Coronavirus: NSW and Victoria set to tighten lockdowns as PM says all states can pursue own plans
Scott Morrison has acknowledged that Victoria and New South Wales are likely to impose stage 3 lockdowns ahead of other states , as the national cabinet prepared to meet on Wednesday night to consider next steps.
With New Zealand moving to impose a full four-week lockdown, Wednesday night’s meeting of the prime minister and premiers was due to consider the next batch of restrictions to enforce social distancing, as well as financial assistance measures for renters and landlords – a package that will require cooperation with the banks and insurance companies.
The meeting will also consider how the states can manage the anticipated surges in hospital admissions as coronavirus infection rates continue to climb.
On Wednesday, the government announced that all but the most urgent elective surgeries would be suspended to free up resources for a rising number of Covid-19 patients. From midnight, all elective surgery except for category 1 – classified as urgent surgery required within 30 days – and urgent category 2, procedures required within 90 days, will be postponed.
Ahead of Wednesday night’s discussions, the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, signalled more lockdowns were in prospect both in his state and in NSW, and said restrictions were likely to occur “in different parts of the country at different times”.
The ACT indicated it would follow the lead of Victoria and NSW and align “with NSW wherever possible on the shutting down of non-essential services to protect public health”. The prime minister told reporters in Canberra he would prefer a national position but the national cabinet was “not a compulsory mechanism” and “there would be no resistance” to states pursuing their own plans.
Wednesday night’s meeting comes amid accelerating job losses triggered by the staged lockdowns. The prime minister is facing intensifying pressure from business on a range of fronts. Employer groups have joined the trade union movement in pushing for a UK-style wage subsidy to support incomes while keeping Australians in work, rather than triggering layoffs.
On Wednesday the Australian Council of Trade Unions renewed its call for the government to pay an Australian coronavirus wage, worth up to 80% of a worker’s wage, for hard-hit employers that would otherwise stand down or make their employees redundant.
Major employer groups held a teleconference with Treasury officials on Wednesday afternoon, calling for further measures to support business to retain workers, including a wage subsidy.
The executive director of the Australian Retailers Association, Russell Zimmerman, told Guardian Australia the prime minister was “under an incredible amount of pressure at the moment” with “every business and industry association” calling for more support.
Although many retail businesses were spared in the second stage of restrictions, decided and announced on Tuesday evening, Zimmerman said the majority of textile, clothing and footwear businesses “would like to see the industry completely closed down”.
“I understand the prime minister wants to keep business going, but if you’re trying to trade ... there is no sense continuing if you’re losing money at a hundred miles an hour.”
Zimmerman said retailers were at “crisis point” in “diabolical situations”, having to keep paying wages as government warnings to stay at home stopped customers coming to stores.
“If the government closes retail down, there is an opportunity to stand down employees and that process puts you in a completely different position.
“But if you’re responsible for wages – even if your business is closed – you’re going to go into bankruptcy. There are an awful lot of retailers with a turnover in excess of $50m looking down the barrel of insolvency.”
Zimmerman said he wondered whether the UK subsidy model “wouldn’t be far easier” than Australia’s approach, which has resulted in “people standing in dole lines to get unemployment benefits, the online system crashing” and workers and businesses getting increasingly desperate.
On Sunday, employer groups and industry associations welcomed the $66bn second stage of the Morrison government’s stimulus package but called for more support if the economic situation worsened.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which had previously suggested Newstart-style payments to employers who retained workers, called for support in meeting financial obligations including rent and wages.
“They will need financial support for fixed costs to take the pressure off, for example with meeting obligations to landlords,” the ACCI chief executive, James Pearson, said. “And government support for workers to retain an employment relationship with their employer, to be available to get the business back on its feet while still accessing an income, is welcome too.”
On Wednesday, Morrison continued to resist calls for a wage subsidy, pointing to the fact the first stimulus package contained $6.7bn for payments of up to $25,000 to businesses to cover the costs of employee wages and salaries, based on their business activity statements.
He said “one of the weaknesses” of the UK subsidy system was “it has to build an entirely new payment system for that to be achieved, which is never done quickly and is never done well”.
“And that can put at great risk the sort of resources we’re trying to get to people. The best way to get help to people is through the existing payment channels, through the existing tax system arrangements.
“That was the lesson from the GFC. Of all the money that went out in the GFC ... the key lesson was you must use existing channels for getting money to people because that is the most effective way for that to occur. To dream up other schemes can be very dangerous.”