Tim Reed interview with Cathy Van Extel, ABC RN Breakfast

17 January 2022

Event: Tim Reed interview with Cathy Van Extel, ABC RN Breakfast
Speakers: Cathy Van Extel, host ABC RN Breakfast, Tim Reed, president of the Business Council of Australia
Topics: Labour shortages, supply chain issues, Rapid Antigen Tests


Cathy Van Extel, host ABC RN Breakfast: Tim Reed is the president of the Business Council of Australia. Tim Reed, good morning.

Tim Reed, president Business Council of Australia: Cathy, great to be with you.

Cathy: The ACTU is holding this crisis meeting today, Secretary Sally McManus has said that essential workers are putting themselves at risk to keep the country open for businesses. Are they paying the price because Australia decided to open up too fast here?

Tim: No, I don't believe they are. The government is taking quite thoughtful and measured steps as we learn to be in this next phase of living with the virus. Recognising that obviously, the health and well-being of Australians has to be the first priority. And to the point that the health minister was just discussing with you and that you made in the wrap up there. We've had some quite extraordinary outcomes in terms of protecting Australians. That has been because we followed health advice each step of the way. The scenario now has changed as we are at that 95 per cent vaccination rate and the health outcomes, we’re seeing the benefits of that. So, you would expect that the government will continue to assess based on the facts and based on the health advice, the opportunities to reopen the economy, because as the Prime Minister said, right from the outset, managing COVID is about managing lives and livelihoods. We've got to get that balance right.

Cathy: Well, let's go to that balance National Cabinet expanded the range of staff who can return to work, even if they are close contacts and the unions say that's putting people at risk. The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry says that the number of workers allowed to return should actually be increased. What kind of balance would you like to see? Do you think that we've hit so far, or would you agree with ACCI that more needs to be done?

Tim: I think the steps that the government took, and that National Cabinet took last week were very positive ones. But I do think that they need to continue to reassess on an ongoing basis because the pandemic doesn't stand still, as it becomes the endemic, then that won’t stand still either and we just need to continue to reassess. Right now, we think that there are areas where the government could continue to look. Certainly, labour shortages are the main constraint that we're seeing.

Cathy: So, what sort of response are you looking for there? Are you suggesting like ACCI that it should be expanded to more workers?

Tim: In the short term in terms of the definitions of close contacts and people who are at home, we’re broadly comfortable with where they are at this point in time, we think that they should continue to just keep a watching eye, a watching brief, and continue to reassess. We're delighted with the expansion in terms of student visa holders, being able to increase their hours. Because when we do have people who are in the country who aren't providing any risk to the community to being at work, then they are a great source of labour supply, to stop some of these bottlenecks. We also believe that the government needs to continue to look at reintegrating Australia into the global economy. That means continuing to look at all of the restrictions and constraints on people coming to this nation and questioning whether they're still relevant given where we are in this phase of managing this health crisis. So broadly speaking, we think that the government is doing the right thing and we're happy to see National Cabinet actually start to reassert itself and act as a more coordinated body.

Cathy: I know you've been frustrated about a lack of consistencies at times between the states and territories or across the states and territories. I just wanted to go to the issue in South Australia where we had an abattoir, which was given an exemption by the government. They're reportedly allowing COVID positive staff to work wearing different hair nets to their colleagues. Is there any circumstance in which that's appropriate for a COVID positive worker to be asked to come into a workplace?

Tim: We have been very frustrated about the different approaches that different states have taken over the last particularly 12 months, and as I said, we're delighted to see that they're starting to act in a more coordinated way. I just want to under underline the importance of that. We need clear, consistent regulations to be in place that have consistent definitions and consistent triggers. I'm not going to comment on the circumstances for one particular health regulator in one particular business, because again, what the BCA have done and what our members have done throughout this is really listen to local health regulations and follow those health orders as they've been put in place. That has built confidence across our community. It's been part of the reason that we've had such a frankly outstanding health results relative to similar countries around the world. But what I would say is for all businesses out there small or big, continuing to work with local health authorities is the right thing to do and following the guidance that they give is the right way for us to move forward, so we maintain that confidence.

Cathy: Can I go to Rapid Antigen Tests, one of the key demands of the ACTU is that RATs be made free, does the Business Council support this?

Tim: I think RATs, we should pause for a moment here, are a huge success…

Cathy: When you can get them.

Tim: Yeah absolutely, because if we can rewind two or three weeks, the only thing that Australians were focused on were PCR tests. They were the gold standard. If it wasn't the gold standard, it wasn't good enough. Now that what we've seen is the risk, because of those high vaccination rates to individuals as lower, then we're broadening the set of tools that we have, so that we can continue to open up and frankly, regain our lives, you know, be able to go out into the community and enjoy ourselves. So very quickly, RATs went from not even being a topic to being in extraordinary demand. We do believe that the government has done the right thing by backing RATs and that the health community have done the right thing by giving Australians confidence in looking at the results from those.

Cathy: But should they be free?

Tim: We don't think that they should be free in all circumstances, we think National Cabinet took quite a pragmatic view at helping the most vulnerable in our community and make sure that they can access them in a subsidised and free manner. But by making them free, you distort many components of the market. I mean, pharmacies and businesses won't stock them if they're free and there becomes some real challenges then in distribution channels and in supply chains and so on, right through the system. So, we think that the balance that National Cabinet struck was pretty much the right one.

Cathy: Tim Reed, good to talk to you. Thank you.

Tim: Likewise, Cathy, great to be with you.


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