Andrew McKellar interview with Madeleine Morris, ABC News Breakfast

14 Jan 2022 |

Event: Andrew McKellar interview with Madeleine Morris, ABC News Breakfast

Speakers: Andrew McKellar, chief executive Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Madeleine Morris, host ABC News Breakfast

Date: 14 January 2022 

Topics: Staff shortages, close contact isolation rules, rapid antigen testing, PCR testing, quarantine, vaccinations.


Madeleine Morris, host ABC News Breakfast: Well, let’s bring in the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO, Andrew McKellar, who joins us from Canberra.  Good morning, Andrew. Michael Kaine has a point. Doesn’t he? There are plenty of people who are carrying the virus before they show up on a rapid antigen test. If they’ve been close contacts, there is a real risk that people who carry the virus are now going to be in the workforce for so many industries.

Andrew McKellar, chief executive Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry: Good morning. Look, it’s a very complicated situation, there’s no doubt about that. Obviously there is an issue here to balance the health risks, and also the risks to the economy, and we are seeing both of these factors playing out in a way which I think is almost unprecedented. This is the most severe extended pressure we’ve seen on the economy now really since the start of the pandemic, the early phase of the pandemic. So look, it’s a tough situation. Everybody is grappling to deal with that. Business is grappling to deal with it. Employees are grappling to deal with it. Members of the community are struggling with it. We’ll have schools going back in a few weeks, so that’ll be an issue. And obviously governments are seeking to balance those competing perspectives. That’s a tough job. What we saw yesterday, I think was a partial step, but I think there are going to be more pressure points that we’ll encounter over the coming weeks.  I take Michael Kaine’s point, but here one of the most important things is tools like rapid antigen testing will help us manage the risk as we face up to this problem.

Madeleine: And that’s really the key, isn’t it? The availability of rapid antigen tests is going to be what allows this to happen because people need to test if they’ve been in close contact before they’re allowed back to work in those industries.  Us, ordinary civilians going around, we can’t get our hands on a rapid test for love nor money. What about businesses? The Prime Minister did say yesterday that businesses have been buying them in for months. What is your understanding of how much business has access to this?

Andrew: Oh, look, it’s very tough. I think most businesses, and particularly small and medium-size businesses are in the same boat as everybody else. It’s almost impossible to secure supply at the moment. Maybe there are some lucky few that have that. But look, and I think honestly, this is an area where we do have to look very hard at what we are doing. Business has been calling for months, going back to September last year, saying that we need to prepare for the phase when there is more widespread transmission.

Madeleine: So what was the problem there then if you’ve been calling for that for months? Saying we’re going to need to rely on them. Yet they weren’t ordered. They weren’t in the country. Why is that? What’s your understanding?

Andrew: Well, I think that there’s been difficulties in securing supply. They should have been ordered earlier. We should have gone in more aggressively. And the other thing here is when we get them, we’ve got to make them freely and widely available. We can’t have a situation where people are cutting corners or saying, “Oh, I don’t want take on that cost.” And honestly, at the moment, many businesses are struggling for cash flow. They’re going to be concerned about taking on expense.  This is an important public health need. If you look at what other countries are doing around the world, what’s happening in many European countries, what’s happening in much of North America, in countries like Singapore, these tests are being made widely available, freely available. That’s what’s going to have to be required. We think National Cabinet made the wrong decision on this a week or so ago, and we do think they are going to need to revisit this before this situation is over.

Madeleine: I was really interested to read your press release, because you don’t just talk about the rapid antigen tests. You also talk about the need to think ahead to potentially another variant where rapid antigen tests aren’t as effective and to make provision for improving the PCR testing regime. That’s the kind of forward-thinking that we really need. Isn’t it? What are your concerns there?

Andrew: I think we have to plan for the different contingencies. And look, I know there’s thought going into that, but it just seems that at every key step along the way, we are not reacting as quickly as we could have done. At the outset of this whole crisis, there was the talk about need for quarantine. Those facilities were never really provided. There was the issue around the timing of getting into the vaccines, Australia was late to the party on that. As I say, since September last year, business and other groups have been arguing that we need to prepare with rapid antigen tests. We needed to get them approved more rapidly. We needed to get the orders in place. We need to make them freely available. That hasn’t happened.  There are going to be further twists and turns. Maybe it will burn out, maybe it will burn out in another four to six weeks, but I wouldn’t bet on it. I think we’ve got to be preparing for other worst-case scenarios and thinking about what are the steps that we will need to take if there’s another twist or turn before this saga is over.

Madeleine: I really appreciate your perspective this morning, Andrew McKellar. Thank you.

Andrew: Thank you.

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