Murphy’s careless whisper

By Bruce Piper, Publisher

Professor Brendan Murphy, head of the Federal Health Department and former Chief Medical Officer, is an eminent public servant with unquestioned medical expertise and a long career dedicated to improving the health of Australians. However a savvy media-trained politician he most certainly is not, and so when he was asked in an interview earlier this week about whether he expected international borders to open he gave his honest opinion.

“I think we’ll go most of this year with still substantial border restrictions,” he said. And away the media went, latching onto this comment with immediate headlines about the unlikeliness of widespread travel until 2022. Giving Murphy the benefit of the doubt, I suspect he quickly recognised the impact his off-the-cuff comment would have, because he then followed up with a reminder about the uncertainty of the COVID-19 situation, adding “I don’t want to predict more than two or three months ahead…the world is changing”. Adding a glimmer of hope, he added:

“I think at the moment, we’ve got this light at the end of the tunnel – the vaccine – so we’re going to go as safely and as fast as we can to get our population vaccinated and then we’ll look at what happens”.

But as far as the travel and tourism sectors go, the horse had bolted. Travel agents across the country braced themselves for yet another wave of consumers deciding to relinquish their cherished plans, and instead requesting further refunds. Suppliers, already at the end of their tether, gritted their teeth as the reality of another 12 months of agony sunk in. And all the businesses which are part of this wonderful travel and tourism ecosystem in which we live had another moment of “can we survive this”.

The outrage has prompted a huge reaction from the industry, including a thoughtful opinion piece contributed by one of our readers which was published on the front page of Travel Daily earlier this week (TD 19 Jan 2021). Due to the nature of their role within an international organisation, the person chose to remain anonymous, but their words were no less powerful in expressing the frustrations of the industry at Murphy’s comment – and in turn there has been a further flood of responses, both positive and negative.

While everyone bemoans Murphy’s thoughtless moment, a number of readers have pointed out that what he has said is reasonably sensible – in contrast to what many have seen as a shameless cash grab by Qantas in opening up sales for flights to the UK and USA for travel from as early as June. And Chad Carey from Chimu Adventures also injected some sensibility into the conversation when he noted that with expectations that four million Australians will have been vaccinated by the end of March, things may not in fact be as terrible as Murphy’s hopefully worst-case scenario. He noted that the first cohort of immunisations will target those most likely to suffer death or serious effects from COVID-19, meaning the entire population will not need to be as concerned about spreading the virus because of its impact on vulnerable people.

Accommodation specialist Rodger Powell similarly noted that the conversation needs to change to focus on the minimal numbers of deaths from COVID-19, rather than the breathless daily count of cases, with Australia’s success in containment of outbreaks meaning there are thankfully thousands of brand new ventilators standing unused in hospital warehouses across the country.

And while we are all experiencing yet another travail of mental anguish as we contemplate the ongoing death spiral of our industry, the angst may also have some positive outcome, because it will certainly have crystallised the situation that we are going through as a result of border closures.

No upbeat assessment of the economic recovery can ignore the reality that our industry continues to suffer and cannot improve until borders reopen – and the fact that this has been on the front page of every newspaper and leading all of the TV news bulletins will have helped to highlight our plight.

With every industry voice pushing for an extension of JobKeeper, I have been adding my plea to politicians to come up with a solution that helps everyone still suffering – not just those with the loudest voices. There are so many people who are not travel agents who are still completely dependent on a healthy travel industry, and they are being left on the sidelines in the current debate. My suggestion to politicians has been a highly targeted version of JobKeeper – not focused on a particular sector, but continuing the existing regime with a larger turnover downturn test. I completely understand that the Government doesn’t want to continue doling out cash to industries in recovery – this week the hospitality industry was suggesting funding should continue to businesses down just 15% year-on-year!

But surely continuing JobKeeper for those who are still at less than half of their pre-COVID revenues would be a realistic compromise between supporting those who really still need it while significantly reducing economy-wide support?

It is certain that given the huge reaction to his comments, Murphy is likely to be more circumspect in future. While he may argue that he was just giving a piece of honest speculation in a hugely uncertain situation, the impact on consumer confidence has been palpable, and he should have realised that in a forum like a national TV show he is literally holding the livelihoods of millions of people in his hand.

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