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'Herding cats' through a coronavirus crisis

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Make no mistake, the general insurance industry wants to do all it can to help consumers and small businesses get through COVID-19.

But while pressure has been building for a joint industry position – such as that already trumpeted by the banks – so far that hasn’t happened.

Instead, IAG has moved ahead with its own measures while the industry-wide response being negotiated through the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) hits snags and hold-ups. understands that during ICA talks to devise an industry-wide set of measures to help consumers, there was a feeling that government pressure to replicate the banks’ response was not fair, and demonstrated a lack of understanding of how the two sectors differ.

ICA would not comment on any undue pressure but says that “unlike the banking sector, which has generous government fiscal support, general insurance is a diverse industry that offers complex short-term contracts”.

“Insurers do not have equity via mortgages and loans in customer assets to protect their financial exposure.”

That said, there are some ways that insurers can help.

No, travel insurers can’t waive pandemic exclusions and pay all claims, because to do so would wipe out a whole year’s gross written premium. Doing the same for business interruption would be even more crippling.

But unused travel premiums could be refunded, and a range of other measures could help small business clients survive and keep their cover in place.

Despite there being broad agreement on this, as one industry insider told, trying to get all insurers’ sign-off can be “like herding cats”.

The key protagonists are an unwieldy mix of local and international companies, each with their own way of working and unique approval channels, some of them very long. understands that many also held concerns that an industry-wide agreement could be considered anti-competitive conduct.

And so the announcement was put on hold while Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) approval was sought.

Which is when IAG decided to go it alone.

Its measures are clear and concise:

  • Travel insurance refunds for any unused proportion of premiums
  • Deferred premium payments for up to six months for small businesses experiencing financial hardship
  • Refunds on the unused portion of premiums for small businesses who cancel their insurance, with no administration or cancellation fees
  • Small businesses which need to close premises due to the impact of COVID-19 can maintain full insurance cover on the premises with no changes to premium
  • Reduced timeframes in making payments to suppliers from 30 to no more than 15 business days.

As understands it, these are for the most part the same measures that form the basis of the pending industry response.

IAG looks like the hero but others – including Suncorp and QBE – are planning to do the same or similar. They just wanted to go by the book.

But who can blame IAG for getting on the front foot?

The impact of this unprecedented crisis is already being felt, and insurance customers need help now.

The ACCC says it will “continue to actively engage with governments and businesses about potential authorisations that support co-ordination between competitors that is ordinarily prohibited but which is necessary and in the public interest at this time”.

Let’s hope this engagement takes place quickly, so consumers can access the help that general insurers want to give.