The much-anticipated roadmap unveiling didn’t go quite as planned on Sunday, with Premier Dan Andrews announcing that Melbourne will remain under tight restrictions until at least late October, prompting business lobby groups to voice their concerns.
While many believed that Sunday’s announcement would signal the end of stage 4 restrictions on 13 September, Andrews instead left businesses frustrated and facing more weeks of lost revenue and mounting costs, prompting even the Prime Minister to respond and refer to Andrews’ speech as “hard and crushing”.
A joint statement from Mr Morrison, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Health Minister Greg Hunt said that Andrews’ proposed roadmap will come at a “further economic cost” and further loss of Victorian livelihoods.
Clearly continuing the Commonwealth’s criticism of Victoria’s management of the COVID-19 crisis, the statement also called on Andrews to strengthen the state’s contact tracing and permit “businesses and people to carry out their daily lives in a CovidSafe way”.
But even before the federal reaction, business lobby groups were on task, warning Andrews of the consequences of his decisions.
‘Road to nowhere’
One of the first was the Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, with their chief executive, Paul Guerra, quick to dub the Premier’s plan a “road to nowhere”.
“This does not deliver for the thousands of businesses that are trying to keep this state going and trying to keep their doors open,” Mr Guerra said minutes after Andrews’ speech.
“We can’t continue to let business and jobs be decimated on the way to controlling the spread of the virus.”
By Sunday evening and as more reactions started to flow, the Business Council of Australia issued a stern warning to all governments with the remark that “the longer the road out of this, the harder it will be for the state and the nation to recover, get people back to work and create new jobs”.
Speaking on behalf of the body, chief executive Jennifer Westacott urged the Victorian government to base its rules on evidence and a risk management approach, keeping in mind that every decision made has an impact on someone’s mental health and their wellbeing.
“A lack of clarity, certainty and consistency has taken a serious toll on people’s wellbeing and put jobs at risk,” Ms Westacott said.
“Businesses need predictability, they need to know basic things like what to order for Christmas which for many is the difference between keeping their doors open or closing and letting staff go.”
‘Businesses can’t be expected to hang on’
Similar sentiments were voiced by the Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman, Kate Carnell, who called Victoria’s expectation of small businesses to continue to hang on “unreasonable”.
“It is unreasonable to expect small businesses to continue to hang on and accumulate debt, given this ongoing forced closure is not fault of their own,” Ms Carnell said.
“This is a situation no small business could have planned for. The lockdown extension has forced small businesses into this dire predicament and now the government needs to do the right thing to support them to exit if they cannot afford to hang on.
“The enormity of this lockdown extension and the psychological distress inflicted on small-business owners cannot be underestimated.”
She called on Victoria to step up and help struggling small businesses, that know they cannot remain viable, to make the sensible business decision to exit.
“This means the Victorian government needs to pay for all break-lease termination fees — not just on the premises but also equipment so small-business owners can walk away without further penalties.”
‘Death sentence for many businesses’
Just as unpleased as Ms Carnell is the CEO of the Australian Retailers Association (ARA), Paul Zahra, who said that the protracted delays to reopening translate to a “death sentence” for many Melbourne retailers.
“Melbourne retailers will have been subject to lockdown for 13 weeks at that point — and some hair and beauty salons have been closed for five months, which is unprecedented,” Mr Zahra said.
“Without further financial support, this will certainly permanently wipe out a large number of small businesses and see the closure of many Victorian stores by national retailers.”
Of rising concern, Mr Zahra added, is lockdown fatigue which is having a devastating impact on other health issues including mental health.
“We would like to see national consistency and a return to more regular shopping experiences — but with a safety overlay which might include reduced number of household representatives shopping,” Mr Zahra said.
“Many retailers make the majority of their profits in this shopping period between now and January and every week lost is a devastating blow.
“There is also a safety concern around compressing this activity into a very short number of weeks ahead of Christmas. It would make more sense to have started the staged reopening earlier.”
Earlier on Sunday, Dan Andrews addressed his state with the words: “We have to extend, we cannot open up at this time.
“If we were to, we would lose control very, very quickly.”
While restrictions will start to ease at the end of this month, a majority of small businesses are not expected to open until the end of October, at the earlier.
For more information on what you need to know about Melbourne’s reopening roadmap, click here.