Elite AgentOPINION

The ‘vaxing’ issue facing the real estate industry: Andrew Cocks

Vaccination against COVID-19 is the topic on everyone’s mind at the moment. Richardson & Wrench Managing Director Andrew Cocks examines the difficult decisions real estate agencies and agents face and whether or not vaccination status could be the difference between winning a listing or not.

It has taken a Greater Sydney lockdown, along with COVID-19 incursions into Queensland, daily reports of escalating infections in the city and regions, hospital admissions and deaths for Australia to finally get serious about vaccination.

Now that the race to vaccinate is well and truly on, we must quickly consider what our world looks like in the hopefully not too distant future.

Beyond the joy of family and friends being able to gather in numbers, book into our favourite restaurants and celebrate births, marriages and deaths in our customary fashion, there is the vexed issue that is dividing workplaces all over the country.

‘We’re all in this together’ was the slogan that characterised COVID-19 in 2020, but it is nowhere to be seen in 2021.

That’s partly a consequence of trying to contain outbreaks by postcode, with harsher lockdown in certain areas while permitting greater freedoms, that keep the economy and business moving, where infection rates are lower.

Talk of vaccination as a condition of work is growing louder and we have seen a number of companies act to keep businesses running by providing a safe place to work.

You have to respect first movers like SPC who are prepared to show leadership and wear the flak; something our political leaders are reluctant to do lest it reflect poorly in poll results.

SPC are the first non-healthcare company to make a COVID-19 vaccination compulsory for workers.

But what of real estate, an industry composed of thousands of independents and franchisees operating their own businesses for which they are legally responsible?

A recent Newspoll published in The Australian identified that 11 per cent of the population had no intention of being vaccinated and thanks to The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation’s (ATAGI) narrow risk assessment process, a third were determined to wait until Pfizer was available.

Although history has shown that the approach to difficult COVID-related issues often occurs quickly, and despite the recent guidance that employers will be entitled to ask their employees about their vaccination status, the Federal Government’s stance against mandating vaccination leaves decision-making in the hands of the people – 86 per cent of whom support vaccination.

The question is, how long the vast majority will tolerate having their health and safety put in jeopardy by those who refuse to vaccinate and what needs to be done to adequately protect our staff and the public who are involved in any real estate transaction?

Will there come a time when an agent asks potential clients to declare their vaccination status before attending an in-person listing presentation? Or conversely, that a client will only permit a vaccinated agent into their home.

When open house inspections resume, will prospective buyers demand a safe and vaccinated environment to view the property and will home owners want assurance that their desire to sell their home does not come with a COVID-19 risk?

In an agency environment where nine in 10 workers are vaccinated, is it reasonable for the one refusenik to claim the right to force the vast majority to live with their choice, putting everyone at peril.

And where does that leave the responsible business owner given their obligation to provide a safe workplace, if an employee or a member of the public becomes infected, or worse, dies.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has declared that her government intends to vaccinate its way out of this current lockdown and indicated that this is the key to easing some restrictions, while stopping short of a mandate.

Yet the rapidly changing behaviour of the Delta variant is several steps ahead of legislation. From 17 September, it will be mandatory for all residential aged care workers to have had at least one jab.

The rationale for targeting this group was sound when we were dealing with the 2020 version of COVID-19.

But we have since seen younger age groups fall victim in ever increasing numbers, and whereas last year aged care homes were at the epicentre of infections, in the past two months we have seen dozens of schools closed after COVID-19 exposures.

Increasingly, those in customer-facing occupations are being reclassified as priority groups for vaccination. Teachers and childcare workers in Queensland have gone to the top of the queue and in NSW, supermarket workers have been given priority.

This week, as Victoria locked down for the sixth time, a COVID-positive real estate agent passed the virus on to five household members. Every person with whom they had contact, whether at an open home, a client’s home or within the agency is now at risk.

Real estate is, more than anything, a people business. The key to success is the rapport that can be established with both seller and buyer, landlord and tenant, and while technology is assisting us to continue to perform what is a vital public service, it is not sustainable in the long term.

There is no doubt that in time, we will work out suitable and practical arrangements for the real estate industry and get back to more normal business.

However, in the absence of clear guidance and direction from government, all real estate businesses will have to endure unnecessary confusion and uncertainty while we work through arrangements that are appropriate for our staff and members of the public.

Our industry needs to start thinking about the future and whether it will be enough to merely encourage vaccination or to do the heavy lifting. In a highly competitive industry, might the declaration of vaccination status be the clincher for the next successful listing and sale?

Show More

Andrew Cocks

Andrew Cocks is the Executive Director of Richardson & Wrench.