Aus­tralian prime min­is­ter to ask global lead­ers to fund ur­gent re­search for coro­n­avirus vac­cine

The Guardian Australia - - Front Page - Katharine Murphy, Ben But­ler and Paul Karp

Scott Mor­ri­son will urge G20 lead­ers to fund rapid re­search to de­velop a coro­n­avirus vac­cine and sup­port tri­als of anti-vi­ral drugs, while keep­ing bor­ders open to en­sure crit­i­cal med­i­cal sup­plies can be traded dur­ing the cri­sis.

With 80 coun­tries seek­ing as­sis­tance from the In­ter­na­tional Mon­e­tary Fund to man­age the eco­nomic shock trig­gered by the pandemic, and with G20 fi­nance min­is­ters pre­dict­ing a global eco­nomic down­turn, Aus­tralia’s prime min­is­ter will use a tele­con­fer­ence of world lead­ers sched­uled for late Thurs­day night to call on rich coun­tries to sup­port the de­vel­op­ing world to help lower the death count in coun­tries with poor health sys­tems, and also min­imise the risk of failed states.

Mor­ri­son will say Aus­tralia in­tends to as­sist the Pa­cific as much as pos­si­ble dur­ing the pandemic.

The G20 hookup comes as the Mor­ri­son gov­ern­ment is work­ing up a third round of safety net mea­sures on the as­sump­tion that swathes of the econ­omy will move into a pe­riod of sus­pended an­i­ma­tion as lock­downs take ef­fect. Con­cep­tu­ally, the gov­ern­ment wants to en­sure that businesses emerge on the other side of the pandemic with­out sub­stan­tial li­a­bil­i­ties on their books that would force them to ei­ther de­clare bank­ruptcy or sack sub­stan­tial num­bers of work­ers.

Mor­ri­son will also meet the pre­miers on Fri­day at the na­tional cab­i­net. New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT have sig­nalled they will move to stage 3 lock­downs over the com­ing days in an ef­fort to con­tain com­mu­nity trans­mis­sion, and Fri­day’s meet­ing will con­sider spe­cific trig­ger points for that de­ci­sion.

With the num­ber of re­ported coro­n­avirus cases in Aus­tralia creep­ing to­wards 3,000, gov­ern­ments are keep­ing a close watch on the num­ber of in­fec­tions that are lo­cally ac­quired with no known link to a con­firmed case. Of­fi­cial data seen by Guardian Aus­tralia in­di­cates there were 115 cases in that cat­e­gory on Thurs­day, with a fur­ther 432 cases un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

As of Thurs­day night, it ap­peared un­likely that stage 3 lock­downs would be im­posed in the most pop­u­lous states be­fore the week­end, and the Mor­ri­son gov­ern­ment wants to stretch the time be­fore that hap­pens as long as pos­si­ble. Data col­lected by the gov­ern­ment through the Ci­tymap­per app points to a sub­stan­tial drop off in move­ment around cities since the gov­ern­ment closed the bor­der, and re­stric­tions on crowds were im­posed in mid-March.

As well as es­tab­lish­ing the trig­ger points for the next se­quence of lock­downs, Fri­day’s meet­ing will also con­sider as yet un­com­pleted work on fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance mea­sures for renters and land­lords. The nuts and bolts of that pack­age are be­ing worked up by trea­sur­ers, with the states re­spon­si­ble for res­i­den­tial ten­an­cies and the com­mon­wealth deal­ing with com­mer­cial land­lords and renters.

The states are look­ing to en­sure that res­i­den­tial ten­ants don’t get evicted over the com­ing months if they can­not pay their rent and will pro­pose op­tions to en­sure there are no rent in­creases dur­ing the cri­sis.

The Mor­ri­son gov­ern­ment wants the states to of­fer land tax re­lief for land­lords, but is un­likely to get the states on board. The com­mon­wealth is con­sid­er­ing tax re­lief for land­lords pre­pared to ei­ther cut rent or pro­vide rent holi

days for their ten­ants.

The trea­surer, Josh Fry­den­berg, is also pre­vail­ing on the banks to help carry the load of sus­pended rental in­come for the du­ra­tion of the cri­sis. The in­sur­ance in­dus­try has also been in talks with the Mor­ri­son gov­ern­ment over the rent pack­age.

It is be­lieved in­sur­ers are con­cerned they may be on the hook for hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars in pay­ments un­der land­lord in­sur­ance poli­cies. The in­sur­ance cov­ers land­lords for a va­ri­ety of prob­lems, in­clud­ing non-pay­ment of rent. It is be­lieved most poli­cies do not ex­clude non-pay­ment caused by a pandemic.“The in­sur­ance in­dus­try is aware of dis­cus­sions around the im­pact of Covid-19 on com­mer­cial and do­mes­tic rents and is talk­ing to gov­ern­ment about the is­sue,” an In­sur­ance Coun­cil of Aus­tralia spokesman said.

Also on the agenda for Fri­day’s na­tional cab­i­net meet­ing is a con­ver­sa­tion about re­duc­ing the amount of elec­tive den­tal surgery to free up pro­tec­tive equip­ment. There will also be an­other con­ver­sa­tion about schools in an ef­fort to land on a na­tional po­si­tion.

Mor­ri­son held talks with ed­u­ca­tion unions this week and is at­tempt­ing to bro­ker ar­range­ments where schools around the country move to pro­vide dis­tance learn­ing by term two but cam­puses re­main open for stu­dents who need to at­tend be­cause their par­ents are es­sen­tial ser­vices work­ers, or be­cause they are in dis­ad­van­taged house­holds.

With the econ­omy al­ready pro­foundly dis­rupted by the pandemic, busi­ness and unions are at­tempt­ing to re­cal­i­brate in­dus­trial ar­range­ments. On Thurs­day, two peak em­ployer groups struck a deal with the Aus­tralian Ser­vices Union to vary the clerks award in a bid to keep hun­dreds of thou­sands in work by im­prov­ing flex­i­bil­ity.

The deal, struck with the Aus­tralian In­dus­try Group and Aus­tralian Cham­ber of Com­merce and In­dus­try, al­lows em­ploy­ees and em­ploy­ers to change the or­di­nary hours of work to bet­ter al­low work­ing from home. It also gives more power for em­ploy­ers to di­rect em­ploy­ees to take an­nual leave and more op­tions for longer pe­ri­ods of leave at re­duced pay to man­age the down­turn.

Pres­sure from peak busi­ness groups to adopt some form of wage sub­sidy to keep work­ers in em­ploy­ment on top of grants of up to $25,000 con­tin­ued to grow on Thurs­day.

The Coun­cil of Small Busi­ness Or­gan­i­sa­tions Aus­tralia chief ex­ec­u­tive, Peter Strong, told Guardian Aus­tralia it wanted a 60% wage sub­sidy, which to­gether with ex­ist­ing grants worth 20% of em­ploy­ers’ wages bill would de­liver in­come sup­port equiv­a­lent to the 80% adopted in the United King­dom. The mea­sure, which would cost $21bn for three months as­sum­ing 1.7m Aus­tralians are dis­placed from their jobs, was one pro­posal put to trea­sury of­fi­cials at a meet­ing on Wed­nes­day.

The gov­ern­ment is ex­am­in­ing wage subsidies for the third round of stim­u­lus but is re­luc­tant to adopt in­come sup­port that gives more as­sis­tance to higher in­come earn­ers than work­ers on av­er­age in­comes or min­i­mum wages. It also wants to de­liver sup­port through the ex­ist­ing tax and trans­fer sys­tem.

The fi­nance min­is­ter, Mathias Cor­mann, said the gov­ern­ment had not adopted a wage guar­an­tee be­cause “the ad­vice in front of us was that that was not the best way in an Aus­tralian con­text” to pro­vide sup­port, be­cause “the ex­ist­ing jobseeker pay­ment frame­work” – unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits – would reach house­holds faster.

The gov­ern­ment is yet to re­spond to La­bor’s call to change the in­come thresh­old and taper rates for unem­ploy­ment ben­e­fits so more fam­i­lies are able to ac­cess jobseeker pay­ments where one part­ner is job­less but the other earns more than $48,000.

Op­tions are still be­ing de­vel­oped by the so­cial ser­vices min­is­ter, Anne Rus­ton, and the gov­ern­ment char­ac­terises an agree­ment be­tween the prime min­is­ter and the La­bor leader, An­thony Al­banese, as a com­mit­ment only to con­sider changes with a view to ex­pand­ing el­i­gi­bil­ity.

Pho­to­graph: Mike Bow­ers/The Guardian

Scott Mor­ri­son’s video meet­ing with G20 lead­ers late on Thurs­day comes as the gov­ern­ment works up a third round of safety net mea­sures for the pub­lic amid the coro­n­avirus out­break.

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