Timing is everything for Adam Ellston’s small concreting business.
- Businesses across Australia impacted by the Omicron wave say they’re experiencing a shadow lockdown
- The federal government has tried to ease the pressure by redefining close contact rules
- But some public health experts say Australia needs policies to help reduce the spread of COVID -19
Recently, it’s become so hard for him to start or finish jobs on time that he’s started losing work.
In December, his daughter caught COVID-19, forcing the rest of the family into isolation as close contacts.
For seven days, he could not be on site. He had to call in a sub-contractor, talk them through the project over the phone and hope for the best.
“[In concreting] if you’re not all there from the start to finish, you’re left behind,” he said.
“What takes two days, ends up taking four days.”
In the past few weeks, as most of Australia has dealt with the spread of Omicron, thousands of businesses like Mr Ellston’s have been affected.
It led the federal government to redefine the definition of a close contact. Then, it announced more workers to be exempt from COVID isolation to help ease the pressure on workforces and supply chains.
Other than for urgent repairs or to make worksites stable, construction workers were not included, but the Prime Minister said they could be added in the future following further health advice.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said the government’s strategy for dealing with the Omicron variant was to protect hospitals, while keeping the economy functioning.
“Omicron is a gear-change and we have to push through,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week.
“You have two choices here: you can push through or you can lock down. We’re for pushing through.”
Mr Ellston’s business is also pushing through, but the rate at which Omicron is spreading through the community is making it hard.
One of his sub-contractors was off work while infected, and his next project has been delayed because someone in the excavator’s family came down with COVID-19.
He said when one job blew out, he risked missing out on the next job he had lined up
“Builders won’t wait, no one’s going to wait for you — they’ll ring around and then get someone else to do it,” he said.
Keeping the economy ‘viable’
In a statement this week, the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) said easing restrictions with the intention of “opening up the economy” had had the opposite effect.
PHHA chief executive Terry Slevin said most states’ determination to return to normal had backfired.
He would like to see state and federal authorities returning to a policy of slowing the spread of the virus — a strategy that became widely known as flattening the curve.
To suppress transmission of the virus, he would like to see the reintroduction of measures such as limiting the number of people in public venues, limiting the number of people who can visit private homes, and mask mandates.
“What we didn’t understand then, but we better understand now, is that it’s also a way of keeping the economy viable,” Professor Slevin said.
The shadow lockdown
Hillary Wardhaugh has stopped going out and cut back on shopping because she is terrified of catching COVID-19 and losing more work.
“It’s like a lockdown that the government is not paying for,” she said.
She works as a portrait photographer in Canberra.
A number of Ms Wardhaugh’s shoots have already been cancelled or postponed because the person she was supposed to photograph tested positive or had to isolate as a close contact.
It’s severely affected the single mother’s ability to earn an income.
She was frustrated that public health measures such as QR codes to check in and wearing face masks in public were abandoned just as Omicron took off in the community.
“That’s ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous,” she said. “They still needed to have that, if they were going to let it rip.”
The heartbeat of the economy
With many businesses operating at reduced capacity or for shorter hours, and millions of people wither contracting the virus or in isolation, consumer spending has dropped sharply.
The monthly ANZ and Roy Morgan survey, released earlier this week, also showed consumer confidence had dipped.
Professor Warwick McKibbin of the ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy said small businesses, which generate most of the jobs in Australia’s economy, were being squeezed from both sides by worker shortages and slower spending.
He said it was not shutdowns that caused the greatest economic loss, but rather how people changed their behaviour while in a pandemic.
He wanted to see a broad strategy to support the economy through what he believed would be recurring waves “for many, many years”.
In Professor McKibbin’s view, the government should support small businesses that have experienced a drop in cash flow with measures such as loans repaid through the tax system.
The federal government provides income support to people who lose work and who have no leave entitlements if they have to isolate as a result of the pandemic.
The government also has a scheme that helps small and medium-sized businesses to access guaranteed loans from lenders if its revenue has been affected by the pandemic.
But while other countries distribute free rapid antigen tests (RATs), national cabinet has moved only to subsidise RATs for concession card holders, or people with symptoms or who are close contacts.
Adam Ellston spent about $300 on RATs when his daughter had COVID-19 and would welcome cheaper, more available test kits.
In his view, people would be willing to use the tests before going out and that could mean less of a chance he would catch the virus and have to take time off work.
“I don’t want to really get sick,” he said. “Work shuts down. It’s going to cost everything”