ANZ Board Minutes: balancing health, economic responses

Australia’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has carefully balanced society’s health needs with the economic response while accepting the latter depends on the former, according to ANZ Non-Executive Director Jane Halton.

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Halton, who has a long career in both the public and private sectors, including the Global Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI), was appointed to the Prime Minister’s Executive Board of the Australian National COVID-19 Coordination Commission (NCCC) in March 2020 to help advise on the nation’s response to the pandemic.

"Our health response has been superb and we want our economic response in recovery to be the same.” - Halton

Speaking with bluenotes remotely, Halton reflected on how Australia handled the crisis as life begins to return to a new sort of normal. She says the government’s response to the pandemic shouldn’t lead to a debate of health versus economics: “we need to balance every health measure with economic consequence… Our health response has been superb and we want our economic response in recovery to be the same.”

A role in recovery

In her role with CEPI, Halton helps raise money to invest in research development of vaccine candidates for neglected and priority pathogens. This includes “Disease X” - the unknown pathogen. Halton says CEPI invested in studying coronaviruses about 18 months ago and focused on the Disease X platform well over a year ago.

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Pic: ANZ Director Jane Halton

Her experience with CEPI made her a good candidate for the NCCC which Halton explains has three broad responsibilities.

“In the beginning, it was about everyone working on the crisis,” she says. “The commission's role was to make business-to-business connections to help where we could.”

“That included things like accessing personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators to help frontline health workers and others in the event we did have a major challenge to overcome. Also helping employers who sadly have had to stand down staff by connecting them with other employers who are interested in recruiting.”

Halton said the board also looked more broadly across the economy to see how they could advise quickly on policies and relief packages such as JobKeeper.

In the current period, the board is focused on preparing people for working and living in this environment.

“We've worked really closely with WorkSafe Australia because businesses want to get up and running again as fast as possible. But clearly that has to happen safely…,” she says. “Many business owners had never even heard the word pandemic, let alone thought about how they might have to change business operations in this world.”

As the infection rate continues to stabilise in Australia, the board will begin to outline the recovery phase.

“How can we have the most productive economy and how can we look to the future in a way that will generate employment so we minimise the impact on lives as fast as we can and as effective as we can?” Halton asks.

“The challenge is to figure out what a model is for most businesses to get up and operating. And I think that's going to be the challenge for us going forward absent improved treatments and or a vaccine.”

Making a difference

Halton says Australia and New Zealand coped so well in managing the COVID-19 pandemic for a number of reasons.

“Firstly, we shouldn't downplay the role that the public has played in observing the requests for good hand hygiene and all of the little-known pharmaceutical interventions that actually make a difference in transmission of the virus,” she says.

Meanwhile Australia was relatively quick close international borders from source countries and banned activities like mass gatherings early enough to significantly slow the transmission of the virus.

“All of that was fantastic and made a really serious difference,” according to Halton. “We've also had a vigorous public health response in tracing when we've identified cases.”

Halton says she is still optimistic a vaccine will be found but she is realistic in knowing there are still a number of diseases - including the common cold or HIV - where there is no vaccine, notwithstanding that people have tried for many years.

“There are a lot of people working on vaccines and CEPI is right in the middle of this,” she says. “We believe one candidate will be ready to go into phase three trials fairly soon. So that's unprecedented speed but we've still got a few hurdles to get over before we can declare victory.”

Dodging a bullet

Halton says because Australia contained the virus well and flattened the curve well ahead of initial modelling, a lot of people now think the response was wrong or overblown.

“I have heard people say it's no worse than the flu and that just is not correct,” she says.

Halton explains the actions of the Australian people, government and businesses meant the nation avoided ending up with uncontrollable outbreaks like what has been seen in New York and Northern Italy.

“I do accept it's a part of the human condition that if we dodged a bullet, we downplay how dangerous it might have been.” 

In October 2016, Jane Halton joined the Board of ANZ as an Independent Non-Executive Director. Prior to this, she had a long career in the public service including as Secretary of the Australian Department of Health. More recently, Halton was the Chairman for the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations and sits on the Prime Minister’s Executive Board of the Australian National COVID-19 Coordination Commission.

Andrew Cornell is managing editor of bluenotes

To access more of the Board Minutes series, click HERE.

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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