Australia is making ‘big mistakes’ by not opening up to the world again, with business leaders accusing the government of putting politics before science ahead of an impending general election.
The leaders of many The largest companies in Australia – including BHP, Macquarie and Qantas – said the country would have to learn to ‘live with the virus’, as many other countries have done.
In an open letter to both the federal and state governments, the heads of 79 large corporations, “employing almost a million Australians, warned that closures would have ‘long-lasting’ consequences and cause more economic problems.
“The borders should never have been closed,” Graham Turner, CEO of travel company Flight Center, told the Financial Times.
“We make a lot of mistakes here.”
Australia closed its borders in March last year and for a while won international praise for the successful implementation of a ‘zero-covid’ strategy. The highly contagious variant of the Delta coronavirus, combined with the failure to obtain vaccines, has sealed borders and locked up much of the country.
“It’s time for corporate Australia to turn its turmoil into a roar,” said Greg O’Neill, CEO of La Trobe Financial Fund Manager, one of the signatories to the open letter sent by the Australian Business Council has. “It’s time for courage and honesty. Not politics. ”
But political pressure is mounting on Scott Morrison, whose conservative coalition government has a devastated majority, getting into the polls and embroiled in several scandals.
This month’s announcement of an Australia, USA and UK security treaty gave Morrison’s Liberal Party a lead, but it still follows Labor, the official opposition, by 6 percentage points.
Voters are increasingly turning their backs on both parties in favor of independents, according to a Newspoll poll, as frustrations about the restriction are simmering.
The number of Covid-19 infections appears to be up, though more than three times higher than in August last year, their previous peak, with around 1,700 new infections per week.
Large corporations are worried that the government will overwhelm an anxious public because a federal election is due to be held by May next year.
Turner said the prime minister was “afraid of taking the wrong step”.
“I worked in London for five weeks in July and August, and they still have a lot of infections, but they are normal again,” he added. ‘Decisions are made for political reasons, not on the basis of science or evidence. This is probably the most frustrating thing for the business. ”
The Australian Home Office has responded that international borders remain closed “to prevent the spread of Covid-19”.
Tim Harcourt, a senior economist at the University of Technology in Sydney, said he was ‘surprised at the extent to which things held together’.
Harcourt, who was previously chief economist of the Australian Trade Commission, the country’s international trade agency, admitted that the situation was not ideal, but felt that the Australian Business Council was overestimating the problem.
“They’re lobbying, they’re hiring,” Harcourt said, “so they need to make the strongest case they can.”
This month, the Reserve Bank of Australia said the ‘significant momentum’ of the country’s economy was ‘interrupted by the Delta outbreak and the associated restrictions on activity’.
To Australia driven out of recession in the third quarter last year, gross domestic product would ‘fall significantly’ in the September quarter and unemployment ‘higher’ in the coming months, albeit from a low base.
Although the setback “was expected to be only temporary”, a high degree of uncertainty existed and ‘depends a lot on the health condition and the easing of restrictions’, the bank said.
Vaccination rates in Australia remain among the lowest in the developed world, with only 41.4 per cent of the population fully vaccinated – far behind the UK (66.7 per cent) and Canada (70.4 per cent) and below the US , where 54.7 percent were doubled.
Canberra is increasingly successful in sourcing vaccines from abroad, but a shortage remains a major source of friction.
Following a Delta outbreak in June, a large portion of the national Pfizer vaccine stockpile was shipped to New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, and to Sydney, the country’s largest city. This decision helped NSW quickly increase its vaccination rates, but left other states with a larger deficit.
In its letter, the Australian Business Council said that the country was ‘juggling’ with a mental health industry and that ‘some of the consequences of current closures are hidden, and that the consequences will remain long lasting’.
It added that “as vaccination rates increase, it will become necessary to open up society and live with the virus, in the same way that other countries have done”.
The sentiment is repeated by small businesses. Alexi Boyd, chief executive of the Council of Small Business Organizations, said the refusal to open internal and external borders undermined Australia’s economic recovery.
O’Neill added that frustration is growing across the country.
‘Ask any union, business, employer group or political party – everyone lets the community spirit do, and it all comes back with the same two overwhelming remarks:’ I want my life back ”; and, ‘if people decide not to be vaccinated, stop it,’ ‘he said.
“Aussies are a pragmatic bunch after all.”