Omicron COVID-19 spread hits Australian small businesses, creating ‘shadow lockdown’ and loose business terms

Timing is key for Adam Ellston’s small concreting business.

Recently, it has become so difficult for him to start or finish work on time that he has started losing work.

In December, her daughter caught COVID-19, forcing the rest of the family to self-isolate as close contacts.

For seven days he could not be there. He had to hire a subcontractor, talk to him about the project on the phone and hope for the best.

“[In concreting] if you’re not all there from start to finish, you’re left behind,” he said.

“What takes two days ends up taking four days.”

In recent weeks, as most of Australia has grappled with the spread of Omicron, thousands of businesses like Mr Ellston’s have been affected.

This caused the federal government to redefine the definition of close contact. Then he announced that more workers would be exempt from COVID isolation to help ease pressure on the workforce and supply chains.

Except for urgent repairs or to stabilize building sites, construction workers were not included, but the Prime Minister said they could be added in the future after further health advice.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government’s strategy for dealing with the Omicron variant was to protect hospitals, while keeping the economy functioning.

“Omicron is a shifter and we need to move on,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week.

“You have two choices here: you can pass or you can lock. We are for passing.”

Mr. Ellston’s business is also progressing, but the speed at which Omicron is spreading through the community is making things difficult.

One of his contractors took time off work while infected, and his next project was delayed because a family member of the excavator came down with COVID-19.

Adam Ellston says the absence of RAT has been a huge government failure. (ABC News: Mary Lloyd )

He said that when a job exploded, he might miss the next job he lined up

“Builders won’t wait, no one will wait for you – they’ll call you and have someone else do it,” he said.

Keeping the economy “viable”

In a statement this week, the Public Health Association of Australia (PHAA) said easing restrictions in a bid to “open up the economy” had had the opposite effect.

PHHA Executive Director Terry Slevin said most states’ resolve to return to normal has backfired.

He would like to see state and federal authorities return to a policy of slowing the spread of the virus – a strategy that has become widely known as flattening the curve.

To suppress the transmission of the virus, he would like to see the reintroduction of measures such as limiting the number of people in public places, limiting the number of people who can go to private homes, and mask mandates.

“What we didn’t understand then, but what we understand better now, is that it’s also a way to keep the economy viable,” Prof Slevin said.

The Shadow Lock

Hillary Wardhaugh has stopped going out and cut back on shopping because she is terrified of catching COVID-19 and losing more work.

A middle-aged woman with gray hair holding a camera
Hillary Wardhaugh struggled to find work during the Omicron wave. (Provided)

“It’s like a lockdown that the government doesn’t pay for,” she said.

She works as a portrait photographer in Canberra.

A number of Ms Wardhaugh’s shoots have already been canceled or postponed because the person she was supposed to photograph tested positive or had to self-isolate as a close contact.

This severely affects the single mother’s ability to earn an income.

She was frustrated that public health measures such as QR codes to check in and wearing face masks in public were dropped just as Omicron was taking off in the community.

“It’s ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous,” she said. “They still needed that, if they wanted to let it tear.”

The beating heart of the economy

With many businesses operating at reduced capacity or for shorter hours, and millions contracting the virus or in isolation, consumer spending has fallen sharply.

The monthly ANZ and Roy Morgan survey, released earlier this week, also showed consumer confidence had fallen.

Professor Warwick McKibbin of ANU’s Crawford School of Public Policy said small businesses, which generate most jobs in Australia’s economy, were being squeezed from both sides by worker shortages and slowing spending.

He said it’s not the shutdowns that have caused the greatest economic loss, but rather how people have changed their behavior during a pandemic.

He wanted to see a broad strategy to support the economy through what he believed would be recurring waves “for many, many years”.

According to Professor McKibbin, the government should support small businesses that have experienced a drop in cash flow with measures such as loans repaid through the tax system.

The federal government is providing income support for people who lose their jobs and are not entitled to leave if they have to self-isolate due to the pandemic.

The government also has a program that helps small and medium-sized businesses access secured loans from lenders if their income has been affected by the pandemic.

But while other countries distribute free rapid antigen tests (RATs), the national cabinet has decided to subsidize RATs only for concession card holders, or people with symptoms or who are close contacts.

Adam Ellston spent around $300 on RATs when his daughter had COVID-19 and would like cheaper, more available test kits.

In his opinion, people would be willing to use the tests before going out and that could mean less chance of him catching the virus and having to miss work.

“I don’t really want to get sick,” he said. “The work stops. It will cost everything”

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