There is growing sense the national cabinet has contained the virus and that Australia can carefully and gradually begin to reopen while not endangering public health.
But the national cabinet faces growing pressure from the business community, with retail CEOs including Wesfarmers boss Rob Scott leading a push in The Australian Financial Review on Wednesday and other sectors adding their voice on Thursday.
Obviously our objective is to open as soon as we can, but we want to do it safely.
Ken Barton, Crown Resorts CEO
“I think it is time to start sensibly unwinding what we can over the course of May, including retail and food services with the appropriate protocols,” said Graham Bradley, chairman of EnergyAustralia, HSBC Bank Australia, Virgin Australia International and Graincorp spin-off MaltCo.
Mr Bradley said restrictions are beginning to be lifted across Europe and pointed to Germany re-opening their schools on May 4, which “should be on the agenda here as soon as possible”.
Leading chairman Graham Bradley says it is time to plan for a May re-opening. Michel O’Sullivan
Other CEOs are being more cautious but agree that it is important to telegraph a plan for the transition and the approach for different industries and sectors.
“We should focus on the reboot of high-value industries impacted by the restrictions, such as manufacturing, agriculture, construction, professional services and infrastructure, along with the return of office-based workers in a safe manner,” Coca-Cola Amatil chief executive Alison Watkins told the Financial Review.
She expects to see a phased and risk-based wind-back of restrictions, with the flexibility to relax or tighten restrictions based on real-time information and on a very local basis.
“It is important to plan for the transition to increased economic activity starting in the short term, where it makes practical sense and where the risk to peoples health and safety can be properly managed via appropriate measures,” Ms Watkins said.
Ken Barton, chief executive of Crown Resorts which stood down more than 11,500 workers when its casinos were closed on March 23 said Crown would be guided by chief health officers in Victoria and Western Australia.
“For us it was about doing whatever we could to meet their objectives, and make sure our properties are safe, but also to the extent we could keep our properties open and keep our people employed,” Mr Barton told the Financial Review.
“Obviously our objective is to open as soon as we can, but we want to do it safely.”
CEO of major energy supplier AGL, Brett Redman, was also guarded, and agreed he would be led by the medical experts.
“My view is I am paying careful attention to the government, the national cabinet and listening for their advice on the right thing to do and following that advice closely,” he told the Financial Review.
Medibank CEO Craig Drummond, who temporarily closed retail stores in March, said that was the right decision given their people and customers increasingly wanted to stay at home.
He said the redeployment of their staff across phone and digital customer support channels was working well.
“We have no plans to open our stores in the immediate future, but we remain ready to open them when the time is right for our people and our customers,” he said.
Business Council of Australia chief executive Jennifer Westacott said the virus must continue to be contained, but the longer widespread restrictions remain in place the greater the risk of a slower and more difficult economic recovery.
“This will result in fewer jobs, greater reliance on welfare, challenges with educational outcomes, a poorer standard of living for many Australians and more difficult rebound conditions for businesses of all sizes,” she said.
“The focus now needs to include widespread testing across the community, development of technologies in conjunction with industry to track and trace the virus and the business community stepping up to develop best-practice standards to protect workers, customers and suppliers.”
Ai Group chief executive Innes Willox said the longer the virus containment measures remained the “harder it will become for functioning businesses to keep going and shuttered businesses to reopen”.
“We need some clarity very quickly around a pathway out economically so they can start making investment decisions,” Mr Willox said.
“We need to reverse things by taking into account health considerations but also ensuring we don’t inflict more economic damage on ourselves.”
He warned that work was expected to dry up further for functioning firms beyond June when current financial year contracts expired.
“The longer this goes the skinnier the pipeline of work is because businesses are not signing contacts or spending money,” he said.