“Unrealistic”: The government’s revised COVID-19 reopening plan does little to help talent-starved startups

Opyl Michelle Gallagher

Opyl chief executive Michelle Gallagher. Source: supplied.

The government has unveiled its revised plan for transitioning out of the COVID-19 crisis, including vaccination benchmarks for reopening international borders.

But with high targets and no specific dates to work towards, some tech leaders say the new plan only brings more uncertainty, and exacerbates an ongoing challenge to find tech talent.

Late last week, after Friday’s National Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Scott Morrison unveiled a revised plan for transitioning out of the COVID-19 crisis.

Under the new plan, it will take a vaccination rate of around 70% to move the nation to ‘phase B’, which will allow for low levels of international arrivals, including capped entries for economic visa holders.

Once vaccination levels hit 80%, we will be able to move into phase C, which will increase the cap on entry for economic visa holders, and lift restrictions on outbound travel for vaccinated Australians.

At this stage, the plan is to extend a travel bubble for unrestricted travel to some countries, including Singapore and some Pacific nations.

The plan also lays out a “gradual reopening of inward and outward international travel with safe countries and proportionate quarantine”, with reduced requirements for fully vaccinated travellers.

The final phase of the plan, phase D, does not hinge on a vaccination threshold, with the Prime Minister saying there are “too many unknowns” to specify any benchmark.

At this stage, there will be no caps or restrictions on vaccinated travellers. Unvaccinated travellers will be allowed subject to COVID-19 testing pre-flight and on arrival, and only high-risk inbound travellers will be required to quarantine.


But there are no real time frames given here, only an expression of hope from the Prime Minister that we will be in phase B by the end of 2021.

For tech leaders working in the science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM) space, that’s not good enough.

Michelle Gallagher is chief executive of ASX-listed AI business Opyl, and is currently trying to build out a technology development team in an incredibly niche area of AI.

“We have identified two outstanding candidates who are enrolled in higher education courses, currently doing PhDs at Australian universities, who can work with us via grants but who are unable to come back into the country,” she tells SmartCompany.

The high threshold for allowing workers to come to Australia will “directly impact our ability to source the best talent from a global pool,” she explains.

For a business like Opyl, a lot of the work required is not possible to complete remotely. Even when it can be, the learning opportunity is “heavily reduced” for the team members, making the roles less attractive anyway.

“Science is a global pursuit. Collaboration is best done face-to-face. The job market is a global one,” Gallagher says.

Striving for an 80% vaccination rate, or more, before fully reopening borders to international workers is “unrealistic”, she adds.

“It will reduce Australia’s competitive position in accessing the best STEMM talent and expanding our tech sector into global markets.”

A competitive landscape

Nigel Fellowes-Freeman, founder and chief of insuretech startup Kanopi, echoes Gallagher’s frustrations.

While he appreciates the need to balance good health outcomes with economic ones, he feels Australia’s benchmarks are set high compared to some of its international counterparts.

“Given the UK is opening up at 50% vaccination, many would-be perplexed that we’re aiming for at least 70% vaccination before we even consider dropping some restrictions,” he says.

In the UK, it also took some four months to get from a vaccination rate of 14% to 50%, he says.

“And this was with the added motivation of the pandemic spiralling out of control across the country.”

The trend was the same in the US, he observes.

“I’m no epidemiologist, nor do I profess to be, but it seems at our current trajectory, we could be well into next year before we hit the phase of the plan where international travel is back on the cards.

“That’s assuming there are no further hiccups with supply or the rollout.”

Again, with shortages in tech talent already making hiring tricky, such a long timeline, without any certainty, is only going to compound the problem, Fellowes-Freeman says.

That could have real ramifications for the future.

“We are in competition with other ecosystems in the US, UK, and Israel, and our freeze on international arrivals will see us fall behind.”

A vaccination challenge

On the other hand, Jonathan Jeffries, a partner at tech recruitment firm Think & Grow, believes the new plan strikes the right balance.

It’s a plan that prioritises public health, he notes.

“While many of us in the business community are itching to return to a pre-pandemic state of being, the health of our workforce always has to come first, regardless of the sector you operate in.”

While an 80% vaccination rate may seem ambitious, Jeffries believes it’s in line with global standards. And, for him, the challenge in getting there is not about supply, but about vaccine hesitancy.

It’s this that poses a threat to the tech talent ecosystem, he says, and that could see us “falling critically behind” in the global market.

“Our tech sector will be impacted if global corporate migration patterns don’t return to pre-pandemic levels,” Jeffries says.

The industry is a resilient and adaptable one, he notes.

“However, our tech sector needs international talent, collaboration and trade to bolster leadership and management skills, broaden diversity and improve core technical capabilities.

“Without it, there’s no doubt that our tech sector’s growth and potential will stagnate.”

A nation divided

From an economic perspective, CreditorWatch’s chief economist Harley Dale says Australia was already facing a skills shortage even before the COVID-19. The pandemic has simply exacerbated the problem.

The biggest challenge for businesses, however, is uncertainty, he says.

“Business owners don’t want to invest and expand in an uncertain economic environment fuelled by what at present appears to be incessant lockdowns and a timeframe for the re-opening of international borders which seemingly is incessantly pushed out,” he explains.

The targets outlined last week may seem optimistic, but they are backed by medical experts, he notes.

And while it’s hard to know whether phase B is indeed achievable by the end of this year, simply having a target can help.

Still, the nation remains “heavily divided” when it comes to COVID-19 vaccination. And, economically, that’s not a good thing.

“While ever we are in this situation business confidence, investment and commercial viability will suffer,” Dale says.


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