open sign on shop foor

Although they have had significant effects on the economy, on unemployment, and on public and private debt, Australia’s social distancing measures appear to be paying off from a human capital, welfare and investment perspective. The steps that governments across the country have taken has led to significantly reduced cost to health, to health systems and exponentially reduced deaths in Australia compared to predictions without lockdown.

As a physician in our public health system, our greatest fear was not having enough ICU beds, ventilators or PPE equipment to cover the thousands of cases predicted without lockdown. Because of this resourcing reality, many Australian health experts are requesting to not lift stay-at-home and physical distancing restrictions in the short-term. Several states have committed to restrictions for another four weeks. However, there is growing recognition that the time will (and must) come to cautiously move toward a new normalcy.

Several European countries, even including Spain, which now has the second most cases worldwide, are already reopening preschools, schools, some business and small shops as the number of cases per incubation period reduce. Australia’s public health response to relaxing lockdown is expected to be released in the next fortnight.

Boards will soon need to ask: What does a government-backed easing of restrictions mean for our business? How do we re-open premises in a manner that is low risk? And could we be doing anything in the short-term to prepare safely for this likely change in policy?

Herein lies a dilemma for many companies and charities. How do they resume some semblance of normal operations, while protecting the health and safety of staff in an environment that will continue to be risky.

First and foremost, accurate information will be crucial. Boards will need to pay careful attention to government advice, as well as public health experts to make the best decisions for their organisation. Organisations will need to build capability to maintain appropriate social distancing on their premises.

Society-wide testing, contact tracing and quarantining will need to be scaled up in coming months if we are to be able to resume our lives. Directors need to start considering how this might affect their operations and what systems they will need to have in place. Boards should be considering now what information they might need to provide to public health authorities and how they can balance that against the privacy of stakeholders and staff.

Support will need to provided for employees if they test positive. Sick leave policies will need to be reviewed, particularly for casual staff, so no one is disincentivised to seek testing and take time off if sick.

As well as the above, there are other considerations for organisations in the months ahead:

  • What arrangements will need to be made for those particularly vulnerbale to COVID-19 such as those over 65 and those with immune conditions?
  • How does the board keep abreast of medical developments - do we have population health input available to the Board, either via information, consultancy or web applications?
  • Will local conditions or demographics change our approach to operations? There may be different risks in different states or to different stakeholder groups.
  • What are our policies for staff who have recovered from COVID-19? Can they take on more frontline work (note, new data suggests not everyone who has had the virus will develop immunity)
  • Can staff be involved in the medical research effort, i.e. development of equipment, supply chains, logistics, funding vaccine development, clinical trials e.g. of vaccines, repurposed medicines?

Professor Jennifer Martin (MBChB, MA (Oxon.), PhD, FRACP, GAICD) is a physician and clinical pharmacologist at NSW Health, Professor of Medicine at the University of Newcastle. She is also a member of the AICD's New South Wales Division Council.