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Right now most of Australia is living without restrictions, lockdowns or border closures. But with tens of thousands of people, including essential workers, being forced into isolation everyday our economy is still under intense pressure from the pandemic.

The cost of Australia’s shadow lockdown

Read Transcript

Right now most of Australia is living without restrictions, lockdowns or border closures.

But with tens of thousands of people, including essential workers, being forced into isolation everyday our economy is still under intense pressure from the pandemic.

Today, national correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe on how the rampant spread of Omicron has led to a shadow lockdown, and why for many businesses and families, it’s the worst lockdown yet.

 

Guest: National correspondent for The Saturday Paper, Mike Seccombe.

 

Read Transcript

[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
From Schwartz Media I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

 

Right now most of Australia is living without restrictions, lockdowns or border closures.

 

But with tens of thousands of people, including essential workers, being forced into isolation everyday our economy is still under intense pressure from the pandemic.

While supply chains are falling apart, consumers are also staying home either because they’re sick, close contacts, or simply because they don’t want to risk contracting the virus.

 

Today - National Correspondent for The Saturday Paper Mike Seccombe, on how the rampant spread of Omicron has led to a shadow lockdown, and why for many businesses and families, it’s the worst lockdown yet.

 

It’s Tuesday, January 25.

[Theme Music Ends] 

 

RUBY:
So, Mike, right now, we're not officially in lockdown, but in a lot of ways it does kind of feel like we still are. I'm working from home. Cafes and restaurants are pretty empty at the moment. No one is really making any ambitious plans for the year ahead. Is that how it feels to you as well? 

 

MIKE:
Oh, that's how it feels to me. I think that's how it feels to everybody. And already we're seeing new terminology aren’t we? We see people talking about the shadow lockdown and the Clayton's lockdown, and that's exactly what it is.

 

While, we're not in any sort of official lockdown, and we can all theoretically leave our houses and go to the shops and whatever. Things are pretty quiet. 

 

Personally, I try not to go out as much as I can. And, you know, even when I walk past people on the street, I was walking past someone the other day and as I approached, I saw them hurriedly put their mask on and sort of scurry past me. So it all feels kind of, I guess pretty much as scary as any of the official lockdowns.

 

And you know, this isn't just my personal view. I note that researchers from the University of Melbourne map mobility data across the city, tracking how many people are moving around the city. And they found that at the moment, the lack of movement is pretty much equivalent to what it was when the city was in a stage three lockdown. 

 

RUBY:
Hmm. So at this moment in time, our cities, they actually are just as quiet as they were during the government mandated lockdowns of the last two years. 

 

MIKE:
Yeah, that's right. 

 

Archival tape -- Reporter 1:

“As Australia officially records over one million Covid cases since the pandemic began, Omicron continues to wreak havoc on the economy.” 

 

MIKE:
Other evidence is out there, too. You know, we see that people aren't travelling, they're staying home and they're not spending.

 

Archival tape -- Reporter 2:
“Experts are warning of a domino effect of business closures as record Covid cases trigger staff shortages. Shops, restaurants and cafes are closing their doors or cutting open hours as they struggle to find workers.”

 

MIKE:
The latest ANZ consumer confidence survey found that, January, which is normally a pretty optimistic month and people are out there buying stuff, was the slowest in 30 years. 

 

Archival tape -- Reporter 3:
“Consumer sentiment fell 7.6% in the past week to a 15 month low, and the lowest level or perhaps the highest glumness level for January since 1992 when we were deep in recession.” 

 

MIKE:
So, you know, despite all the talk about how this was going to be the year of opening up and economic recovery, it seems like Australians are still pretty spooked.

Archival tape -- Reporter 4:
“The situation predicted to get worse before it gets better.”
 

MIKE:
And I suspect when the data comes out, we will be more or less in recession again, at least in the month of January. 

 

RUBY:
Mmm OK. And so can we talk about what is underpinning this, Mike, why the country is so quiet right now? Is it because people are staying home because they're catching Covid-19? Or is this because they're curbing their activities to try and avoid contracting it? 

 

MIKE:
Well, both. 

 

Since January 10 this year, there have been more than a million cases recorded in the country, and that's as many as were recorded in the entire country over the past two years. 

 

RUBY:
Wow.

 

MIKE:
Yeah, I know that's going to have an impact on our society and our economy, you know, for a number of reasons. 

 

For a start, there's the fact that the people who come up Covid positive go into isolation for seven days in most places. And so are their close contacts, or at least they were until recently. 

 

So, you know, on any given day in Australia, at the moment, we have tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people being forced into isolation. 

 

And then we have an even larger chunk of people who might not have COVID but really don't want to get it. So they're just staying home or avoiding going out unnecessarily so that they limit their chances of getting sick.

 

So you now, because so many people are sick and because there's so much virus circulating. We've got this situation where lots of the country is in essentially a self-imposed or shadow lockdown.  

 

And in some ways it's actually worse than a government mandated lockdown. 

 

RUBY:
What do you mean by that? Why is the shadow lockdown worse than the official lockdowns that we've seen? 

 

MIKE:
Well, it's because there's such a lack of clarity and such a lack of support. You know, in previous lockdowns, governments generally had pretty clear messaging. You know, it was clear when you were supposed to stay home and why. 

 

But now with case numbers much higher than they've ever been. Governments are encouraging people to go out and spend. And at the same time, encouraging those who can to stay and work from home. So it's all very messy. 

And the other factor here is the lack of financial assistance. There's no JobKeeper, no JobSaver, there's much less support in the way of grants and suchlike to business.

 

I've got to say it's kind of like our politicians have sort of forgotten that a healthy economy is linked to healthy people and healthy people go to work and then healthy people spend the money that they've earned there to stimulate the economy. And they're just not doing it.

 

RUBY:
We’ll be back in a moment

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RUBY:
Mike, we've been talking about the number of COVID 19 cases in Australia right now and how that's forcing a lot of people to stay at home. That, in turn, is having an impact on the economy. But how is the current wave of Omicron cases linked to the supply chain issues that we're seeing across the country at the moment? 

 

MIKE:
Well, well, I spoke to a number of people about this, you know, including the National Farmers Federation, who are saying that, you know, they're having trouble finding enough people to basically get people to pick the produce.

 

But the most interesting bloke I spoke to, I think, or the bloke with the broadest understanding was David Smith.

Archival tape -- David Smith:
“I’m David Smith, chair of the Australian Trucking Association and a transport operator based in Tumby Bay, South Australia.”

MIKE:
He runs a small haulage company based in Tumby Bay near Port Augusta in South Australia. But he's also chair of the Australian Trucking Association, which is the peak body which represents 50,000 odd businesses, a couple of hundred thousand people and moves basically everything in the country at some point or other, you know, two billion tonnes of freight a year. 

Archival tape -- David Smith:
“I have been in the industry for 45 years and the food supply chain is really operating in a very inefficient level at the moment due to staff shortages, because there is just hold ups all the way. And I've never, never seen it like that.” 

MIKE:
You've got to remember that before you know that pack of meat appears on your supermarket shelf, it's passed through a bunch of different hands. You know, there's the farmers who produce it. Then someone takes it by truck to an abattoir. Then the abattoir workers process the meat, and then the truck drivers haul it off to a distribution centre somewhere where it's repackaged. And then other truck drivers Take it to the supermarket, where people stick it on the shelves, where you pick it up and buy it. And at every point in that chain, he says, every point we're seeing breakdowns. 

RUBY:
What kind of breakdowns are we talking about? 

 

MIKE:
Well, his particular expertise, of course, is in the freight industry and trucking, and he's been surveying his members. And he said that on any given day at the moment, 30 or 40 percent of truck drivers are off work because of Covid. 

 

And it's other people too, like abattoirs. David Smith told me this, you know, he shared a series of anecdotes, but one in particular. Last week, his company was contracted to move a B-double. You know, those big road trains, you know, prime mover into two trailers to move a B-double full of cattle to an abattoir in Victoria. 

Archival tape -- David Smith:
“Recently we had a load of cattle and, you know, they were going from the peninsula through to Victoria to an abattoir, and we travelled approximately 400 kilometres before we found out the abattoir. We got a phone call from the abattoir to say, Look, stop the truck. The abattoir is closing down.” 

MIKE:
Because the staff were covid positive. 

Archival tape -- David Smith:
“So you can return the truck, take the cattle back again.” 

MIKE:
So you know, he’s still arguing with the farmer and the abattoir about who’s going to pay him for his lost time and labour.

RUBY:
Right, so it sounds like the spread of COVID 19 is knocking over economic activity at every link in the chain, Mike, from the workers all the way through to the consumers. So what is in place to try and fix this, to support people and support the economy at this time? 

 

MIKE:
Well, essentially led by the Morrison government, national cabinet has kind of sought to redefine the rules in a way that I would suggest hasn't really made much difference to the spread of disease, but is an attempt to keep the economy running despite people being sick. 

 

So they've changed the rules for isolation of close contacts in critical industries. You know, they no longer have to isolate for seven days. You know, even close contacts of confirmed positive cases can keep working as long as they're vaccinated and if recorded, negative tests. 

 

Now that's problematic for a couple of reasons. First, it means workers who could carry the virus are being sent back to work and they risk infecting their colleagues. The other problem is that that if they return to work it is contingent on them regularly getting tested well. That's problematic because rapid tests, RATs, are still very hard to come by.

 

And of course, late last week, the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, made this bizarre suggestion 

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“There are other changes that need to be made and they’re at a state level and I am continuing to pursue those with the states…”

 

MIKE:
That one way to ease the supply chain problem would be to start allowing kids to drive forklifts in warehouses. 

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“There are changes that we need to make around the age of forklift drivers.”

RUBY:
Yeah, not many people thought that was a good idea, Mike
 

MIKE:
No, they didn't. That's right. It was a pretty strange suggestion, I've got to say. I mean, forklift operation is a very dangerous and a very specialised job. You need a special licence. And so Morrison's idea, I have to say, was widely mocked. 

 

RUBY:
I think some people really did think it was a joke. 

 

MIKE:
Well, yeah, as I understand it, one of the satirical sites actually just put up a straight news story on the basis that they couldn't make it any more ridiculous. 

 

Anyway, Since then, I'm pleased to say Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland have all said they're not going to be lowering the age for forklift drivers. 

 

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“I took the industry proposals that had come from our consultations in the transport sector for discussion at the national cabinet today. We agreed to proceed no further with the issue of 16 year old forklift drivers.”

 

MIKE:
And at a presser after the national cabinet last week, Morrison dropped the proposal.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:
“It was a matter raised with the industry and we had a good discussion about it today and that is not something we believe collectively that is something that should be pursued at this time.”

MIKE:
But really, I mean, this is desperate stuff. 

 

RUBY:
So it seems like what is being proposed isn't particularly well thought through and unlikely to have much of an impact on the situation as it stands. So what is likely to happen next, Mike? Do we essentially just need to wait for the Omicron outbreak to end for people to be able to return to work and for the economy to begin to pick up again? 

 

MIKE:

Well I wish I could tell you what the solution is, I mean, what it isn’t is to redefine the problem which is of course the change to the close contacts thing has done. It’s not a public health measure at all, it’s if anything an economic measure and clearly one that hasn’t worked. So, what to do?

Well, businesses want the government to provide greater financial support so they're temporary closures don't become permanent closures. 

 

They and the unions and overwhelmingly the opinion of the public is that rapid antigen tests should be freely available to all. And of course, Morrison's refused to do this. Probably, I would suggest, because he's trying to cover the failure of government to lay in supplies with a sort of private sector will fix it argument.

 

And it seems that governments led by Morrison and the New South Wales premier Dominic Perrottet, who was the first one to just pull off the band aid and remove all public safety measures. Have just decided they can’t stop everyone getting covid and we may as well just get it over and done with.

And while there's some evidence that infection rates are peaking, at the very least this will roll on for weeks yet.

Archival tape -- David Smith:
“Look, I think the signs are there that we're heading towards the peak, and I'd really like to think, let's say, two to three weeks, we may get back on an even keel.” 

MIKE:
My trucker source, David Smith, expects that there will be difficulties for probably most of the rest of the year. 

Archival tape -- David Smith:
“Realistically, I've sort of in the back of my mind thinking that we need to be prepared to see this whole year out with Covid influencing right through the year. Hopefully that will diminish and it'll be less of an issue. But I think we've still got a little way to go before we can actually say we're on top of this pandemic.” 

MIKE:
Of course, Morrison is hoping that by May, when we have an election, we’ll be over the worst of it and people will be out spending again and will have forgiven his government for this latest in a long series of failures to plan ahead. 

 

I don't know what his chances are of that happening. 

 

RUBY:
Mike, thank you so much for your time. It's great to have you back. 

 

MIKE:
Thank you. Nice to be back. 

 

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[Theme Music Starts]

RUBY:
Also in the news today,

 

The Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has blamed consumers and businesses for hoarding rapid antigen tests, as the country grapples with an ongoing shortage.

Joyce also falsely claimed that people were not dying of Covid-19 in Australia.

And the Novavax Covid-19 vaccine has been given its final approval for people aged 18 years and older in Australia, and will be rolled out to the public by the end of February.

 

The federal government confirmed on Monday that they have ordered over 50 million doses of the vaccine and that people who receive Novavax as their vaccine option can receive two doses, three weeks apart. 

 

I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See you tomorrow.

[Theme Music Ends]

 

Host

Ruby Jones is an investigative journalist and host of 7am.

Guest

Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.