COVID-19: New Public Health Measures and Financial Rescue Package

It’s nearing midnight as I write this, having just wrapped my head around the latest measures announced from tonight’s National Cabinet meeting of the Prime Minister and Premiers/Chief Ministers of the States and Territories.

That was after spending much of the afternoon combing through press releases and bulletins detailing the additional $66 billion economic rescue package announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg earlier today, adding to the $17.6 billion stimulus package announced on 12 March.

Events are unfolding so rapidly that the measures just announced may be superseded in short order, but as at the time of writing (11.31pm Sunday 22 March 2020 AEDT), these are the things that you should be aware of in order to play your part in helping see Australia through this COVID-19 crisis.

I’ll tackle the public health measures first and then loop back to provide some detail on the economic rescue package and things to keep in mind should you be impacted by the economic effects that will result from the required public health response.

As the situation will remain fluid for the foreseeable future, please also check in with the Commonwealth Department of Health’s COVID-19 page on a regular basis for the latest information and guidance.

Forced closure of certain businesses and venues

Effective midday local time on Monday 23 March 2020 the following businesses, facilities and venues will be restricted from opening, in order to better facilitate the restrictions on social gatherings announced recently:

  • Pubs, registered and licenced clubs (excluding bottle shops attached to these venues), hotels (excluding accommodation);
  • Gyms and indoor sporting venues; 
  • Cinemas, entertainment venues, casinos, and nightclubs;
  • Restaurants and cafes (which will be restricted to takeaway and/or home delivery only); and
  • Religious gatherings, places of worship or funerals (in enclosed spaces and other than very small groups and where the 1 person per 4 square metre rule applies).

Australians are being advised to expect these measures to be in place for at least six months.

These measures are in addition to the rules now applying to social gathering; being no non-essential gathering of more than 500 individuals at outdoor activities, and no non-essential indoor gatherings of more than 100 people, provided the indoor venue can maintain not less than 4 square metres per individual.

State borders and freedom of movement

In addition to the rules on social gathering above, certain State governments have moved to impose restrictions on entry in order to slow the rate of COVID-19 transmission within their borders.

As at the time of writing, both Western Australia and South Australia have announced border restrictions.  WA will impose these restrictions as from 1.30pm AWST on Tuesday 24 March, whereby interstate arrivals, whether by road, sea, air or rail will have to self-isolate for a period of 14 days. It is understood that South Australia will impose a similar restriction, effective 4pm ACDT on Tuesday.

If you are scheduled to travel for work in the next few days it is strongly recommended that you check with your employer or the relevant State authorities as soon as possible.

School closures

So as not to misrepresent the official position on this sensitive matter, below verbatim is the text from the PM’s media release issued this evening on the issue of school closures:

Statement on schools

All leaders agreed that children should go to school tomorrow. Leaders agreed that we cannot see children lose an entire year of their education as a result of school closures caused by COVID-19.

Leaders committed to the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) advice that says that it is safe to keep schools open.

Leaders also thanked all teachers and school staff for their support.

State Premiers and Chief Ministers agreed that schools will remain open through to the end of the current school terms to support students whose parents choose to send their children to school. Victoria’s school break will commence on Tuesday 24 March 2020.

All Leaders have committed to re-open schools at the end of the school break, subject to the advice of the Australian Health Principal Protection Committee.

If parents choose to keep their children home from school, parents must be responsible for the conduct of the children and to ensure they adhere to the social distancing arrangements in place. Parents must be aware that while the majority of adults who contract COVID-19 have mild forms of the virus, the elderly or those with co-morbidities can have more significant symptoms.

Schools will be encouraged to provide access to online and distance learning.

Economic rescue package – second round

Forcing a large section of the economy to shut its doors for at least six months is going to create a lot of economic pain. Licensed clubs, bars, pubs and hotels are all affected by the new directive, as are cinemas, indoor entertainment venues, casinos and nightclubs.

There is no way to sugarcoat it. The impact on employees within the hospitality, leisure and entertainment sector is going to be severe.

This follows the news last week that the  travel and tourism industry is already contracting, with Qantas standing down some 20,000 staff last week, as it (and the airline industry) comes to a near-standstill.

Even if you do not work in any of the above mentioned sectors, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the recently released unemployment rate of 5.3 per cent is going to spike, as least in the short term.  That being the case, the Government is implementing a series of measures designed to assist those who may find their jobs or business impacted by the crisis.

Coronavirus supplement

The Treasurer has announced a new time-limited Coronavirus supplement to be paid at the rate of $550 per fortnight to both existing and new recipients of the JobSeeker payment (Newstart), Youth Allowance jobseeker, Parenting Payment, Farm Household Allowance and Special Benefit.

This supplement will be paid for six months and is in addition to other payments already being received by the eligible recipient.

If you do need to seek financial assistance in the event your employment is affected, you should contact Services Australia in the first instance and register as soon as possible.

Additional payment to support households

The first stimulus package, announced on 12 March, contained a one-off $750 payment to Age Pensioners, veterans, social security (e.g. Newstart) income support recipients and eligible concession card holders.

These payments are due to start being paid from late March onward.

In addition, the Government has now announced a second $750 payment, to be made to social security recipients and eligible concession card holders, except for those who receive an income support payment that is eligible for the Coronavirus supplement.

This second payment is scheduled to be made from 13 July this year.

Accessing your superannuation

Under current superannuation law, individuals who find themselves in severe financial hardship may apply to their superannuation fund for the release of part of their super. The rules are normally extremely strict, with a maximum of $10,000 available after proving both that you have been on government income support continuously for not less than 26 weeks and that you’re unable to meet reasonable and immediate family expenses.

This second package will allow individuals who find themselves in financial stress as a result of the coronavirus to access up to $10,000 of their super in 2019-20, and a further $10,000 in 2020-21, presumably without the same severity that applies under the normal financial hardship provisions.

Eligible individuals will have to apply via the MyGov portal, and must do so before 1 July 2020 to access the $10,000 available for this financial year.

Assistance for your business

In addition to assistance available to individuals, the Government is expanding the range of relief measures for businesses announced in the first package on 12 March.

Small and medium businesses (SMEs) with an aggregate turnover under $50 million will be able to apply for payments of up to $100,000. Employers will now receive a payment equal to up to 100 per cent of salary and wages withheld (up from 50 per cent in the first package). These payments should be available from 28 April 2020.

In addition to the above measure, the Government has also announced a loan guarantee facility called the Coronavirus SME Guarantee Scheme. Under this new scheme the Government will guarantee 50 per cent of new loans issued by eligible lenders to SMEs.

The Government will guarantee up to $20 billion to support up to $40 billion in SME loans under this new scheme.

Getting on the front foot

It is pretty clear from the announcements made this evening that this is no longer business as usual.  Things are going to change for at least the next six months, and life as we know it will have to be suspended for at least that long.

The first and clearest responsibility you have is to your health, and that of your loved ones. In not contracting the virus you can neither transmit it nor suffer its effects. Slowing the rate of transmission, and keeping the virus away from our most vulnerable, is now a responsibility that all Australians must unify around.

These new restrictions may seem draconian but the evidence suggests countries that moved fast to impose strict social isolation measures have experienced lower rates of COVID-19 than countries that delayed such decisions.

The downside, however, is that a significant amount of economic disruption is now an inevitability. Many Australians are going to be impacted financially as businesses close, potentially never to reopen.

If you think you may be impacted, you should get on the front foot in anticipation.  

If you have any significant debt obligations, such as a mortgage, contact your lender as soon as it becomes apparent that things have taken a turn for the worse. All mortgage lenders have policies in place to help customers experiencing temporary financial difficulties. Make use of this facility before things spiral out of control.

Should you find yourself in a situation where your income has reduced and your debts are becoming unmanageable, call the National Debt Helpline on 1800 007 007.  The helpline is a free, not-for-profit service powered by Financial Counsellors who can assist you to negotiate your way out of a tight financial spot. The service is partly funded by the Department of Social Services as well as certain State governments.

Finally, know that on the other side of the crazy share market gyrations, the anxiety-inducing news bulletins and the social isolating, better times lie ahead.  We just need to get through this next little period the best we can, one day at a time.

Wishing you and yours all the best from the team here at Clover. 

Harry 

Disclaimer

This material is intended to provide background information only and does not purport to make any recommendation upon which you may reasonably rely without further and more specific advice. To the extent that this material contains information pertaining to health matters, it has been sourced from sites believed to be highly reputable, primarily various government departments and agencies. That said, given the rapidly evolving nature of events the subject matter of this post it is strongly recommended that readers avail themselves of up-to-date information from an appropriate official site.

To the extent that this material contains financial advice: (i) this is limited to general advice only; (ii) has been prepared without considering your objectives, financial situation or needs; and (iii) because of this you should therefore consider the appropriateness in light of your objectives, financial situation or needs, before following the advice. To the extent that this material contains any financial advice, we recommend that you do not act on this advice without first consulting your investment adviser to determine whether the advice is appropriate for your investment objectives, financial situation and particular needs.

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