Jennifer Westacott interview with Leon Byner, Mornings on FIVEaa

Event: Jennifer Westacott interview with Leon Byner, Mornings on FIVEaa
Speakers: Leon Byner, host Mornings on FIVEaa; Jennifer Westacott, chief executive Business Council of Australia
Topics: National COVID-19 vaccine rollout; COVID-19 response

E&OE

Leon: So let’s talk to the chief executive officer at the Business Council of Australia, Jennifer Westacott. Jennifer, good morning. First of all, is it a problem in general where in fact there is no compulsion to have this vaccination?

Jennifer: I don’t believe so. I think the government has said, ‘look, we want to make this voluntary.’ I think the job is to build trust and confidence and get as many people vaccinated as we can. We could spend six months arguing about mandatory stuff and by that time the vaccine could have rolled out to the bulk of the population. I do think though Leon, there are a couple of cases where we are going to have to sort it out and that’s particularly for airports and international airlines where if they are not able to use a public health order to mandate that their staff get vaccinated, then you run the risk that the integrity of the quarantine system gets compromised. So, I think that’s one area where we’ve got to work really quickly that out with government. Then to your point, we need that done through public health orders, not simply saying to employers, ‘you sort it out’ and we need that done consistently across the country.

Leon: Jennifer, let’s say you’re running Adelaide Airport for example and you’ve got a lot of international flights and it is inevitable that some of the people coming off them could be compromised with regards to COVID, would it not be a good thing to say to the people working in that environment, ‘the safest way to deal with this is first of all that the staff need to be immunised for their own safety?’ And I would reckon that most of them would want that, wouldn’t they?

Jennifer: I think that is spot on. I think that’s right. And then the question, I think, becomes can that airport mandate somebody have it. That’s where I think that is going to be differences of views, but overwhelmingly people are going to want to, aren’t they? I mean, they are going to want to if they’re working in an international airport, they’re going to say exactly what you just said, ‘I don’t want to put myself or the system at risk because I want to make sure I’m safe and my family is safe.’ Overwhelmingly people are going to say yes, overwhelmingly we should try to do this is a positive way. As soon we get into rows about making it mandatory, I reckon we'll lose momentum, and we won't build that confidence. I think the only issue is if one of those employers where they've got international contact staff should be allowed to say, ‘you've got to have it.’ And that's what we're going to obviously work with government on and make sure that we get that right. But overwhelmingly most people, I think, are just going to get this done. I know I am, as soon as I’m eligible, I’ll be getting it done.

Leon: So, at the moment what's the situation, because the airport employs a lot of people, so if you are in that environment where you are likely to come across people from other places around the world, you will say to yourself I presume, ‘well look, I'm somebody that's somewhat vulnerable because of the work I do. I'm going to go and get a shot.’

Jennifer: Yeah, that’s how it will operate. The question is I think, if I say I don’t want to, can my employer mandate that I do? That’s where I think there’s going to be some important discussions that have to happen. But to your point, people generally have got a lot of common sense and they’ll just say exactly what you just said, ‘I’m going to be in contact with international travellers.’ I think the issue is going to be, if we’re going to mandate that people have the vaccine to come into the country, then it seems odd to not be allowing a Qantas or an international airport to say to people, ‘you’ve got to have the vaccine’ because we want the system to have integrity.

Leon: I don’t think unless you are a specific anti-vaxxer or you’ve got other immune issues with your body, which your doctor will sort out, I would have thought in general terms this would be welcomed wouldn’t it?

Jennifer: Oh, I agree with you. That’s why I think we’ve got to be very careful about having to many debates about mandatory or not mandatory because I reckon most people are just going to say, ‘I’m just going to do it’. I think we’ve got to make sure we get proper information out to people and that’s where business can play a really important role, that we’re really clear with people, that we encourage people who have other things to go to their doctor. But I reckon you’re right, most people are going to want to have it because they want to feel that they’re doing their part to get the country back on track, and they’ll want to feel that they’re safe.

Leon: In my view, the overwhelming belief of workers in most areas and certainly those I’ve spoken to, has just been, well let’s just get on with it.

Jennifer: Absolutely, because they know that getting on with it means they can stay open, getting on with it means that hopefully we won’t see any more of these domestic borders being shut within 24 hours’ notice.

Leon: I was going to ask you, what are these borders shuttings and openings doing economically? Have you picked up some data on this?

Jennifer: I think there was some terrific data that was put out just around Christmas that the cost to the tourism industry in Queensland was around $3 billion from that decision. Now, I always take it down to a personal case because, $3 billion what does that really mean? If you think about what’s just happened in Victoria, some restaurant that employs young people, casuals – they would have had their heaviest bookings on Valentine’s Day – they would have ordered extra food, and suddenly on the Wednesday or the Thursday they’re telling those people who are really looking forward to some extra hours, you’re not coming in. Or the tourist operator in Queensland who put on extra staff, who’d ordered extra stuff, and then of course the families who have gone up to visit their relatives suddenly turning around. It’s that sort of stuff that’s had a really serious impact. And as I said, about $3 billion lost into the tourism industry in Queensland. I don’t ever believe that there has been a case to do these random border closures because New South Wales has shown that we can manage local outbreaks.

Leon: You know what I reckon we need? I know the states have got jurisdiction over these matters, but I can’t help but think there ought to be a whole raft of conditions, and you wouldn’t need many, which need to occur before you do a lockdown. If they were consistent and everybody played by the same rules, there’d be a lot more certainty wouldn’t there?

Jennifer: You are so right on that, that’s what we’ve been calling for Leon. A national set of rules that says, ‘well okay, when this happens, you’ve got to do this’ and ‘when this happens, you’ve got to do this’, and everyone knows what those rules are, and everyone plays by them. Because you think like an airline – they run those schedules 6 months in advance, they run those schedules that get people back into the simulator. That’s a very complicated system to run, so you’re absolutely spot on, that’s what we’ve been clamouring for. Why can’t we just have one set of rules across the country that says ‘okay, if you get to this point then you introduce this at local level, if you get to this point, you introduce this at a wider level.’ And New South Wales has demonstrated time and time again that they have had local outbreaks, but they’ve got them under control, they’ve got a good tracking and tracing system. It’s the unpredictability of it that is really hard for businesses, because they’re like, ‘well hang on, how many people do I put on?’ Or for families, ‘will I go away at Easter? I don’t know, what if they shut the border, I won’t be able to get back.’

Leon: I’ve had four goes of going to see my sister interstate.

Jennifer: And also there’s a lot of business travel that creates a lot of the economy, people staying in hotels. People saying, ‘should we have that meeting in Queensland, should we have it in Sydney? No, let’s have it via Zoom’. That’s some business that would have made some money out of that because people would have gone because people would have gone, stayed in a hotel, gone to a restaurant or whatever. I think it’s that sort of lack of predictability and uncertainty. And then you hear the really heartbreaking cases like people saying, ‘I really wanted to see my mum before she died, and I wasn’t able to see her.’ That’s the other side of this, there’s a real human side to it as well.

Leon: Jennifer, good to talk to you.