Prime Minister Scott Morrison says National Cabinet will outline a framework for easing coronavirus restrictions on Friday, asking industries to pitch their plans for “COVID safe” re-openings across the country.
In a press conference on Tuesday, Morrison gave his strongest indication yet Australia is headed towards an easing of coronavirus lockdowns, while Treasurer Josh Frydenberg delivered a wide-ranging speech on the economic consequences of the pandemic so far.
Both pushed new Treasury modelling that current restrictions, brought on progressively in March to curb the outbreak, are costing Australia $4 billion every week in lost economic activity.
National Cabinet considered those figures during its meeting on Tuesday, prompting discussion about how businesses will need to adjust their activities in the coming months to re-open without unduly increasing risk of spreading coronavirus.
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Morrison was clear about the need to balance economic recovery with public safety concerns, but said states and territories would ultimately make decisions about the timeline of their own coronavirus restrictions, which increasingly vary state-by-state.
“The Commonwealth government is under no illusion about the ongoing costs of these measures, and it certainly puts enormous pressure, as it should, on the timetable as we seek to move Australia back to that safe economy,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.
“COVID safe” businesses
Current trading restrictions prevent entire industries, including beauty services businesses and gyms, from taking face-to-face appointments, while restaurants and cafes across the country have been limited to takeaway and delivery services.
Initially officials advised businesses to expect the measures to last for six months, but Australia’s progress in limiting the outbreak, along with the economic realities of keeping large swathes of the economy under lock and key, are prompting reconsideration.
Industrial relations Minister Christian Porter and National COVID-19 Commission chair Neville Power said officials are working with industry bodies to prepare guidelines for firms to operate so-called “COVID safe” businesses, including ensuring appropriate social distancing in the workplace and contract tracing if an incidence of coronavirus emerges.
SafeWork Australia will be used as a resource for pushing guidelines and tool kits to businesses about how to operate once restrictions and official stay-at-home advice are eased, Power said.
As SmartCompany reported earlier this week, industry lobbyists for the retail and hospitality industries are pushing a series of coronavirus protocols to federal and state governments, putting forward measures such as placing physical barriers between patrons and recording visitors to stores and venues to promote contract tracing.
The Morrison government has continued to tie easing of stay-at-home restrictions, which differ state-by-state, to uptake of its COVIDsafe tracking app, which was slated to hit 5 million downloads on Tuesday.
“These are on occasions not going to be uncomplicated
The comments come as Frydenberg on Tuesday said the federal government will amend the Corporations Act to enable companies to hold virtual annual general meetings and inscribe the validity of digitally signed contracts into law.
“It is this flexible and nimble approach to our regulatory frameworks that we will need to take forward into the recovery phase,” Frydenberg told the National Press Club.
“Through these and the many other economic and health measures we have announced over recent weeks, Australia now has a bridge to the other side.”
Frydenberg also revealed more than 725,000 businesses have now officially enrolled for the JobKeeper wage subsidy program, covering about 4.7 million workers.
Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) figures published on Monday found 44% of businesses (2,014 were surveyed between April 22-28) said JobKeeper had positively influenced their decision to keep staff on.
However, separate figures published by the ABS on Tuesday revealed one third of jobs across the food and accommodation sector have already been lost between mid-March and mid-April.
It was also revealed that Australian banks have approved about $1 billion in loans under the federal government’s coronavirus guarantee scheme, while 384,000 firms have accessed about $7 million in cash flow support.