COVID carrots and sticks: how business, sport and the arts are grappling with vaccines

COVID carrots and sticks: how business, sport and the arts are grappling with vaccines

07/31/2021

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In the crowd at Wimbledon as Ash Barty broke a 41-year drought for Australian women last month were former Australian cricketer Mel Jones and tennis great Paul McNamee. McNamee, as coach of the winning women’s doubles pair, was inside the Wimbledon bubble, but Jones had to present a so-called vaccine passport along with her ticket to be allowed in.

“You will be required to show proof of COVID status upon entry, either in the form of both vaccinations (first and second dose), and with the second dose 14 days ago; or a negative lateral flow test taken within 48 hours of your visit (for those aged 11 and over),” the ticket conditions read.

Wimbledon instituted a no jab or test, no entry policy for this year’s tournament.Credit:AP

McNamee, a former director of the Australian Open, says this has become part of the ritual of travelling and going to big sporting events in Europe, and the regime is widely accepted. “The problems are worse over here than in Australia, but the mood is far more optimistic,” he says.

It’s also becoming part of the arts and music scene internationally, as countries begin to move on from the harsher lockdowns and restrictions of the pre-vaccinated pandemic.

Australia has started considering these questions: what sort of carrots and sticks will the country need to use to encourage as many people as possible to take up the vaccines? Will it be a weekly lottery, as suggested by the Grattan Institute? Or should proof-of-vaccination be used to allow people into sports events, concerts or even their own workplaces?

Australia’s vaccine rollout began on February 22. Now, more than five months later, more than 12 million doses have been administered across the country, with about 3.8 million people fully vaccinated while 8.3 million have had at least one dose [figures as of July 30].

But the rollout has been ramping up with about one million doses of Pfizer now arriving each week. From October, the country can expect more than 2 million doses to land every seven days. In Melbourne, CSL is continuing to produce one million doses a week of the AstraZeneca vaccine. On Thursday Health Minister Greg Hunt revealed a record 200,000 doses had been put into arms in a single day, the highest daily vaccination rate so far.

‘Special rules’ as business prepares to vaccinate

On Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison revealed that after a three-hour national cabinet meeting the country’s leaders had agreed to targets for vaccination rates that will allow the country to move on from the current harsh restrictions and cycle of lockdowns.

Morrison said the country would move on to the second phase of the recovery from COVID-19, allowing for fewer lockdowns or restrictions once 70 per cent of the eligible adult population had been fully vaccinated. While he would not set a timeline, he said he hopes to reach that target by the end of the year.

By that transition phase, or phase B, Morrison said vaccinated people can expect “special rules” to apply to them, including eased restrictions.

“Why? Because if you’re vaccinated, you present less of a public health risk. You are less likely to get the virus. You are less likely to transmit it. You are less likely to get a serious illness and be hospitalised and you are less likely to die,” he said.

At a number of Australia’s largest corporations, leaders are itching to get their staff vaccinated. Major employers such as Woolworths, Wesfarmers and Coles are all actively encouraging staff to get the jab when possible and have offered to lend a hand to the federal government to help vaccinate the public too.

Workers have been offered incentives such as special paid vaccine leave to attend appointments and employers have been making efforts to ensure team members are fully aware of what jab they can get, and when. Companies such as Amazon have offered staff a bonus payment once they get fully inoculated against the virus. Existing frameworks for flu vaccinations are also being explored as ways to mass-vaccinate staff.

Woolworths chief executive Brad Banducci, who has been fully vaccinated with AstraZeneca, said this week the supermarket was fully committed to getting its 120,000 employees vaccinated as soon as possible.

“It is now clear that accelerating the rate of vaccination in Australia is key to protecting our communities and loved ones and the easing of restrictions,” he said.

“This is why we are advocating for all our teams to be vaccinated as soon as possible – as and when supply allows – and remain committed to playing our part in supporting vaccination efforts across the broader community wherever we can.”

Rob Scott, chief executive of Bunnings and Kmart owner Wesfarmers, told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that rapidly accelerating the vaccination rollout was the only long-term solution to COVID-19 in Australia.

“The ongoing pandemic presents significant risks and uncertainties for Australia. Everything that can be done to encourage supply and distribution of vaccines should be done,” Scott says.

It’s a stance echoed by almost all of the country’s major business lobbies, including leading lobby group, the Business Council of Australia. Chief executive Jennifer Westacott says the BCA’s 130 members, which employ some one million Australians, had been working closely with the federal government but says more work should be done to show Australians that vaccination was the path out of continued lockdowns.

“Surely, we are at the point where we have to take a commonsense approach,” Westacott says. “Where we have international-facing workers we run the risk of compromising the integrity of our quarantine and containment systems, which means we run the risk of being a stop-start economy for another 12 months.

“At the very least, we have to be willing to have a targeted conversation about making the vaccine worth something.”

Mandatory vaccines for workers a ‘premature’ discussion

But outside of “strongly encouraging” staff to get the vaccine, employers are left with few other options. Mandatory vaccination, a path starting to be taken by some major international employers such as Facebook and Google, is not currently an option in Australia.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the country would move on to the second phase of the recovery from COVID-19 allowing for fewer lockdowns or restrictions once 70 per cent of the eligible adult population had been fully vaccinated.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Qantas Group chief executive Alan Joyce wants the federal government to mandate vaccines for aviation workers. Already, the NSW, South Australian and New Zealand governments have made immunisation mandatory for workers supporting international aviation services, and other states are looking at making them compulsory on domestic routes.

“We believe that COVID vaccination should be a requirement for all aviation workers, and it is being introduced bit by bit around the country,” he told ABC’s RN Breakfast on Thursday morning.

But it took three national cabinet meetings for leaders to come to an agreement at the start of July on mandating vaccines for the country’s aged care workers, who work with people who are at the highest risk of severe illness and death from coronavirus infection.

“Imposing on a person the requirement to have a vaccine or not be able to work in a particular sector is something that no government would do lightly,” the Prime Minister said at the time.

The country’s workplace relations framework currently does not allow employers to mandate vaccinations and, even if it did, many are concerned doing so would throw up numerous other privacy and safety concerns.

Others note mandatory vaccinations would not be possible with Australia’s current supply issues, and some are even concerned such a move could unnecessarily open themselves and their staff up to attack and vitriol from certain sections of the community who are opposed to the vaccine.

In light of this, Rob Scott says it’s far too early to be discussing mandating vaccines. “It is premature to consider mandatory vaccinations as not everyone has yet had the opportunity to be vaccinated,” the Wesfarmers boss says.

In countries much more advanced in their vaccine rollout, talk about mandatory vaccines and vaccine passports has begun to take more concrete shape.

With more than 70 per cent of the UK’s more than 67 million citizens now fully vaccinated, Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week announced that people will soon have to show proof of vaccination if they want to enter nightclubs and concerts.

“Proof of a negative test will no longer be enough,” Johnson said.

US President Joe Biden announced this week that all federal employees will have to be vaccinated or face onerous testing, masking and social distancing rules, as the Delta variant spreads and the country’s vaccination rate has slowed. About half the US population is immunised but rates vary from state to state and Biden had hoped to reach 70 per cent coverage by July.

‘No jab, no entry’ for sports and concerts possible

Discussions about no-jab, no-entry policies are in their infancy in Australia.

Evelyn Richardson, chief executive of the peak body for the country’s live performing arts industry, Live Performance Australia says the industry was starting to have those conversations, but the focus for the coming months was getting people back on stage.

“The industry is looking at what it would look like in the future when everybody has had an opportunity to have a vaccine, which will hopefully be the end of the year or early next year,” she says.

Being able to monitor proof-of-vaccination policies from overseas has been helpful, Richardson says, but it would have to be adjusted for Australian audiences.

“The practicality of how it would work in theatre and larger events, that’s very much what we’re looking at right now,” Richardson says.

It could also become part of the sports fan experience in Australia, and help return big crowds to major events in COVID-hit Sydney and Melbourne.

Melbourne’s “night mayor” James Young says the passport is the only ticket to an AFL grand final and Melbourne Cup Carnival with crowds.

“I would like to think the Victorian government has a secret target of getting tens of thousands of people to attend a huge gambling and fashion event, and bring in a vaccine passport for spring racing,” Young says.

“More optimistically, we need vaccine passports for an AFL grand final at the MCG. If we don’t have that rule, the grand final won’t happen here, and I want it back in Melbourne.”

Cricket Australia boss Nick Hockley this week told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald he was eyeing a Wimbledon-style vaccine passport system for this summer’s Ashes.

Ash Barty presents the 2020 AFL premiership cup to Trent Cotchin in Brisbane.Credit:Getty Images

“That’s something the whole of the event industry is looking at really carefully,” Hockley said. “We all want to get back to major live events, be they sporting or entertainment as quickly as possible, in a safe manner and in a way that gives the public confidence.”

The AFL is also watching the return of crowds in the US and Europe with the help of mandatory vaccination or negative tests, but a Victorian government source indicated it was not practical to introduce such a system in time for September’s AFL grand final. Last year the game had to be moved to Brisbane during Melbourne’s hard lockdown, and Perth’s Optus Stadium has already staked its claim to host this year’s decider if it can’t be staged at its traditional MCG home.

But a “no jab/negative test, no entry” system is considered a realistic option for major events in Victoria next year, according to the source.

Could it be ready for January’s Australian Open? Crowds were capped at 50 per cent for this year’s delayed Open, and tournament director Craig Tiley recently said community vaccination rates would play a vital role in how the event was run.

“We continue to work productively with the Victorian government and health authorities on plans for the Australian Open in January, and nothing is off the table in terms of the safety measures under consideration. We are also learning from the experiences of our colleagues at Roland Garros, Wimbledon and the US Open, as well as the Olympics,” Tennis Australia said in a statement.

Richardson says the key to all of this is will be concrete targets on reopening from the federal government: “The next six to nine months is going to have more lockdowns. That’s the reality.”

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