A lockdown isn’t just a matter of locking the doors — it comes at a great loss for all those involved in small business. There is wastage, lost income, lost wages for workers, unending fixed expenses such as rent and insurance, and the heaviest toll of all: that of mental health for the people in small business.
COSBOA held a roundtable for its members on 1 June to discuss the impact of the Melbourne COVID-19 outbreak and associated lockdown that began on 27 May. Members discussed the need for a nationally consistent approach to lockdowns and business support, as well as the unsustainability of an elimination strategy.
With the likelihood of recurring disruptions on the horizon, this is the ideal time for all Australian governments, state and federal, to join with small business and give them certainty and clarity on their path to recovery.
COSBOA has been calling for national consistency in responding to COVID-19 since March 2020. We have also called for the development of a standardised, national approach to small business support before COVID-19 lockdowns and other natural disasters. Currently, announcements of small business support tend to drop days after the disruption has begun and anxiety has taken hold. This can’t continue.
COSBOA accepts that it is unreasonable for any government to continually fund the cost of COVID-19 lockdowns, but there is a need for all governments, via the National Cabinet, to agree to standardised programs for both the lockdown process and the assistance available to affected businesses. This should involve:
- Consultation and co-design with small business representatives.
- Clear, consistent guidelines of how businesses should show decline and consideration for those who, given the current climate, may not be able to report in the minimal timelines suggested.
- A broader understanding of how businesses in an area are affected rather than formulaic approach using ANZSIC codes, which may be out of date.
- Targeted assistance for industries more deeply affected in conjunction with a recognition of those indirectly affected. These would include those in geographical areas outside of the lockdown area affected by a drop in tourism, for example.
- An administration process that ensures that small business applicants don’t need to re-enter their details every time they apply for assistance.
These frameworks need to be urgently developed and legislated now so that businesses can plan and navigate future lockdowns with certainty.
There is a need for a national discussion on suppression versus elimination strategies.
Roundtable participants questioned whether the economic and social costs of elimination through lockdowns were sustainable. While the Victorian Government and the Federal Government engage in an argument about who should pay the cost of the government lockdown, it is actually business (small and big) and their employees that are paying the costs of the lockdown in the form of reduced business income, ongoing fixed costs, and zero wages for employees.
COSBOA notes that a key objective of elimination was to ensure that Australia’s health and hospital system was not overwhelmed by a dramatic escalation in contagion. Has that problem been largely resolved? Would a suppression strategy better support communities through this pandemic?
It is time to look at what safe reopening practices look like for businesses and how communities living with a COVID-19 outbreak can be sustained. We need business to remain open, workers to stay employed, to flourish together and rebuild the economy and ultimately create more jobs. But we can’t do that when we’re in lockdown.
Suppression strategies like vaccination keep businesses open, maintaining lives and livelihoods into the future. Vaccinations are essential in the first line of defence. Guided by medical experts, COSBOA fully supports the immediate rollout of vaccines to safeguard our communities and small business livelihoods against the ravages of lockdowns, lost productivity, and the disease itself. With over two thirds of Australians willing to get vaccinated it is essential for the states and federal governments to accelerate this in all communities.
A singular, state-based approach to QR codes for checking-in to all businesses is also central to protecting the community. The medical guidelines are clear: knowing where a COVID-19 positive case has been leads to best practice for contract tracing. However, the strength in such a system only comes from a unified approach.
It’s time for small business to take a seat at the table. It’s time for governments to develop small business support programs prior to the announcement of lockdowns. And it’s time for a national discussion on whether to pursue a suppression or an elimination strategy.