The federal government is considering an expansion of paid pandemic leave to prevent the further spread of coronavirus, as Scott Morrison expressed growing concern at the national economic impact of the crisis from Victoria.
These concerns about what the Prime Minister called the “Victorian wave’’ were compounded on Wednesday when Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk closed her borders to everyone from greater Sydney from Saturday onwards. The decision, prompted by a chain reaction of events that began in Victoria, both blindsided and dismayed the NSW and federal governments, as well as the business community.
As NSW recorded 17 cases on Wednesday, Mr Morrison hailed his home state as the benchmark state for being able to live with the virus without killing its economy. In Victoria, there 295 new cases and 87 aged care homes had patients with infections.
“I’m significantly encouraged by what we have seen in NSW,’’ Mr Morrison said. ”Where there has been a real test of the system with a number of outbreaks and the capability to get on top of those quickly should give all of the country great encouragement, that it is not an inevitable consequence that where there are outbreaks, it can result where, sadly the Victorian situation has come to.
“That’s not a criticism, that’s, they’re just an observation of facts.”
After weeks of pressure from the labour movement, the Prime Minister announced he had come around to the idea of paid pandemic leave to stop sick people, especially casuals with no leave entitlements, going to work and spreading the disease, as has happened in Victorian aged care homes.
“The context is that out of more than 430 aged care services and facilities in Melbourne, we have got some very serious and acute conditions in three, arguably four,’’ said Mr Morrison, who is coming under fire because the commonwealth-regulated facilities are the worst affected.
This week the Fair Work Commission approved a union claim for paid pandemic leave for the aged care sector.
Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter confirmed he was now discussing a broader scheme with the ACTU and business groups but he stopped short of advocating an economy-wide scheme.
“We’re obviously keeping a watching brief on it but at the moment, the problem is obviously most acute in aged care,’’ he said.
Mr Porter said decisions would be made on the data-based evidence of where it was needed most. He indicated there would be an emphasis on Victoria and particularly vulnerable sectors.
“The government will consider that evidence when it’s made available before deciding next steps,’’ he said.
He noted the Fair Work Commission could be an alternative approach.
“Independently of government, the Fair Work Commission has also not ruled out considering applications for similar provisions to those it recently approved for aged-cared workers to be included in other awards, should the Commission deem it necessary in the future,’’ he said.
Mr Porter also cautioned any broader scheme should not be exploited so people who were no ill and who were lawfully required to turn up for work, did so.
ACTU secretary Sally McManus, who has led calls for paid pandemic leave, said it should be on top of all existing entitlements, should be for two weeks, available to all workers who need it and paid by the government.
“This initiative is essential to defend our country against the spread of the virus it will save both lives and jobs,’’ she said.
If it were not for the Victorian outbreak, the domestic economy, including all state borders, would be mostly reopened by now under an agreement the national cabinet made in May.
Mr Morrison said it would now be at least a month before a reappraisal could be made of when the domestic economy could reopen as envisaged.
“It is my hope that we can have a better read on that in about a month from now. But I think any time before that … I think a cautious estimate,’’ he said.
Mr Morrison said it was clear it was a “Victorian wave that Australia is now experiencing’’ and that rebooting the economy required stamping out the Victorian outbreak.
“There’s not a second wave that’s going across the rest of the country, that is not occurring. There is a significant Victorian wave, but that Victorian wave is impacting the national economy more broadly.
“We’re seeing that in the payroll data. That is the most, one of the most, timely datasets we see on employment.”
He said getting Victoria under control was the key.
“It’s in the national interest, both from a health perspective and an economic perspective that we ensure that Victoria wins here,’’ he said.
At this stage, federal sources said the declining economic situation sparked by Victoria was not causing a reappraisal of the budget situation because last week’s economic update factored in Victoria being locked down for six weeks.
“There’s still a chance they will start to come out of it after that,’’ said a source.
The Queensland decision was a further blow to economic momentum. It also forced the two Sydney AFL teams to fast-track their relocation to Queensland. The NRL was unaffected.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian complained she was given no advance notice by Ms Palaszczuk but said the move would hurt Queensland’s economy more than that of NSW.
“That’s a matter for the Queensland Premier, but it would have been nice if she told me,” she said, adding that the move was triggered by two Queensland women who had flown home from Victoria via Sydney. ”In the end, it hurts the smaller states if you don’t interact with NSW, it hurts us less if you talk about the economy,’’ Ms Berejiklian said.
Business leaders were unhappy, as was the Morrison government, which noted the decision to reimpose border restrictions was not based on medical advice.
Chief executive of the Australian Industry Group Innes Willox was most critical.
“The return of the blunt instrument to Queensland’s border strategy with the lockout of Australia’s largest city is making it incredibly difficult to run national businesses and risking our already wobbly economic recovery,’’ he said.
“The closure of the Queensland border to 34 new ‘hot spots’ including greater Sydney was unfortunately made without broad consultation or understanding of how businesses operate.
“The World Health Organisation has argued that closing international borders is not a viable long-term strategy, and this same argument applies even more to state borders.”
While the two Queensland women are expected to cause a cluster of cases in their home state, the federal government does not fear a Victorian-style catastrophe because Queensland, like NSW, has good contact tracing protocols.