This opinion article by Business Council executive director Jess Wilson was first published in The Herald Sun on Saturday 22 January 2022.
2022 has not started the way we had hoped. Much anticipated holidays cancelled, local businesses forced to close due to staff shortages, stock deliveries disrupted and there are calls to delay the start of the school year.
While all hallmarks of the last two years remain, we cannot let our response be the same. It’s time to shift gear and be optimistic about Australia’s future and economic recovery.
There is no doubt the last two years has left many emotionally spent. Businesses have been devastated and livelihoods destroyed. Our federation has been plagued by inconsistent rules and state border closures.
But the end of 2021 saw restrictions ease and finally a chance to spend quality time with loved ones. This helped dent the exhaustion we were all feeling.
Although Omicron has been a gamechanger, we cannot afford to make any U-turns, stall or worse, go into reverse. No one wants to spend another year with the unsettling fear that snap domestic border closures or knee-jerk lockdowns could put our lives on hold again.
COVID isn’t going to suddenly just end. The virus is here to stay. Decisions like those from Premier Mark McGowan in WA this week not to reopen the border and to isolate itself indefinitely – even after the date was “set in stone” – simply delay the inevitable.
2022 is an opportunity to shift gear in our response to COVID. We must finally learn to live alongside this virus.
Now more than ever Australians need certainty.
As we deal with the Omicron strain, we need our political leaders to put common sense first and stay the course on continuing to reopen the economy.
The emotional and mental cost of the last two years of paralysis has been massive, and the economic cost monumental. At their peak, state border closures cost Australia’s economy $2.1 billion per month in lost economic output – representing countless businesses and livelihoods.
We have to empower Australians to plan and get on with their lives.
Of course, we must manage this outbreak safely but governments have had two years to build up our heath systems and plan.
Now is the time to safely manage businesses operating and get our kids back into the classroom.
That’s why sensible changes to isolation rules and close contact definitions made by National Cabinet are essential steps forward and it’s likely we’ll have to continue adapting to circumstances as they change.
Risk-based actions keep people safe, families together, businesses open and people in jobs – ultimately taking Australia forward.
An absolute priority must be getting our kids back to school safely as planned. Too many days in the classroom have already been lost over the past two years.
National Cabinet’s decision this week to see kids return for Term 1 as planned is a step in the right direction but we must see a commitment from all states to keep schools open.
This is not only essential for educational outcomes and social wellbeing, but critical to easing workforce shortages.
Over coming weeks, we could see 1 in 10 workers absent due to isolation, caring for loved ones or sickness.. Federal Treasury estimates that delaying the start to the school year could exacerbate the current workforce crisis by a further 5 per cent.
In some sectors Business Council members have already reported workforce shortages of up to 40 per cent - putting massive strain on Australia’s supply chains.
Another priority is attracting international students and working holidaymakers back to Australia.
Lockdowns and campus closures have meant that Australia risks losing one of our biggest exports in higher education to other English-speaking countries such as Canada and the UK. The absence of working holidaymakers has meant a loss of over $3 billion per year in visitor spending not to mention the massive labour market gaps it has caused.
The removal of restrictions on working hours for international students and moves to make Australia a more attractive place for working holiday makers are sensible changes that will mean more shifts can be filled in the short term.
These risk-based actions are how we will keep supermarket shelves stacked and businesses open, creating jobs and planning for the future.
Australians can’t afford another two years of unsustainable stop-start lockdowns and restrictions.
Instead, it’s time to once and for all put in place a nationally consistent, risk-based, transparent approach that allows Australians to plan their lives and their businesses. We cannot risk jeopardising the momentum we have right now, it’s been an enormous team effort to get to this point. Australians have sacrificed so much.
Above all, the test for the months ahead will be for Australia to be in drive and not slip into neutral. Or, worse, once again be thrown into state-wide lockdowns and shut our country off as Fortress Australia. To do that, would be to accelerate in reverse.
Jess Wilson is the Executive Director of Policy and Strategy at the Business Council of Australia.