Lockdown uncertainty is crippling confidence

This opinion article by Business Council chief executive Jennifer Westacott was published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 22 December 2020

Throughout the twists and turns of this pandemic, the business community has demonstrated our priority is, and remains, the health of all Australians.

Restaurants, cafes, hotels, retailers, tourist operators, airlines, and small and family businesses have rapidly responded and managed the risks. They’ve implemented COVID-safe plans to protect customers while doing their best to keep operating and keep people in jobs.

But now on the eve of their busiest trading period over Christmas and the New Year, festive cheer is making way for frustration and confusion. Uncertainty is crippling confidence and jeopardising jobs.

State by state decisions, some without warning and some seemingly made on the run, are fuelling this lack of clarity.

The tourism and hospitality sectors are major employers, with a massive chain of suppliers. Quite simply, they are hugely important sectors of our economy.  This year’s peak season was to be their time to regroup and recover from the ravages of the year, which includes the devastating bushfires as well as COVID.

Instead, our airlines are grappling with their flight schedules. Hotels and restaurants have been hit by massive cancellations, losing millions in bookings. They’ve been forced to stand down staff they’ve hired for the Christmas rush and ponder what to do with extra orders.

We cannot continue going on with a stop-start economy, where families and businesses fall victim to inconsistent rules.

It’s why business is asking for National Cabinet to meet urgently to set nationally consistent and predictable rules around how to manage inevitable local outbreaks.

We’re not asking for a free-for-all, far from it. We strongly agree that safeguarding Australians must continue to take precedence but we are asking for uniformity across the states and territories.

To go forward, we need a national plan that is proportionate to the level of risk. NSW didn’t close its border to Victoria until cases were into the hundreds.

An evidence-based plan needs to detail:

  • the national consistent trigger for a local lockdown
  • the scope of any local lockdown
  • the national, proportionate and consistent trigger for state border closures based on genuine risk
  • more common sense on state border closures which could include a hard, short lockdown to allow another jurisdiction to get on top of the situation as opposed to a long and fixed period irrespective of whether case numbers are falling significantly and the outbreak is clearly local
  • the release of consistent and clear information for businesses and individuals
  • common-sense notification periods that understand the time it takes for businesses to ramp up and ramp down, and
  • a consistent permitting system.

If all Australians are to be able to get on with their lives, we need a considered response, not knee-jerk reactions. 

At the moment, the patchwork system means few are really sure about the rules. The absence of reliable information leads to confusion. It erodes the ability of the community, business and governments to work together to manage the virus, leaving us vulnerable to mistakes.

Knowing the rules, means businesses can continue to plan and adapt. Customers can make bookings with certainty, heightening confidence and the ability of business to create jobs.

The nation remains in a vastly better position compared to the rest of the world thanks to unprecedented cooperation and the actions of National Cabinet.

So, let’s build on the gains we’ve made as a nation, continue learning from our mistakes and stop taking an inconsistent and disproportionate approach to local outbreaks.

We need the premiers, chief ministers and the Prime Minister working together through National Cabinet to make sure we have a plan to respond to local outbreaks, we have consistent decisions and we finally end anything that resembles a ‘stop-start’ economy.

After all, a ‘stop-start’ economy is a confidence destroying and job killing economy that sets the nation back and makes the task of recovery a longer haul.

When the clock ticks past midnight on New Year’s Eve, it won’t magically reset. Rolling out a vaccine won’t happen overnight. As we head into 2021, we will still be living alongside this virus for some time yet.

Jennifer Westacott AO is the chief executive of the Business Council of Australia