Confusion and fear is escalating among New South Wales businesses as they try to work out how they will monitor vaccine rules, COVID restrictions and exposure risks once lockdown ends.
Industry bodies at a virtual summit on Western Sydney’s economic recovery on Wednesday said time was running out for businesses to plan for the state’s reopening.
The heartache of the lockdown was being compounded by anxiety from both employers and employees over the unclear path forward, the meeting hosted by NSW Labor heard.
“We need a clearly articulated set of rules for operating that we can rely on and plan to within those new restrictions,” Penrith Performing and Visual Arts chief executive Hania Radvan said.
“We’re not scientists, so please don’t make us guess.”
Help designing and adhering to new COVID safe plans was particularly needed – with vaccination, rapid antigen testing, and a mandate to live with the virus all providing new challenges.
“We can’t just dust off the COVID plans from 12 months ago. They’re not relevant anymore. Delta has completely changed the ballgame,” the Council of Small Business Organisations Australia interim chief executive Alexi Boyd said.
“Small businesses will just throw the towel in and say it’s not worth it, because they don’t even know what the next six months look like.”
Protections for employers were among the specific issues raised.
Josh Landis from Clubs NSW said hospitality businesses could not realistically reopen with unvaccinated staff, and the state government has said repeatedly that unvaccinated patrons must be turned away.
Government protection, through public health orders, was needed for mandating vaccination and indemnifying against claims by unvaccinated people for breach of privacy, against claims of discrimination for denied entry, and against workers’ compensation claims by staff who contract the virus at work.
On Wednesday, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the state was in “uncharted territory” but there would be health orders to back up strict vaccination rules.
“It will be a health order and the law that if you’re not vaccinated, you can’t attend venues on the road map. You can’t go into a hospitality venue. You can’t go to ticketed events unless you are vaccinated,” she said.
“The government will need to seek legal advice ourselves. This is uncharted territory but we’re providing as much certainty as possible.”
She said her government was working through a compliance regime for once NSW opened up, with 80 per cent of its eligible population fully vaccinated.
“We know many small businesses are doing it tough so we are going through that compliance regime right now to give enough notice to businesses before they open,” she said.
“But there is individual responsibility involved and for larger institutions, workplaces, major events, you’d expect some level of business involvement.”
Businesses are also concerned about fraught relationships with staff, and losing valued long-term customer relationships.
The prospect of further lockdowns and what will happen if there is an exposure at a businesses is also causing stress.
“If someone turns up with the virus, we just can’t have a situation where everybody … needs to isolate for two weeks, especially when they’re fully vaccinated,” Mr Landis said.
“That will kill business and kill the economic recovery.”
It could also disastrously impact the nation’s supply chain, Ports Australia chief executive Mike Gallagher said.
NSW had accepted it must learn to live with COVID, it should accept it must learn to work with it too.
“Once you open up to the wider community, we can do whatever we can in the workplace to maintain those protocols, but people can become infected just simply walking around,” he said.
“What is that going to mean in terms of our ability to keep our people safe and keep them at work?
“You can be assured that the moment the supply chain or link sites start to fail … we have a huge problem, because we don’t have an abundance of those people that can do those jobs.”
Regardless of the rules, ongoing financial support must be continued, several industry bodies said.
“We found the government support financially hasn’t touched the sides,” Mr Landis said.
“The average club [is] losing $120,000 a week through lockdown, even after taking the government support into account, with some losing over a million dollars a week.”