What a difference a fortnight makes when it comes to COVID in Australia.

In the middle of June, Melbourne was emerging from its fourth lockdown and all other Australian States and Territories had either entirely removed, or largely removed, movement restrictions on their populations. While there was a background conversation on the slow roll-out of the vaccines to all Australians, vaccination was not in the forefront of most people’s minds.

Fast forward to today and we have almost half of the national population living under lockdown conditions and businesses struggling to manage in the face of dramatically reduced customer numbers and customer revenues. State and Territory governments have reintroduced restrictions on cross border movement and the national discussion on vaccinations has become the number one topic around the dining room tables of most Australian households.

“As before, ACAPMA’s focus has been on providing all of our members with timely information on the changes in movement restrictions and trading conditions via our COVID19 Roundups”, said ACAPMA CEO Mark McKenzie.

“While most businesses are familiar with what they need to do during lockdowns, a number of Australian Governments have changed tack slightly in respect of their directions on QR Codes and staff vaccinations – and this is creating some business confusion”, added Mark.

The Victorian Government recently introduced a requirement for all Victorian businesses to use the Government QR Code app instead of the variety of different variants that had previously been in use. This means that all Victorian businesses, including service stations, must now use their best endeavours to ensure that customers log in to the government-approved QR Code system prior to entering the shop on their premises.

NSW also introduced changes to QR Code laws this week. These laws require that all people entering ALL workplaces (i.e. customers, staff and service providers) use the NSW COVID Safe Check in system from 12 July 2012.

“Unfortunately, we received some reports of service station operators receiving threats of fines from local police this week for not forcing their customers to activate their QR Codes or for not wearing masks”, said Mark.

In one of these instances, the police officers in attendance suggested that the business is required to have a staff member at the entry to their premises to ensure that all customers entering the service station store are wearing masks.

While all fuel retailers should use their best endeavours to ensure that customers are wearing masks and activating QR Codes, businesses have no legal right to force customers to do so (Businesses are, however, expected to require staff to use the app when entering the workplace under the new NSW Laws and wear masks as directed).

It is important to note that no business in any Australian State or Territory can be fined for customers who fail to follow directions where the business has reasonably requested that they wear a mask or activate a QR Code. Nor is there any requirement for fuel retailers to employ a COVID Marshall to refuse entry to customers who fail to comply with mask wearing protocols.

“Any business that is threatened with a fine in such circumstances should immediately contact ACAPMA and we will contact the relevant authorities to have the issue addressed in a discreet, constructive but firm manner, said Mark.

The other issue that has come to prominence with the latest COVID measures relates to vaccination of the community.  It goes without saying that the risk of future lockdowns and associated business disruption will be minimised once most Australians are vaccinated. It is therefore in the interest of all businesses – and indeed all Australians – for everyone who wants a vaccination to be vaccinated as soon as possible.

But this does not mean that businesses can force their staff to get vaccinated (other than those in the aged care industry and the airport and quarantine sectors). Business owners have no legal right – at least not under current legislative settings – to force staff to get vaccinations. Current privacy laws also mean that businesses generally cannot compel staff to provide evidence of being vaccinated.

“While ACAPMA understands that some of these issues are under active consideration by the National Cabinet – for example, the use of vaccine passports – businesses must ensure that they continue to comply with the relevant industrial relations laws and privacy laws when it comes to staff vaccination”, said Mark.

“That means encouraging staff to get vaccinated, but not forcing it or demanding proof of vaccination”, added Mark.

This week, ACAPMA joined other national employer groups in a meeting with the Federal Attorney Generals Department to discuss the role of business in supporting the acceleration of the national vaccination effort. This discussion resulted in business leaders developing the following national guidance for businesses in respect of the vaccination of staff:

Key employer representatives are united in recognising that workplaces are an important setting for reinforcing public health information on vaccines and that it is in Australia’s best interest to have a smooth and expeditious vaccine rollout. We therefore encourage our members to help their workers feel confident and supported when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines. Recognising that every business is different and has different capability, we will encourage employers to have regular conversations with their workers, in line with government health advice, on options to best support them and make it as easy as possible for employees who choose to get the vaccine to get it when it is their turn (whether this is by providing access to paid or unpaid leave, flexible hours or otherwise). By continuing to work together we can navigate through this crisis faster.

“The above statement jointly developed between business groups and the Australian Government provides the best available direction in terms of what businesses can realistically do to support increased vaccination of the Australian community in the near term – and minimise the risk of additional community lockdowns in the future”, said Mark.

Any members seeking clarification on their obligations in respect of both QR Codes or vaccination of staff should consult ACAPMA’s periodic COVID19 Roundup (emailed to all members) or contact the ACAPMA Secretariat at communications@acapma.com.au or by calling 1300 160 270.