By PHILLIP COOREY
The vast majority of businesses could be up and running in less than two months after the national cabinet approved a comprehensive set of health protocols to enable commerce to resume in a “COVID-safe environment”.
Declaring “we now need to get 1 million Australians back to work”, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the state and territory leaders agreed on Tuesday that when they next met on Friday they would lift restrictions in three steps with the aim of establishing “a sustainable COVID-19 safe economy in July 2020”.
Each state will move at its own pace with the common end goal of July.
While not every business will be able to reopen, such as those that rely on international tourism, Mr Morrison agreed the aim was to have the overwhelming majority back on their feet.
He said the work done over the past six weeks to suppress the spread of the coronavirus while simultaneously boosting the capacity of the health system − as well as having 5 million people download the COVIDSafe app so far −
“means that we are in a much stronger position to resist and deal with any increase in cases”.
“And that gives us the confidence to move into the space that we are now seeking to move into,” Mr Morrison said.
“Just having a low number of cases is not a success, particularly when you have a lot of people out of work.
“That is the curve that I’m looking to address now. We have had great success on flattening the health curve and that is great and we all wanted that, but it has come at a price and we have to now start balancing that up.”
The resumption of commerce could also coincide with the opening of the borders between Australia and New Zealand, which was discussed when NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern joined Tuesday’s national cabinet discussion.
Series of tools
That, too, could be in place by the school holidays in July and would benefit both economies by opening them up for reciprocal tourism and business.
To facilitate the reopening of business, the government, working with the COVID-19 Coordination Commission chaired by Nev Power, has prepared a series of tools including a website which divides business and industry sector into 23 categories.
Each category contains safety protocols and other guidelines for operating safely in the COVID environment.
In each case, social distancing, strong hygiene and international travel restrictions will be in place indefinitely.
Enforcement will be a matter for each state and territory, as will the pace of reopening.
The national cabinet is expected to agree on the three stages of easing restrictions on Friday. Cafes, restaurants and retail are expected to be among the first to be allowed to recommence business.
“Individual states and territories will determine the timeframe for graduating between steps and individual restrictions to remove,” the national cabinet said in a statement after Tuesday’s meeting.
“This reflects the fact that states and territories are at different stages of the pandemic response, with six of eight states and territories now recording multiple zero case days.
“It is national cabinet’s aim to have a sustainable COVID-19 safe economy in July 2020. This will be subject to strong epidemiology results, testing, tracing and local surge health response capacity.”
Mr Power said some sectors were much better placed to resume full operations than others.
“The mining, supermarkets, food processing industries, they’ve introduced COVID-safe practices and COVID-safe business models for their businesses and are continuing to operate right through,” he said.
Others like housing construction have been hit by a drop in demand “and there are businesses, particularly in hospitality and restaurants and pubs and tourism, that are still impacted by the restrictions that are there”.
“Those are the businesses that we’re focusing on at the moment,” he said.
“There’s a lot of small-to-medium-sized businesses in there. And we’re working with them now to make sure that they have all of the information they need to get their businesses back up and running, not only from a safety point of view, but also that they’ve got the ability to fund their businesses and get them back up to fund the working capital to restart, and that they’re ready to make sure the public are safe when they come into those businesses as well.”
Mr Morrison furnished Treasury data that was presented to the national cabinet to highlight the need to reopen business and schools.
The data included the observation that the current restrictions were costing the economy $4 billion a week.
In the past six weeks, almost million people have lost their jobs and another 5 million are receiving the JobSeeker wage subsidy.
More than 1 million had accessed their superannuation and 384,000 businesses had accessed $7 billion in emergency cash payments that were announced in the second, $66 billion assistance package.
Treasury forecast that if the current restrictions remained in place, 304,000 jobs alone would be lost in six months due to schools being closed.
All jurisdictions except Victoria and the ACT are moving to reopen schools.
Mr Morrison said he hoped to see travel opening up with New Zealand in time for the July school holidays.
“It’s not something that’s about to happen next week or anything like that,” he said. “It is something that will better sit alongside when we’re seeing Australians travel from Melbourne to Cairns at about that time. I would expect, everything being equal, that we’d be able to, you know, fly from Melbourne to Auckland or to Christchurch or things like that.”
In further encouraging news, Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe hinted at a potentially stronger economic recovery than first thought.
“A stronger economic recovery is possible if there is further substantial progress in containing the coronavirus in the near term and there is a faster return to normal economic activity,” he said.
Dr Lowe, however, warned that if restrictions were not lifted soon the economic hit could be even worse than expected.
“On the other hand, if the lifting of restrictions is delayed or the restrictions need to be reimposed or household and business confidence remains low, the outcomes would be even more challenging than those in the baseline scenario.”