Opinion piece by Chief Executive Paul Guerra: Jab orders needed to get us moving

Businesses and workers have sacrificed, suffered and done their bit to protect us all from COVID-19. They stayed closed, in some cases without work, pivoted their services to keep Victorians employed and many lost what they had spent years building. Businesses across the State are in crisis.

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Now, as the 70 per cent and 80 per cent double vaccination target is in sight, governments must reward businesses by making it as easy as possible to trade in a COVID Normal world.

There is no question that vaccination is the best weapon we have in the fight against the virus and it’s the best chance we have of getting back to life as we know it; that is a fact.

Living with COVID-19 will put pressure on businesses and they will need protection and certainty. Readers might recall an article from March in which I forecast that mandatory vaccination would become one of the biggest workplace relations issues of the year. That has certainly come to pass.

The Victorian Chamber established a series of consultation meetings with our members to discuss challenges and potential solutions surrounding the implications of vaccination requirements over the past couple of months.

There were 21 issues raised which will require guidance from State and Federal Government. They range from whether industrial manslaughter legislation comes in to play if a staff member contracts COVID-19 in the workplace and passes away as a result,  whether everyone in a workplace will need to isolate for 14 days if it is deemed to be a Tier One site, to employees’ rights should they need to visit other workplaces that may require fully vaccinated staff.

A COVID-19 Normal world was always going to present us with unforeseen challenges and we are seeing that play out now in workplaces, businesses and communities across Victoria.

When the COVID-19 outbreak peaked in Shepparton around six weeks ago, a third of the town’s population were forced into isolation. This resulted in staff shortages and shutdowns of essential businesses such as supermarkets which induced panic and anxiety.

We are seeing similar issues across the state now as case numbers climb and essential businesses continue to be treated as Tier One or Tier Two exposure sites, regardless of whether staff and customers are fully vaccinated or if there was any transmission of the virus at the premises.

The Victorian Chamber conducted a survey of our members which found 84 per cent wanted the State Government to make Public Health Orders requiring vaccination to alleviate pressure on businesses to determine vaccine requirements. We were pleased that the State Government heeded this and announced mandatory vaccination for authorised workers on Friday, enforced by Public Health Orders.

It should not be up to businesses to traverse the tricky path surrounding vaccination and the government’s direction will save businesses from potential litigation or reputational damage around the issue.

Friday’s announcement addressed many of those 21 issues, but not all. Uncertainty is no friend of business. We need clear guidelines; fair, reasonable and equally applied. Just like we have with road rules. They are there to keep us safe, not over-regulate us.

There are still questions that business need answered about how to manage mandatory vaccination including the employer’s right to request, record and disclose vaccination status, and if there will be exceptions. The Victorian Chamber will also monitor how Victoria’s Vaccinated Economy Trial plays out.

We will continue to advocate for the vaccination certification to be integrated within the Services Victoria app to ease the compliance burden and make it easy for business to check the vaccination status of customers and visitors.

There must be reward for businesses who have vaccinated staff and that reward must be to trade at a near normal level once we reach vaccination targets, and importantly to be able to stay open with confidence and certainty. Lockdowns must be a thing of the past and vaccination is key.

Despite the pleas from our exhausted and stressed doctors, nurses and clinicians manning our COVID-19 wards, there are still some Victorians who choose not to vaccinate.

COVID-19 presents a different risk to a vaccinated population compared to an unvaccinated population. Every person who gets vaccinated is not only helping businesses to get open, you are helping to alleviate the pressure on our health system and health care workers too.

Our society can’t be stalled forever because a small percentage of people won’t get vaccinated. But to ensure businesses aren’t put at the centre of potential angst from this small group, we need Public Health Orders to ensure business can open and it’s everyone’s responsibility to follow them once they are in place.

This article originally appeared in The Age on 5 October 2021.

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