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How governments can soften the Omicron blow

As Omicron surges, businesses across the country are experiencing unprecedented disruption. 

January has been a difficult month. Ongoing supply chain failures, record low in consumer confidence, and isolating workers have left businesses struggling. 

A coalition of peak bodies is calling for governments to address these issues. 

The Australian Retailers Association (ARA), Restaurant & Catering Australia (R&CA) and the Tourism & Transport Forum (TTF) say that Omicron has struck whilst there is almost no government support.

The groups have called on the government to commit to six immediate areas of focus to support businesses during this time. The six priority areas are as follows: 

Increased access to Rapid Antigen Tests

Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) are critical as we adjust to living with Covid. They should be accessible and affordable for businesses to test their staff.

The rollout of accessible and affordable RATs has been subpar. Access to RATs is limited, and the tests are inaccessible to most Australians right now. 

Yet, RATs may prove an essential tool in the business toolbox, keeping their doors open. By making tests available, businesses can limit the spread of Covid and protect their staff and customers.

The group has called on the Federal Government to assist with the cost of RATs. This way, businesses will not be lumped with more charges on top of current trading impacts. 

Expand close contact isolation exemptions

Omicron is forcing tens of thousands of people into isolation every day. Staff shortages across the economy are putting businesses under considerable strain.

ARA CEO Paul Zahra said, “Around 70% of ARA members say they currently have staff in isolation, a third have limited trading hours in some locations, and around one in five have had to close some stores altogether due staff shortages. 

“These challenges are going to be with us for some time, and targeted support is desperately needed from government so small businesses can survive.”

A range of industries have been given exemptions from the close contact isolation requirements. But, the group is urging the government to extend exemptions to workers in retail, hospitality and tourism. 

This move will allow businesses to continue serving customers while keeping everyone safe.

Aid in access to skilled staff

The coalition welcomes the Federal Government’s recent visa rebates decision. The announcements should entice international students and working holidays makers. Easing staff shortages.

This will ease pressure in the retail, hospitality, and tourism industries. These industries were dealing with skills shortages before the Omicron wave. 

But, despite this decision skill shortages will remain in skilled industries. The groups suggest that the Federal Government should prioritise skilled migrant workers in specialised industries requiring workers. 

At the same time, they implore the Federal Government to continue training Australians. 

Provide rent relief

As stress mounts, rent is a significant pain point for businesses. Leasing codes of conduct have expired in most jurisdictions. Leaving small businesses vulnerable to cash flow challenges. 

The coalition acknowledges the NSW and Victorian governments extension of rent relief for businesses until mid-March. 

But, rent relief is only available to businesses with a turnover of up to $5 million (in NSW) and $10 million (in Victoria). They’re calling on governments to lift the threshold to $50 million – as before. 

They are also urging governments in other states and territories to reinstate or introduce rent relief. 

Introduce targeted cash grants

The peak bodies suggest targeted cash grants, were a lifesaver for businesses and should be reinstated. They say targeted, and temporary cash grants are needed to keep small businesses most affected alive. 

The impacts of Omicron are widespread and ongoing. Businesses will need support until they come out the other side of the current crisis.

TTF CEO Margy Osmond said, “The continuing plunge in domestic traveller confidence due to Omicron is very concerning for our industry which is still reeling from missing five school holiday periods in a row to restrictions and as a result, foregone more than $21 billion in related visitor spend.

“Further, 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.

“This is why new support including incentives to attract staff, access to tests, flexible contact exemptions, less red tape and more targeted cash support for tourism, aviation and related sectors is critical, if the sector is to survive this crisis period and then start to get back on its feet.”

Reduce red tape

The last thing businesses need to be focused on right now is regulation and red tape.

Feedback from business owners shows the reporting requirements for positive cases are burdensome. 

Red tape is overwhelming teams and causing resource redirection to administration. This is causing a roadblock to other safety and support issues.

R&CA CEO Wes Lambert said, “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. Between staff having to isolate with COVID-19, mass cancellations from a fearful public and the ongoing staff shortage, who can blame them?” Mr Lambert said.

“Business owners need certainty that they have the government’s backing throughout this incredibly trying and tumultuous period. Whilst learning to live with COVID is a must, we can’t turn our backs on the hard-working business owners at this time.”

Read more:LinkedIn data reveals the 15 fastest-growing jobs in Australia

Read more:ACA SME Tracker: Positive end to the year, but SME confidence slips as COVID accelerates

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Heidi Heck

Heidi Heck

Heidi Heck is a Journalist at Dynamic Business. She is a student at the University of Queensland where she studies Journalism and Economics. Heidi has a passion for the stories of small business, as well as the bigger picture of economics.

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