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Business reaches out to state government on reopening economy

Mr Little, one of Melbourne’s leading business figures and philanthropists, said the idea for the advisory group came from his work on the National COVID Commission, which since March has provided strategic advice to the federal government to mitigate the economic impact of the pandemic.

The establishment of the group was facilitated by former Victorian premier Steve Bracks.

“It is good that Tim Pallas has picked this up,’’ Mr Bracks said. “They have got a skilled, able group there and it will mean they will make better decisions on how things might work as we move to open up.’’

Doherty Institute director Sharon Lewin is advising the Victorian government through the newly formed VCAG.

Doherty Institute director Sharon Lewin is advising the Victorian government through the newly formed VCAG.Credit:Jason South

The group includes construction magnate Michael Argyrou, Coles general manager Tony O’Toole, GMHBA chairman Jim Walsh, logistics and transport executive Mark Kellett, and Sharon Lewin, the director of the Doherty Institute and an expert on infectious diseases.

Mr Little said the primary role of the group was to gather street-level intelligence from large industries – construction, manufacturing, health, logistics, infrastructure, retail, and banking and finance – and small and medium enterprises to inform government policy.

The group is also intended to be a pandemic problem solver, with its members encouraged to tap into expertise and resources within their business and industry networks.

“The advisory function becomes even more important at a time when the community’s behaviour is changing regularly to accommodate the implementation of COVID restrictions,’’ Mr Little said.

“With current speculation surrounding possible easing of stage four restrictions, the [advisory group] role is centred around recommendations relating to which industry sectors could safely be further relaxed without the risk of further transmission.’’

The relationship between the Andrews government and business community has been under pressure since the second wave forced Melbourne and eventually, the entire state back into lockdown.

Daniel Andrews has been criticised for failing to consult more widely on Victoria's pandemic response.

Daniel Andrews has been criticised for failing to consult more widely on Victoria’s pandemic response.Credit:Jason South

A recurring criticism levelled at Mr Andrews from the business community is his perceived reluctance to accept advice outside a small, trusted circle of political confidantes and public health officials.

Mr Pallas said this criticism was not accurate. “We need the voices of industry to inform how this reopening can happen practically, safely and steadily,” he said.

“Collaboration and communication are key and that is exactly what we’ve been doing with our business community since the coronavirus pandemic hit.”

Mr Andrews has consistently said the economy can be repaired only once the virus is contained. On Thursday, Deputy Chief Health Officer Allen Cheng said daily case numbers would need to return to single figures to safely consider wholesale changes to restrictions.

Within this broad framework, the Victorian COVID Advisory Group is seeking to identify areas where specific economic activity can be safely increased.

An example is advice provided by Mr Argyrou at the start of stage four restrictions to loosen the government’s mandated 25 per cent staff limit on building sites. Subsequent changes gave building companies more flexibility to operate within the restrictions.


Mr O’Toole led the push for changes to the proposed 33 per cent reduction of employees across Victorian-based distribution centres, which would have threatened the supply of goods and other essential goods.

More recently, Ms Lewin’s advice about the reduced risk of transmitting the virus outdoors has influenced the government’s thinking on when it might allow a resumption of al fresco dining at cafes, pubs and restaurants, and the reopening of outdoor swimming pools.

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