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Returning to work during the pandemic

By Michael Shoebridge

National Cabinet is meeting to begin the pathway to get Australia back to work and school. That's while we are still in the midst of 'flattening the curve' and in a world without a vaccine or even effective therapeutic treatment to reduce death rates from the virus.

So, how might Australia return to work without getting back on the elevator of exponentially growing infection and deaths? This Strategic Insight sketches out that path, with the answers involving mass testing, and companies funded and supported to do rapid testing, data collection and analysis. It will rely on smartphone apps for data collection to enable outbreak suppression and contact tracing. Critically, national cabinet must communicate how this new approach will work alongside the existing social distancing restrictions, which will need to remain in place for months to come.

The hygiene and distancing protocols for this 'return to work' will be easier for advanced manufacturing workplaces, it turns out, as those workplaces are already pretty socially distant, with low levels of staffing and high levels of automation. A lot of construction work is mainly outdoors and is also now more mechanised than labour intensive. And a regime of testing workers on arrival, combined with strict workplace health protocols, will probably be feasible for many other manufacturing, large-scale agricultural and white collar workplaces—including our parliaments.

Small businesses will struggle in the absence of almost ubiquitous community testing, unless ‘precinct’ approaches provide testing and health hygiene for facilities that house groups of such businesses (shopping centres and business parks are examples).

This diversity across workplaces and organisations means that taking the path advocated here—tests, data, apps and surveillance—will involve a clear and pervasive communication effort between our leaders and our people. Confusion about who’s in, who’s out, which businesses can start planning to get back into operation in facilities now closed and which must stick to what they have now will unravel this approach. And being able to explain how the health surveillance approach has been designed to work with our democratic society and to not be a part of any future national security surveillance powers will be key to bringing different parts of our population along. Again, this communication task is a job for the national cabinet.