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.”