With productivity sapped as millions of Australians work from home to comply with social-distancing laws, national cabinet on Friday ticked off on a series of “safe workplace principles” to guide the development of industry-specific rules to minimise the risk of coronavirus outbreaks among employees.
“This is all about getting Australians back to work, and ensuring that when they go back to work that they and their families can feel safe in going back to work,” the Prime Minister said.
Mr Morrison said he expected clusters of the disease would break out as restrictions were eased, which made aggressive testing and contact tracing necessary, including adoption of a controversial app.
“With community transmission and protecting against that, there aren’t the same level of certainties that you have of this person got off a plane, put them in a hotel, isolate, mission accomplished,” he said.
While Australia had made good progress, Mr Morrison reiterated restrictions would be lifted gradually to minimise the prospect of having to reimpose them widely.
“What we don’t want to see is a stop-start approach to our road back,” he said.
Guidelines for sport
National cabinet also resolved to take steps towards drafting guidelines to allow elite and community sport and recreational activities to recommence, as both the NRL and AFL plan to restart their competitions in May and June respectively.
Business groups hailed the steps towards reopening workplaces after large swathes of the economy were shut down a month ago.
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said most businesses were ready to resume work in a safe and health way.
We have to not be complacent – a message that we have been making time and time again.
— Brendan Murphy, chief medical officer
“Businesses know they have very clear responsibilities for the safety and wellbeing of their workforces and of their customers and their suppliers, and the uptake of new procedures and practices in the face of COVID-19 has been remarkable,” he told AFR Weekend.
“The business community is ready to begin reopening the economy and the sooner that can happen, the lower will be the costs in terms of unemployment, financial distress and all the mental and physical health problems that go with that.”
Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief James Pearson said businesses that had been hunkered down trying to survive would welcome clear guidelines from the government on how they could reopen.
“The government needs to work closely with business to ensure that businesses can operate effectively while public safety is assured,” he said.
The federal government’s national workplace safety body, Safe Work Australia, has been charged with developing industry-specific rules in consultation with the states, employer groups and unions on how workplaces can reopen.
‘Pandemic intelligence plan’
Businesses will need to implement social distancing requirements, which currently call for people to stay 1.5 metres apart and provide four square metres of space for each individual as well as boost hygiene measures such cleaning and supplies of hand sanitiser.
Employers will also have to have protocols in place to respond rapidly if a worker contracts the virus.
Mr Morrison said getting people back into their workplaces was an important part of how the economy functioned.
“There are some people who can work from home, and for whom this period of time has been less of an inconvenience to them than it has to many others,” he said.
“But I’m sure you’d know that if you’re a parent at home, trying to work from home and you’ve also got the kids at home, and they’re trying to learn, it’s not working too well for you. And your productivity isn’t doing too well either.
“And so when we can get back to the point where we can have kids back at school, and we can get people back at work, then I think we’re going to see that also lift our economy in ways that we very much need.”
Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy provided details of health officials’ “pandemic intelligence plan”, the new testing and tracing regime that will include testing frontline health workers regularly as well sentinel testing to detect community spread among asymptomatic carriers.
Professor Murphy suggested he would like to get the testing rate up to 40,000 to 50,000 people a day.
Unveiling the latest modelling, he said the virus reproduction rate had remained below the crucial medical threshold of one. Maintaining it below that threshold is key because it means each infected person is infecting, on average, less than one person.
The government is also adjusting its modelling to exclude quarantined returned overseas travellers, to focus more on community transmission.
“We’ve got to keep it below one,” Professor Murphy said.
“And we have to not be complacent – a message that we have been making time and time again. But we are still in a good place and need to keep a very, very strong vigilance over what we’re doing.”