A coalition of Australia’s peak industry groups representing the retail, hospitality and tourism sectors says “there is almost no government support” for businesses struck by Omicron, and has called for action in six areas to prevent operators from collapsing.
As part of a six-point plan the Australian Retailers Association (ARA), the Restaurant & Catering Australia (R&CA) and the Tourism & Transport Forum (TTF) are calling on the government to underwrite the cost of rapid antigen tests, expand close contact exemptions and lure in skilled workers though visa rebates.
All three groups are also urging for rent relief, cash grants and simpler reporting requirements for businesses with COVID-positive employees.
Approximately 70 per cent of ARA members have staff in isolation, whilst a third have limited trading hours in some locations and one in five were forced to close down due to staff shortages.
“This year has seen business enter unchartered waters, with Omicron impacting business more than any other time in the pandemic with almost no government support,” ARA CEO Paul Zahra said.
“These challenges are going to be with us for some time and targeted support is desperately needed from government so small businesses can survive.”
"For many in the hospitality sector, the current situation with Omicron has left them worse off when compared to the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021,” added R&CA CEO Wes Lambert.
“Between staff having to isolate with COVID-19, mass cancellations from a fearful public and the ongoing staff shortage, who can blame them?”
Reduced domestic travel has also slammed the tourism sector, which is still reeling from missing five school holiday periods in a row due to restrictions, resulting in an estimated loss of $21 billion in related visitor spend.
“After losing around 600,000 people from our sector over the course of the pandemic with many never to return, the lack of skilled staff is now the number one issue for tourism and aviation businesses large and small,” said TTF CEO Margy Osmond.
The industry groups have called on the government to commit to six immediate areas of focus to support business during this time:
1) Access to Rapid Antigen Tests
"Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) are a critical resource as we adjust to living with Covid and they should be easily accessible and affordable for businesses to assist with the testing of their staff.
"We call on the Federal Government to underwrite the cost of RATs so businesses are not lumped with additional costs – on top of the trading impacts they’re currently suffering."
2) Expand close contact isolation exemptions
"Omicron is forcing tens of thousands of people into isolation every day and staff shortages across the economy are immense.
Whilst a range of industries have been included in the list of workers who are exempt from close contact isolation requirements, this needs to cascade out to workers in retail, hospitality and tourism, allowing these businesses to continue serving customers while keeping everyone safe."
3) Access to skilled staff
"We welcome the Federal Government’s recent announcements to lure more international students and working holiday makers into the country through visa rebates. These workers will fill roles generally at the lower and medium skilled positions level. We now need to prioritise these workers to fill the remaining labour shortages in our industries which are predominantly skilled.
"At all times we support the priority of providing jobs to Australians and training Australians where they exist. However, the retail, hospitality and tourism industries were already dealing with skills shortages before the Omicron wave. Our sectors require prioritisation with more specialised workers on the skilled migrant workers list."
4) Rent relief
"Rent is a major pain point for business, and leasing codes of conduct have now expired in most jurisdictions leaving small businesses vulnerable to significant cashflow challenges in the first quarter of this year.
"We thank the NSW and Victorian governments for extending rent negotiation rights for small business until mid-March. However, rent relief is only available to businesses with turnover of up to $5 million (in NSW) and $10 million (in Victoria). We’re calling for the threshold to be lifted to $50 million – as it was previously – and for similar supports to be reinstated or introduced across the other states and territories."
5) Targeted cash grants
"Targeted cash grants, including the JobSaver program, were a lifesaver for businesses and should be reinstated. It’s clear that the impacts of Omicron are widespread and ongoing and that targeted and temporary cash grants are needed to keep small businesses most affected alive until they come out the other side of this current crisis."
6) Reduce red tape
"The last thing businesses need to be focused on right now is regulation and red tape.
"Feedback is that employer reporting requirements for positive cases are onerous, overwhelming teams and causing resources to be diverted to administration which is a roadblock to other safety and support issues.
"We’re pleased to see a reduction in some of the duplicate reporting requirements within Victoria. We call on the other states and territories to do the same."
Updated at 3.39pm AEDT on 20 January 2022.
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