The Australian Retailers Association (ARA), Restaurant & Catering Australia (R&CA) and the Tourism & Transport Forum (TTF) have joined forces to call for urgent government action to support businesses during the Omicron COVID wave. 

As the strain spreads rapidly through Australia, the peak bodies have outlined six priority areas that businesses need government support. 

ARA CEO Paul Zahra said now is the time for the government to reintroduce business support measures. 

"This year has seen business enter unchartered waters, with Omicron impacting business more than any other time in the pandemic with almost no government support. 

"Around 70% of ARA members say they currently have staff in isolation, a third have limited trading hours in some locations, and around one in five have had to close some stores altogether due staff shortages.

"These challenges are going to be with us for some time and targeted support is desperately needed from government so small businesses can survive," he said. 

The ARA, R&CA and TTF's action items are set out below: 

1) Access to Rapid Antigen Tests

Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) are a critical resource as we adjust to living with COVID and they should be easily accessible and affordable for businesses to assist with the testing of their staff.

We call on the Federal Government to underwrite the cost of RATs so businesses are not lumped with additional costs – on top of the trading impacts they’re currently suffering.

2) Expand close contact isolation exemptions

Omicron is forcing tens of thousands of people into isolation every day and staff shortages across the economy are immense.

Whilst a range of industries have been included in the list of workers who are exempt from close contact isolation requirements, this needs to cascade out to workers in retail, hospitality and tourism, allowing these businesses to continue serving customers while keeping everyone safe.

3) Access to skilled staff

We welcome the Federal Government’s recent announcements to lure more international students and working holiday makers into the country through visa rebates.

These workers will fill roles generally at the lower and medium skilled positions level. We now need to prioritise these workers to fill the remaining labour shortages in our industries which are predominantly skilled.

At all times we support the priority of providing jobs to Australians and training Australians where they exist.

However, the retail, hospitality and tourism industries were already dealing with skills shortages before the Omicron wave.

Our sectors require prioritisation with more specialised workers on the skilled migrant workers list.

4) Rent relief

Rent is a major pain point for business, and leasing codes of conduct have now expired in most jurisdictions leaving small businesses vulnerable to significant cashflow challenges in the first quarter of this year.

We thank the NSW and Victorian governments for extending rent negotiation rights for small business until mid-March.

However, rent relief is only available to businesses with turnover of up to $5 million (in NSW) and $10 million (in Victoria).

We’re calling for the threshold to be lifted to $50 million – as it was previously – and for similar supports to be reinstated or introduced across the other states and territories.

5) Targeted cash grants

Targeted cash grants, including the JobSaver program, were a lifesaver for businesses and should be reinstated.

It’s clear that the impacts of Omicron are widespread and ongoing and that targeted and temporary cash grants are needed to keep small businesses most affected alive until they come out the other side of this current crisis.

6) Reduce red tape

The last thing businesses need to be focussed on right now is regulation and red tape.

Feedback is that employer reporting requirements for positive cases are onerous, overwhelming teams and causing resources to be diverted to administration which is a roadblock to other safety and support issues.

We’re pleased to see a reduction in some of the duplicate reporting requirements within Victoria. We call on the other states and territories to do the same.

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