Andrew Barr MLA, Chief Minister of the ACT
John Hart, Chair Australian Chamber Tourism, Tourism Australia Board member
Jonathan Kobus, Director, Visit Canberra
Andrew Barr MLA, Chief Minister of the ACT
David Marshall, Chair of the Tourism Advisory Forum, introduced the Chief Minister (CM) by thanking him for the increase in support for businesses.
Question: What is the government's view on mandatory vaccinations and putting legislation in place to protect businesses?
The CM said there was a recent briefing at National Cabinet from the Commonwealth Solicitor General.
The CM stressed he cannot give legal advice on this matter but said the current Australian law provides business with protection, however, there is legislation that would need to be adhered to - the Disability Act and the Discrimination Act.
The CM noted that if a person is not able to be vaccinated for personal health reasons such as auto immune issues, they would have a legitimate reason not to be vaccinated and a business may be in trouble if it sought to exclude them from the workplace.
The ACT operates under Commonwealth industrial relations law, part of which is that employees must follow lawful and reasonable direction of employers – ‘reasonable’ may need to be tested in court, however the CM noted that in a vulnerable care setting that request would be quite reasonable.
Currently those directions in relation to aged care workers have been made under public health directions. These are only legally binding during a public health emergency. Once we move out of lockdowns and public health restrictions, and the public health emergency ends, there will be no power for the ACT government to put in place legislation. In short, this will then be a decision for individual businesses.
Question - New South Wales and Victoria are looking at QR codes being linked to vaccination status. Is that something that the ACT government would be looking at?
The CM noted the ACT, Queensland, Tasmania and the Northern Territory are all using the same app technology which is ACT intellectual property. There’s currently consideration of how that app could communicate with the Commonwealth Immunisation Register to allow a user to download their vaccination certificate to the app. However, the app does not verify a person's identity and the current policy intention is that it would be a voluntary thing.
The CM noted the Service NSW app is multi-purpose and contains information like a person's drivers’ licence so that presents a different task and challenge.
With different states using different apps it presents a challenge for people travelling across borders. Some consideration is being given to the Medicare app which may be nationally consistent.
The CM noted the considerable fraud risk associated with people downloading a vaccination certificate onto an app so that’s an issue being considered.
Question - if the ACT comes out of lockdown on 17 September, does the Commonwealth government still have an appetite for supporting businesses in the ACT which may still be impacted by the lockdown in New South Wales in particular?
The CM understands they do. The declaration of COVID hotspots by the Chief Health Officer will be a key thing, but the CM hopes the Commonwealth will continue that partnership for support. He has a very good working relationship with Treasurer, Josh Frydenberg and will keep at it.
Part of this will be the need to narrow the focus to industry sectors that are still impacted as lockdowns end and being able to renew more economic activity in lower risk sectors of the economy. The CM noted tourism is a perfect example here - the industry is going to be impacted for another three months as he imagines it won't be until December that we could realistically expect quite a bit of internal travel in Australia.
Question - Are we going to be letting people from New South Wales into the ACT if they're not vaccinated to at least 80%?
The CM noted that we already are now for a variety of reasons including essential work, health services and the like. The CM said that based on our current velocity of vaccination, the ACT will hit the 70% and 80% double-dose thresholds before New South Wales, and when they hit 80% the ACT may be close to 90%. The CM noted this is in the hands of 16 to 29 year olds. Bookings were opened today for them and the system was absolutely flooded with bookings being made right through until mid to late November. He said the key is a bit more Pfizer vaccine supply arriving sooner.
Question - You mentioned in your media conference this morning that people can forget about looking at holidays for the September school holidays, but more likely to be in December?
The CM noted that if we managed to eliminate the virus, at least in the short term, then the last thing we want is people going into New South Wales to bring it straight back. For the September holiday, the CM noted people should be staying in Canberra because they won’t be able to go anywhere - every other state will not let them in.
Question – So with the school holidays, will Canberrans be relieved from the lockdown to support the tourism sector, restaurants and so forth?
The CM doesn’t want to speculate on the advice of the Chief Health Officer – it’s a day-by-day proposition. The effective reproduction number is important – it’s got to be less than one. The ACT number has been tracking down and is now about .87. From here it depends on some good luck and people doing the right things.
Question – David Marshall asked the CM to comment on planning for major events that are coming up, such as Remembrance Day and summer sports.
The CM said the best indication is to plan for a very small event. He said there is no way there will be large crowds for any events in Canberra in the foreseeable future, not 5000, 2000 or 1000. That’s a decision the Chief Health Officer will make based on risk. He noted that Summernats may be in a better position in January, but a large crowd at an event in November is not likely. Perhaps a small crowd at Remembrance Day of 500 may be realistic.
Question – People from NSW represent 66% of the ACT source market. Is it a possibility they might be coming into the ACT?
The CM doubts they will until December. The modelling says national vaccination will hit 80% at the end of November, then there’s two weeks until people are effectively protected. The CM said the best and safest advice he can give is that planning around the December school holidays is as sure as you can be based on the current vaccination trends.
Question - based on that timetable, is there reassurance that particularly the tourism and hospitality sectors will be financially supported up until that time?
The CM said yes, part of our planning will need to focus on what will be necessary in that period. The CM noted we have three weapons against this virus:
vaccination which is the most effective.
test/trace/isolate/quarantine which is partially effective.
public health social measures, such as lockdowns/restrictions/density limits etc – the more vaccinated we are the less we have to use the other restrictions.
David Marshall commented that he has heard from a lot of restaurants (in particular) saying it's just not viable to open with a four square metre rule.
The CM acknowledged he has heard that loud and clear, however it may be another couple of months before we get to 2 square metres, so businesses will have to look at whether trading takeaway only will get them through with the various government support available.
John Hart, Chair Australian Chamber - Tourism, Tourism Australia Board member
Mr Hart spoke to a slide presentation (attached) noting the alignment of timelines in his presentation with that discussed by the Chief Minister. Mr Hart said the presentation shows information and a timeline of how we seek to reopen under the four stage National Cabinet plan.
Slide 1 shows a range of tourism based activities detailed through the plan with transition of some aspects, such as arrival caps, being lifted on a continuum through the stages. Mr Hart discussed some of the detail of the changes noted in each stage of the presentation.
Slide 2 notes the vaccine rollout schedule and the threshold points. Mr Hart noted that we need to get to national number first, then each of the jurisdictions will come on board when they hit the number as well. For the ACT, that will be before the national number is reached, with the current estimate being 13 October for 70% and 28 October for 80%.
Slide 3 - timeframes with details of the phases of the Australian Tourism Reopening Plan.
Mr Hart noted there are four streams of activity currently being undertaken to prepare for this timeline and these are covered on slides 5 to 8 of the presentation.
Workstream 1 – promote vaccination to consumers through the ‘it’s out best shot to travel’ campaign, along with promoting business based vaccination.
Workstream 2 – ensure sufficient support to keep businesses going. Mr Hart noted this need will continue until March/April for some businesses that will continue to be impacted including zoos and aquariums, travel agents and tour operators. He also flagged the need to continue the business events grant programs until we start getting movement across the international border.
Workstream 3 – this about looking forward to plan for the strongest, fastest recovery possible. Mr Hart estimates the pent up demand for travel will be enormous once we hit December, let alone for international travel next year. He discussed points including:
ensuring there are measures in place for vaccinated people to be able to travel, not only domestically, but internationally
work happening now to ensure international systems are interoperable
planning for how to use technology to enhance the visitor experience.
Workstream 4 – reimaging the future visitor economy. This is about looking beyond reopening to how we build back and have a cooperative, cohesive, seamless, efficient and resilient industry. There is a lot of work happening to establish travel bubbles and, when implemented, ensuring people have a good travel experience. Mr Hart said a range of other things are also being considered, including how to address some of the industrial flexibilities and skill shortages.
Question – How many businesses will still be here at Christmas if confronted with lockdowns?
Mr Hart estimated 1/3 had already closed, and business support was keeping others afloat but some will be making decisions they won’t reopen. He said the profile will look very different with potential that around 40% of businesses will never reopen.
Question – Do you trust premiers not to lockdown again?
Mr Hart responded that by the time we get to vaccination thresholds, barring curve balls, there’s not going to be an excuse. He said it’s not going to be sustainable to keep lockdowns and it can’t be justified on health grounds to keep borders shut once we hit 80%. Mr Hart is optimistic there is enough ‘carrot and stick’ in the plan to not have broad lockdowns.
Question - Where will staff come from for reopening?
Mr Hart said it’s important to get systems in place now, including continuing the range of pilots for groups like working holiday makers and international students. He used the example of flying people directly into the north of the country and quarantining them there, so they’re ready to go and in place when restrictions are eased.
Question - Mr Hart was asked to speak about the complications with business support post lockdown and whether a business will be able to have staff stood down.
Mr Hart said the industrial flexibility that was there under JobKeeper has not continued under the new support arrangements, so even if business support is continued post lockdown, business operators do not have that same level of industrial flexibility. The Council is looking at this on an award by award basis, some of which have more flexibility than others.
Question - Where are we at with students being allowed to come back into the country?
Mr Hart outlined the plans for staged re-entry under the National Plan. Phase A of the National Plan (now) is to expand trials. In phase B, once we get to the 70% vaccination threshold, the undertaking is for capped entry subject to quarantine arrangements and availability. In phase C, it allows for increased capped entry. He emphasised the importance of this cohort in order to reopen and the need to hold all of our governments to account on this.
Question - Some countries aren't accepting certain vaccinations, what is Australia’s position on that?
The issue of Australian produced AstraZeneca not being accepted by some other countries has now been addressed, so we shouldn't have a recognition problem for our vaccine in other countries. Mr Hart said there are all sorts of international agreements, most of which rely on WHO approval of vaccines as the basis for recognition. Some countries have reciprocal agreements, but it is incredibly ad hoc. Most important for Australia is identification of the Chinese vaccines and whether we accept them and they accept ours. Mr Hart noted the need to keep focused on this because even if the Chinese market comes back at 50% it will still be our largest market, so vaccine recognition is absolutely critical in rebuilding it.
Jonathan Kobus, Director, Visit Canberra
Mr Kobus acknowledged the work of John Hart, noting he has been a big advocate for the ACT.
Mr Kobus noted there is a range of financial support measures in place to support businesses, with COVID business support programs extended up to a potential $20k for businesses employing staff.
He reinforced that business operators should be aware of two programs – the Small Tourism Operators COVID Recovery Payment, and the Accommodation and Tourism Venue Operator payment.
Mr Kobus noted information is also being provided through industry bodies.