Posted: 04 May 2020 6 min. read

Keys to unlock recovery

We need targeted responses to protect businesses

Australia's progress in tackling the COVID-19 crisis has been remarkable. Swift and far-reaching government policy, adaptable business strategies and physical distancing - all have helped ease a crisis that was doubling in severity every four days to one that is recording only handful of new cases each day.

This achievement puts Australia in an enviable position.

While most governments around the world are grappling with their response to the health crisis amid rising infections, Australia is weeks ahead as we turn our attention to the next phase of our response.

By no means is this crisis over; we've arrived at the start-line of navigating a recovery. But what do we do now without the evidence of what's worked elsewhere to guide us? When is it safe to reopen parts of the economy?

Which sectors are most important to return normality to? And how can they be reopened safely?

All are important questions for government and business leaders, but for which there are no easy answers.

One important way to look at this is to consider occupations which, inherently, require proximity to others.

We've analysed more than 350 Australian occupations, looking at their exposure to disease and working proximity to others. We estimate that almost 75 per cent of the workforce (more than 9.5 million people) come into close contact with others in their normal workday. That could be in a shared office space, retail shop or classroom. And that's before commutes and leisure activities are taken into account.

But some are more exposed than others. Not surprisingly, workers in the health sector - responding to the immediate medical response - top this list.

The same is true for the less celebrated cleaning professionals and sales staff who have faced greater exposure to disease and interactions with others to ensure the wheels of the economy continue to turn - albeit more slowly. At the other end of the spectrum are those working in professional services and finance, whose work environment minimises their direct exposure to others.

These risks become material in the operations of different parts of the economy. In some sectors this risk is minimal, with operations able to restart without significant threat to further outbreaks. In others, the opposite is true, with normal operations bringing greater risk of reinfection.

We must balance sectors where we can get the greatest economic bang for the lowest health risk.

The onus in navigating this next phase doesn't lie squarely with policymakers. As government restrictions on operations ease, businesses have a responsibility to restart their operations in a safe and considered manner - with the wellbeing of their workers at the forefront of any action. It's another good reason for the government's COVIDSafe app.

The moral imperative and business reasoning here is clear.

The nature of this virus makes the prospect of future localised outbreaks a distinct possibility, particularly as aspects of the workforce and society return to some semblance of normality. Companies that are able to navigate these potential outbreaks and mitigate the risk of future disruptions to their operations will reap the benefits.

But that's no easy task. Workplaces are varied and unique, often operating across the country, in different states, suburbs and communities. And nor are they all the same, with workers from varied backgrounds, at diverse stages of life and, importantly, undertaking different roles with different potential exposures.

And workers will rightly demand this focus - they need assurance to come back to the workplace.

At its simplest, the policies a company puts in place to protect their workers in a retail store need to be different from those it implements for its HR team, which need to be different again to the measures to protect its distributors.

No one size fits all. Rather, a series of informed, considered and targeted responses are needed to protect workers and businesses.

Australians have rightly given up economic activity to respond to this health crisis. But it's left business vulnerable to further shocks and disruptions.

Any further outbreaks that see a return to lockdowns, disruptions to workforces and an even sharper drop in demand could be disastrous for the already vulnerable businesses that have managed to survive the wave so far.

Proactive actions by individual businesses to identify their exposures and respond accordingly to protect their workers and ability to operate could be the difference between survival and collapse.

This article first appeared in The Australian Monday 4th May 2020.

More about the authors

Dr Pradeep Philip

Dr Pradeep Philip

Lead Partner, Deloitte Access Economics

Pradeep is the Lead Partner for Deloitte Access Economics. He has had a long and successful career in public policy, with deep expertise in economics and proven leadership experience. Pradeep has been a senior bureaucrat, working at the highest levels of public policy, across three jurisdictions in Australia. Pradeep’s experience includes: Director of Policy in the Prime Minister’s office, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services in Victoria, CEO of LaunchVic – a company established by the Victorian Government to promote start-ups and entrepreneurship – and Associate Director General of the Department of Premier and Cabinet in Queensland. He holds a PhD in Economics and Bachelor of Economics (Hons) from the University of Queensland.

Harry Murphy Cruise

Harry Murphy Cruise

Senior Economist

Harry joined Deloitte Access Economics in January 2017 after completing a Bachelors of Arts and Commerce, with honours in Econometrics and Business Statistics from Monash University. Harry’s area of focus is data analytics and econometric modelling, having conducted a range of research surrounding mental health, prescription drug use, labour markets and ageing populations.