Business leaders say Australia cannot afford more hard lockdowns and are urging national cabinet to provide policy certainty and maintain momentum in reopening the economy, despite Victoria battling to suppress a new outbreak of the coronavirus.
The chief executive of Australian domestic and international travel company Flight Centre, Graham Turner, said state and territory governments did not have clearly enunciated strategies to deal with the pandemic and their handling of the crisis had been “ad hoc at best”.
Mr Turner, whose ASX-listed company had to reduce staff numbers from 22,000 to 5000 because of COVID-19 restrictions, said Australia was at a “critical juncture’’ on how it would fare from the pandemic and it needed a nationally consistent strategy in dealing with the crisis.
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox and Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott also on Sunday warned against a stop-start approach to reviving the economy, calling for a nationally consistent approach to deal with COVID-19, amid expectations it could take “years” for a vaccine to be developed.
After NSW closed its border with Victoria last week in the wake of the latest outbreak, the business leaders said Victoria’s lockdown would smash business confidence and cost jobs.
Victoria confirmed 273 new cases of coronavirus in the 24 hours to Sunday, bringing the state’s number of active cases to 1484 and its total number of cases to 3799.
A Victorian man in his 70s died from the virus on Saturday night, taking national fatalities from COVID-19 to 108.
There were more than 1500 active cases of the virus on Sunday, of which 67 were in hospital and 17 in intensive care units.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews ordered 700,000 students to stay at home to learn for the next six weeks as the state government signalled that a return to remote schooling would play a crucial role in combating the second wave of the coronavirus.
Years 11 and 12 students and those undertaking VCE and VCAL subjects will be permitted to return to campuses when term three resumes on Monday, but most across metropolitan Melbourne and the Mitchell shire will be studying from home.
Writing in The Australian on Monday, Mr Turner says: “All industries and sectors — but particularly travel, tourism, hospitality and events — urgently need to know and understand the various objectives for COVID-19 control and the strategies that will be implemented to achieve them.
“This will allow businesses to take the actions necessary to survive the near-term challenges and, hopefully, be in a position to prosper when things return to normal.
“Containing COVID-19 to certain small areas or zones and opening the domestic and, as soon as possible, international borders will be vital for the survival of many businesses, not just in travel.
“What really worries business is panic at clusters of infection and subsequent ham-fisted shutdowns or lockdowns as we have seen in Victoria.”
Mr Willox, whose peak business body represents thousands of employers in sectors such as manufacturing and construction, said “parochial” state premiers were trying “to outdo, outbid and outrace each other to smother any chance of economic recovery”.
Ms Westacott said the “stop-start” strategy in opening up the economy would not be a sustainable business environment in a potentially long-term pandemic.
With COVID-19 cases increasing nationally by 279 on Sunday, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Nick Coatsworth conceded that authorities needed to prepare “for an Australia that doesn’t have a vaccine … It may not come for many months.
“In that sort of situation, it is the case that movement restriction and decreasing mixing of individuals is one of the main weapons that we have against COVID-19,” Dr Coatsworth said.
“The focus is to get this particularly significant outbreak under control in Victoria and then go back to what we do best, which is contacting, tracing and eliminating small outbreaks.”
Mr Willox said residents on the border towns of NSW and Victoria were being treated by political leaders “like they live in the favelas of Brazil”.
“We can’t keep taking a sledgehammer to our economy time and again and expect businesses to survive, consumer confidence to remain above the waterline and jobs to be retained and created,” he said.
“Putting up artificial barriers, closing borders and turning Australians against each other is not going to get us there. Our responses to the health situation must be proportionate and logical, not hysterical and irrational.
“The false start to getting back to business ended by the Melbourne closure will sound the death knell for so many companies and so many jobs. Businesses, once bitten twice shy, will be even more cautious from now on.”
Ms Westacott said corporate Australia needed to prepare for a period of two years before a COVID-19 vaccine appeared.
“We have to find a way of living with this and keeping the momentum going to open up the economy because if not, we’re going to sap confidence and sap jobs,” she told Sky News.
“The kind of one extreme measure to the other, stop-start, that is going to sap confidence, it’s going to cost jobs. That’s the last thing we should be doing.
“What we need to do is say to people, ‘Look, we cannot eliminate this without a vaccine. We’re a long way from that. We have to live with it.’ ”