23/03/2020 - 15:33

Green-light governments to pull the lever

23/03/2020 - 15:33


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OPINION: Finding a balance in terms of market intervention and social restrictions will test governments across the country at this time of crisis.

Green-light governments to pull the lever
Failure to act decisively may lead to health system failure in WA, as has happened elsewhere in the world already. Photo: Stockphoto

Finding a balance in terms of market intervention and social restrictions will test governments across the country at this time of crisis.

Having spent the past week focused on preparing our business for the financial and personnel challenges ahead, and speaking to many others on the subject, I feel industry has generally prepared as well as it can and now is the time to go further into lockdown.

I say this in the belief that state and federal governments have increasing latitude to act decisively and creatively to counter COVID-19 in order to avoid the worst. Dealing with ambitious or seemingly drastic measures on behalf of the authorities is the least of most people’s concerns at the moment.

I said as much on LinkedIn at the weekend. Here was one reaction that reflects my feelings succinctly: “I agree, Mark, this may well be time to pull the lever,” the comment read.

“Everyone is in the right space to go to the next level. Probably better to close many businesses now and get control of the virus (if we can).

“There is such low consumer confidence, businesses are in real trouble anyway.”

In my view it has become clearer that we can do more to limit the health impacts and, I hope, actually reduce the long-term economic effects on the state. Allowing the virus to overwhelm our health system will actually hurt industry more.

I believe the state’s leaders were right not to panic, but we are ready to act and government should lead in action; in part by what it does with its own staff and, importantly, by clearly stating policies that protect people and business.

I am buoyed by the likelihood that commercial and residential rent and loan repayments may be guaranteed or otherwise temporarily put on hold for those in hardship.

I am a fan of the #suspendtherent campaign led by a major South Australian property owner and landlord, further underscoring my view that business has an appetite for temporary measures that might otherwise be considered distastefully interventionist in normal times.

Similar efforts around income guarantees are also important. The aftermath of such policies may be difficult to manage on the other side of this crisis, but right now every employee and business owner needs the confidence they can act decisively for health reasons (and that taking action won’t cost them their economic futures).

Government can be clear, as with the GST introduction, that it will offer no quarter to anyone found abusing this largesse.

Generous policy will be costly in the short term but will save lives and, ultimately, limit economic hardship in the longer term. The more people who stay at home safely right now, the better off the whole community will be.

It appears to me that the policies around rent and loans are being increasingly accepted as real options for government and to some degree are being pre-empted by banks. I hope their introduction occurs well before this column is published. If not, I urge action.

The best outcome is if businesses can safely shut down unnecessary operations that involve significant public interaction.

By locking down I mean bars and restaurants and other non-essential retail and non-essential government services should be closed to the public. Food is essential, so don’t get me wrong; I recognise that grocers and places that sell pre-prepared food are critical, but eating out isn’t.

There’s no reason why self-contained workplaces such as industrial workshops, mines and construction sites can’t keep going, with much caution of course. I’d even advocate the big miners investigate if they can retain a workforce up north for a month, allowing weekend slowdowns in order to isolate their teams and avoid the close contact of air travel, which seems to aid transmission.

Keeping mobile repair and maintenance on the road makes sense, especially if they can reduce contact with the public.

Restaurant kitchens and other retail can still open if they serve their customers via delivery or drive-through.

As for the schools, that is where the state can be creative. Asking for those families who can afford it to withdraw their children from physically attending school will reduce the chances of community transmission.

Avoiding pressure on families where both parents work, parents in essential services, or families where grandparents are expected to be babysitters or guardians, would be important.

In fact, this is a chance for teachers to be heroes. Of course it ought to be voluntary, but there’s some sense in asking for a skeleton staff of teachers to manage a much-reduced cohort to finish the term and potentially through the holidays. It might sound like babysitting, but it is crucial right now.

Kids will always be hard to manage from a social distancing perspective, but thinning out their ranks and enabling parents who do vital work to get on with the job through this next month or two will be an enormous community service.


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