that we only institute restrictions if there is a dramatic change in the risk profile. Based on what we're hearing from overseas, that doesn't look like it's going to happen, so let's get the information. But I think the worst thing, particularly for small businesses who are working out, ‘do I open? Do I stock up? Do I put on staff?’ Is to give them a real message of assurance. We know that will happen in New South Wales. They've been so careful and so considered in their approach. We need that across the country, so that business can plan for Christmas.
Laura: There is some five-star hotels in Sydney that are operating at 40 per cent capacity because they cannot get the staff to operate. We see that in small business. You just walk around the CBD, and everyone is after staff it would seem. Stuart Robert said on Friday that we will need about one million places to be filled. He hopes that can be done in about four years. Is that reasonable?
Jennifer: It's not only reasonable, it's essential. Because your point's absolutely right, people can't just ramp up. It's not like they don't have the customers, they do, they just haven't got the teams to do it. We've also got one of the best harvests we've ever had in years, but we haven't got people to pick it. We've got big projects that have just been put on hold because companies are telling me, ‘We just don't have the people to get this going, Jennifer.’ So we need a project says that we can run on a consistent, predictable basis. That's where we need some sort of scheme that says when we need to quarantine, because it's either a vaccine that's not recognised or you get another variant, we need to take the precautions we need to take. We can still keep that flow of workers coming into the country.
Laura: Yeah, and it's critically important. Just one final question, JobSaver, I think ends today. This was something that was jointly funded by the New South Wales and the federal government. Has this been part of the problem in attracting staff back to work, or is that minimal?
Jennifer: Look, some people think it has been. I think there has a lot of rebound in the economy. There's a lot of activity, so people have been able to find work pretty easily. There are also some specialist roles that are not going to be filled easily by Australians. We obviously need to get our skill system right, so that we're doing that in the future. But there are very specialist jobs we need to bring in. I think it's just the speed in which the recovery has happened, that people haven't had the staff. I don't think JobSaver is really the problem there. I think we've also got to remember that JobSaver and schemes like that put a floor under the economy. They put a floor under many businesses, so they were able to rebound. Going forward, we need to stand up those systems so that we can always put those things into place, JobSaver, disaster payments, pandemic leave and permitting systems across the country, because we've got a long way to go on this. I think our mindset during…
Laura: Jennifer, I'm so sorry to interrupt you. Thank you so much for that. We've got to go live to Greg Hunt now, let's listen in.