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Business and industry leaders held extensive discussions with the federal government on Tuesday (11 January) night to plead for consistency in its omicron response.
The Council of Small Business Organisations, Australia chief executive Alexi Boyd, said although it was a positive step the government was consulting with business groups, more practical solutions are needed to be delivered if businesses, especially small businesses, were to survive the latest shadow lockdown.
Ms Boyd said the announcements made by the government over which workers were allowed to continue to attend places of business, what was required for businesses to continue operating, as well as the lack of clarity and availability of rapid antigen tests are not being accompanied by useful and operational information for small businesses.
“The information is not flowing freely,” she said.
“All the information which is being given out needs to be unpacked and the Government needs to bring small business on the journey with them.”
Ms Boyd said COSBOA had been experiencing an “unprecedented” number of calls from members concerned about what the changing rules mean for them.
“This is the highest engagement we have had since I started in this role nine months ago,” she said.
Ms Boyd said the majority of calls concerned worker shortages.
“We know hairdressers have a shortage of 40 per cent of their staff, hospitality has a 50 per cent worker shortage and smaller convenience stores were down the equivalent of two-and-a-half fulltime workers,” she said.
“This was a problem leading up to this current surge, but it has become much worse.
“Added to this the shortage of RATs and businesses are having to close their doors. You only have to walk down any high street and see how many businesses are closed.”
The Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman Bruce Billson held emergency meetings with small-business representatives on Tuesday (11 January) night to discuss a range of potential practical solutions to the issues small businesses are facing.
Mr Billson said this engagement will continue as the virus evolves and the implications for the community, small-business economy and smaller enterprise workforce emerge and require a revisiting and recalibrating of solutions and support.
At the meeting, attendees pleaded for nationally consistent requirements across states and territories in what businesses are included in critical supply chains and more broadly were required to do, particularly in relation to testing and isolation.
Recent changes were welcomed, with participants recognising that testing and isolation rules will continue to evolve and needed to be calibrated to recognise the particular challenges faced by smaller workplaces.
Policymakers were urged to recognise the interconnectedness and co-dependencies of supply chains and support activity to critical industries, and that rule changes that seek to preserve and support workforce availability should progressively be applied economy-wide.
“Clear communication is called for to make sure smaller employers understand and can implement what is being required of them, including clarity over OH&S obligations,” Mr Billson said.
He emphasised the important role of industry associations in supporting smaller employers in keeping up to date with relevant state guidelines and reiterated his call for a nationally consistent, unified approach to testing and isolation, sooner rather than later.
“Affordable and timely access to rapid tests was identified as more challenging for smaller workplaces without the capacity to stockpile,” he said.
“While the recent rule changes will reduce pressure on available stocks and new supplies arriving, measures to ensure that smaller employers could obtain the rapid tests needed to comply with testing and isolation rules and to protect the workforce and community were called for.”
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI) said national cabinet needed to establish clear and nationally consistent guidelines on how to manage the re-entry of close contacts back into the workplace at Thursday’s (13 January) meeting.
“The message from our members is clear – staff shortages are one of the biggest issues facing our country at the moment. National Cabinet should take action by extending the current critical [workers’] close contact protocols to all workers as soon as the availability of Rapid Antigen Testing (RAT) makes this possible,” ACCI chief executive Andrew McKellar said.
“It’s important that the close contact protocols do not become more and more complicated with an ever-expanding list of essential and critical services workers. The common sense and efficient option is to extend these protocols to all workers.
“Without changes to close contact protocols, mass staffing shortages will continue to be a huge roadblock in Australia’s economic recovery.
“Following briefings today, the Government needs to be transparent on the supply of RATs so that all businesses, not just those on the essential services list, can access them.
“National Cabinet also needs to give immediate consideration to targeted and temporary emergency pandemic support to businesses who are doing it tough and in many cases are struggling or not able to open their doors.
“Additionally, National Cabinet must commence work on a longer-term solution to business support when government restrictions and disaster and pandemic impacts that are beyond the control of business have significant impacts.”