Monday, 23 March 2020
Questions without Notice
My question is addressed to the Prime Minister. Can the Prime Minister confirm that the number of COVID-19 cases in Australia is doubling every three days and if this continues the pressure on our health system will become enormous? Does the Prime Minister agree that our national objective must be to bring this outbreak under control, as South Korea has done?
I can confirm that as I came into question time today there were 1,609 confirmed cases in Australia; sadly, there have been seven deaths; and 91 persons have recovered from the coronavirus. I can confirm that the rate of escalation of those cases has been concerning, and that has been a keen focus of the AHPPC, the panel of medical experts who are reviewing this issue, as they have been every day since late January, and are providing consistent advice about the measures that need to be taken not just by the federal government but by state governments as well. Those governments have been taking those actions, as has the Commonwealth government.
Earlier today I had a leadership meeting with the Prime Minister of Singapore, the annual leaders' dialogue between Singapore and Australia. That was done, under these unusual circumstances, by telepresence. At that we signed the Digital Economy Agreement. I discussed with the Prime Minister of Singapore, particularly, a lot of the measures that they have been putting in place. The Leader of the Opposition made reference to the work that has been done in South Korea. The work that has been done in Singapore has been a particular guide to the way that the Australian government, as well as the states and territories, have been looking to put measures in place. Those measures in Singapore include the fact that schools remain open in Singapore. Importantly, we had a discussion about how it was so important to ensure that—I couldn't hear over the Leader of the Opposition—
No, I understand what the position is in Singapore. In Singapore, they have put a range of measures in place that mirror the sorts of initiatives that Australia is seeking to put in place around the country. Our societies are different. Our regulatory systems are different. It is very difficult to compare between countries. The datasets between countries are very different. But I do know that Australia's rate of testing is one of the highest in the world—the number of tests that we have undertaken—and we also have the lowest rate of positive testing in the world. So we have a very significant challenge. It is our goal, as both the Australian government and the state and territory governments, to ensure that we limit the spread of the virus through all the measures that are available to us and to do so on the basis of the expert medical advice.
My question is to the Prime Minister. Will the Prime Minister outline to the House how the Commonwealth government is working to protect the health and wellbeing of Australians and their livelihoods from the coronavirus global pandemic crisis and how the Commonwealth government is ensuring that Australia is in the best possible position to emerge from this crisis?
I thank the member for Lindsay for her question. In relation to her last statement, Australia has gone into this crisis—both a health crisis and an economic crisis—with a very strong health system and with state and territory governments and a Commonwealth government that have balance sheets that are in a strong position to be able to deal with the economic challenges that we face in providing important support to people right across the country—including those who have lined up at Centrelink offices today and those who have communicated their intention to make claims in relation to the payments and various other supports and assistance that are there. We have entered this crisis in one of the strongest positions in the world, both at a state level and at a Commonwealth level.
As I just noted in response to the Leader of the Opposition's question, over 1,600 people have now contracted that virus and the rate of increase has been escalating now for several weeks, particularly over the past week since COAG met in Sydney just over a week ago.
I remember very well when the National Incident Response Room was set up on 20 January this year. The Deputy Prime Minister and I visited that centre just two days later. That was the first of the many statements and initiatives that were put in place by the government to ensure that we were working to combat this virus, as it would seek to take hold of our community.
From that time, there have been numerous decisions. Those actions have encompassed our economic response but also, most importantly and first and foremost, the health response. The health response has been about ensuring that we're resourcing the needs that are there both in our aged-care system and in our health system. Some $3 billion of additional support has gone into our health system, to support our hospitals, to support primary care, to support our aged-care facilities, and to support our aged-care workforce and our health workforce right across the country, to ensure that they can meet the growing demands that will continue to present.
We have also established the national cabinet—a national cabinet of all Australian governments—to ensure wherever possible we can coordinate the actions of the national response between the actions of all Australian governments as they seek to put in place the measures that best address the issues in their states. Travel bans have been put in place. Strict social distancing measures have been put in place for large outdoor gatherings as well as enclosed gatherings, including those arrangements that I set out last night. The health system has received additional support and will receive more. The messaging regarding personal hygiene and social distancing has been conveyed to the public and will continue to be conveyed to the public.
The economic stimulus package and the safety net package that we announced yesterday are there to ensure that we can assist Australians get through this crisis. Of course we will be tested, and the Australian government will continue to take the actions that protect the lives and livelihoods of Australians.
My question is again to the Prime Minister. What steps is the Prime Minister taking to improve the communication of measures related to the COVID-19 outbreak, including the rules on testing, advice to parents on school closures and the difference between essential and non-essential activities?
Some $30 million has been committed—and this was done several weeks ago—to support a public information campaign that particularly deals with the issues of healthy social distancing. That campaign is in place and that has been upgraded and expanded as required to deal with the very many messaging issues that need to be addressed.
The Leader of the Opposition makes reference to a couple of issues, particularly in relation to schools. Let me be very clear: the health advice from medical experts that advise the national cabinet is that schools should remain open. That is their advice. That has been their consistent advice. That advice from the AHPPC has not changed, and it is important that we all continue to act in accordance with that medical advice. In relation to the communication on the decisions that were undertaken last night and considered by the national cabinet, they have been conveyed by the state and territory governments, as they are putting the specific arrangements in place in each of their state and territory jurisdictions.
The Leader of the Opposition makes reference to 'essential' and 'non-essential'. The essential activities were defined in relation to public gatherings, outdoor gatherings, of 500 persons or more. They were set out in the Victorian legislation, which was the model legislation that was being used by other states and territories. That information was communicated and set out last week. Last night there were very clear instructions about a specific list of indoor spaces that would not be continuing to allow gatherings past midday today local time in each of the state and territory jurisdictions. States and territories are communicating with the industries and sectors, and the national communications campaign will continue to be updated to ensure that all of that information, including on the australia.gov.au website which has the most recent decisions, is there and available to the public.
My question is to the Prime Minister. Will the Prime Minister outline to the House how a national cabinet has been brought together to focus and coordinate government resources and responses to the coronavirus global health pandemic so we can provide the best possible assistance to Australians during what is an unprecedented health and economic challenge?
I thank the member for Higgins for her question and I also thank her for her counsel and advice with her background as a doctor. There are many doctors in this place, and I'm sure we've turned to them on occasion and I certainly appreciate the input I've received from the member for Higgins.
For the first time ever in Australia's federal history, we've established a national cabinet—that is a national cabinet of the governments of Australia, all states and territories, together with the Commonwealth, and the leaders of each of those executive governments coming together to ensure there can be coordination between the executive decisions of those governments in terms of the national response to the coronavirus crisis.
Those governments hold independent, individual sovereignty over the decisions that they hold under their various constitutions and subject only to the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia. But this mechanism has proved to be very effective in drawing together the many issues that the state and territory governments, together with the Commonwealth, need to address to ensure consistency wherever possible.
The national cabinet has met on four occasions in just the past 10 days. It meets even more urgently, as required, based on consultation with the members of the national cabinet. They have activated the second stage of the Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for the Coronavirus. They have banned non-essential mass gatherings of more than 500 people from Monday 16 March. Travel restrictions on cruise ships destined for Australia's borders commenced on 13 March for cruise ships from foreign ports. The universal self-isolation requirement on all international arrivals was effective from Sunday 15 March. They endorsed the medical expert panel advice, the AHPPC advice, against the bulk purchase of food, medicines and other goods. They endorsed the Commonwealth's decision to close Australia's borders to noncitizens and nonresidents at 9 pm Australian Eastern Daylight Time on Friday 20 March that followed on from the earlier travel bans that the Commonwealth put in place prior to the formation of the national cabinet. Non-essential indoor gatherings of greater than 100 people have not been permitted from Wednesday 18 March, and a four-square-metre rule as a guideline was put in place on 20 March. Further announcements were made on those indoor gatherings last night on the basis of the national cabinet meeting last night.
Domestic travel: all Australians should only consider travelling when it is essential. If people are unwell, they must stay at home unless seeking medical care. Aged-care facilities enabling consistent public health directions on visitor restrictions are to complement regulatory standards that were adopted by the Commonwealth. Those restrictions have been implemented through both the work of the Commonwealth government through our accreditation processes as well as public orders provided by the state governments. Of course stage 1 restrictions were put in place last night on 23 March which relate to many places of social gathering—pubs, registered and licensed clubs; gyms and indoor sporting venues; cinemas; entertainment venues; casinos and nightclubs; restaurants and cafes being restricted to takeaway and home delivery; and religious gatherings and places of worship. As the number of cases grows, the national cabinet will continue to take the decisions based on the expert medical advice that we are receiving on a daily basis.
(My question is for the Prime Minister. I refer to the government's expansion of Medicare telehealth rebates to some patients and services. Will the government expand telehealth rebates to all patients and services so that Australians don't have to visit a health provider during this crisis when it's not absolutely necessary? In particular, will the Prime Minister agree to expand telehealth rebates to mental health services and also provide mental health screening to people affected by COVID-19 and ensure dedicated services for children, parents and health workers?
I thank the opposition spokesperson for this question. The answer is, yes, we will be taking those steps. Shortly before question time we announced the third stage of our telehealth expansion. The first stage of telehealth expansion was announced with the initial package of activities, with regard to the $2.4 billion of health activities. That, in particular, provided telehealth to those who were in isolation or seeking diagnosis for coronavirus, but also to vulnerable groups who were not within those areas. The second stage, which commenced on 16 March, was an expansion of telehealth items for midwives. It recognises a general practice for continuity of care practices, which means a broader access for people who were otherwise vulnerable. Then, today, in a joint statement with the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners and the Australian Medical Association, in conjunction with the Australian College of Rural and Remote Medicine, ACRRM, and the RDAA, the Rural Doctors Association of Australia, we announced a further expansion of telehealth. That expansion allows all medical practitioners who are vulnerable to be able to practise from home.
As part of that, we have announced that we will be moving to and designing stage 4. The medical practitioners were very, very, very clear that they wanted to design this carefully and in a staged capacity. Stage 4 is whole-of-population access to telehealth. The reasons it is being done in a staged capacity are twofold. One, there is a very important need to maintain face-to-face services, whether it is for conditions that might be cardiac, or conditions that might involve musculoskeletal challenges, or conditions that might involve diagnoses through the ability to actually test and feel and see a patient's condition. All of these were identified by the medical practitioners as a critical step forward. Telehealth for whole-of-population is now being designed in conjunction with those groups I have just outlined. It is being led by Professor Michael Kidd, who is working with the government. We have now had over 100,000 telehealth services provided, and they are continuing at well over 20,000 a day. Stage 4 will allow that to be provided on a whole-of-population basis. The other thing we wanted to do is make sure that smaller general practices were protected, which was a specific request. All of these elements are part of the current design.
on indulgence—I thank the minister for his answer and acknowledge the announcement he has made. It was a suggestion made by the opposition in good faith. We are very pleased that the minister has taken it up. It has been based on very strong feedback from GPs and allied healthcare professionals. Also, in relation to mental health, I completely understand the government's focus on physical health, but we all need to turn our attention to the mental health of Australians as we get through this crisis. I thank the minister for his response.
My question is to the Prime Minister. A key factor in who will live and who will die from the coronavirus is the number of intensive care beds, especially the number of ventilators. Prime Minister, do you have a plan to at least double the number of intensive care units and secure the ventilators we need, and if there is such a plan, when will this goal be achieved?
I will make a brief comment and then pass on to the Minister for Health. The modelling work that is being done to provide advice to the government, and to the other Australian governments, is to ensure that we seek to manage the spread of this virus in such a way that it will avoid what would otherwise be quite intensive peak demands. I think we all understand that. The first line of attack in this is social distancing and other measures that will significantly alleviate the pressure on the health system. That is the first thing we need to do. But what we have done in putting those modelling processes together is to look at the potential impact on what the effect will be on those intensive care units, but also emergency departments and other parts of the health system. That will mean ensuring that we maintain medical supplies and we manage the health workforce within the hospitals that can best ensure that those beds and services are there when they're needed. We, at this point, have a very low number of patients that are actually in ICU, but of course we expect that to change as things change with the spread of the virus in the future. I will ask the health minister to add further on respirators and other matters of that nature.
Thank you very much, Prime Minister, and the member for Melbourne. As the Prime Minister said, there are two parts to the strategy. One is to reduce the demand or to flatten the curve, as is now a phrase which is sadly all too familiar to all Australians as well as everybody in this chamber. That's about reducing the number of people who contract coronavirus and spreading the load whilst protecting the vulnerable.
At the same time, since the very earliest times when the Chief Medical Officer declared this to be a disease of human pandemic potential on 21 January, he and the state chief health officers, the state ministers—and I want to thank all of the state ministers as their health services are doing an extraordinary job, and I particularly want to thank NSW Health and the New South Wales minister, Brad Hazzard; they have borne the brunt of this, and they have done a Herculean job—and all of the leaders have been focusing on this. It's been one of the key elements—and normally we wouldn't say this—in the National Security Committee requests that the Prime Minister has made, to compare peak demand with peak supply. We are seeking to double the capacity of intensive care units, if not more, including ventilators. I can inform the House that there has been a major order for an extra 1,000 ventilators, what are called invasive ventilators, placed with ResMed. Non-invasive ventilators are now being determined by the AHPPC requirement, and four firms have stepped in to help with production—ResMed, GE, Philips and Medtronic. They are showing a spirit which is beyond what any of us could have hoped. We thank them. We honour them. We will work with them.
I want to thank the member for Goldstein. I particularly want to acknowledge what he has done in his community, as many members on all sides of this chamber have done, in helping to bring their communities together in programs such as supporting seniors and others who are isolated, and building volunteer programs. It's something that each and every one of us can do in our own communities. I know my Mornington shire, under the leadership of the mayor, Sam Hearn, have done similar things. I just wanted to acknowledge that example, but I know that there are people on all sides of the chamber doing a similar thing.
In terms of the situation, as the Prime Minister set out, there are now over 1,600 cases, informed to us by the national incident centre just prior to coming here today, and very significantly 135,000 tests have been carried out. That number will increase as the course of the day goes on. That is one of the highest actual numbers in the world. It's also one of the highest per capita numbers—now over half a per cent of the population—but, with the available data we have seen, that is one of the lowest, if not the lowest, positive rates. What does that actually mean? It means that we are testing broadly and more widely than almost anybody else, and therefore picking up cases. That's an extremely important thing. That's why in the advice that the AHPPC, or the medical expert panel, to which the Prime Minister referred previously, put out last night was that the situation with our first thousand cases is somewhat different to that of other countries such as Italy and the USA when they were at a thousand. They then set out what was the case with regard to the sad and tragic loss of life, where it was much higher in other countries than it has been in Australia.
The latest advice is seven lives lost, sadly. But, interestingly, they go on to say that we have one of the lowest COVID-19 test positivity rates in the world—approximately one per cent—compared to the USA of 13 per cent, the UK of five per cent and even the Republic of Korea, or South Korea, of three per cent. Most interestingly, there have been, at this stage, on the last advice that I have—and it may have changed—less than 20 cases that have been to ICU. That's a very important sign. What that says is that our actual recognition of cases is much more accurate than many other comparable countries, and that's shown by the level of lives lost relative to the first 1,000 and the level of ICU cases, both of which are far lower than the rest of the world. Against that background, the steps that we are taking, as we have said—ventilators, the work on testing, the work and preparation of ICUs—all of these things, as I may have a chance to explore later, are being done through a combination of primary care, aged care, hospitals and research. It is a comprehensive program. Yes, it is moving, and I must say a special thanks to all of our health workers, who are our real heroes around the country.
My question is to the Prime Minister. Frontline health, aged-care and home-care workers have said that Australia's response to COVID-19 has been undermined by shortages of personal protective equipment such as masks and gowns. What is the government doing to address this urgent shortage?
I thank the member for his question. This is one of the key issues that the government has been working on for many months now to ensure that those supplies are in place. That also means managing demand for those supplies, whether it is in the dental sector or even how that PPE equipment is being provided in particular contexts. It is being provided in the most urgent of cases. One of the most important discussions we had recently at the national cabinet was how elective surgery was being managed, because that also has a big draw on that type of equipment, as you would know. So I welcome decisions, like in Western Australia, for example, where they are confining elective surgery to stage 1 and urgent stage 2. I understand that that is now being practised around all states and territories. So, again, this is as much about managing demand as it is about ensuring supply, but I will ask the Minister for Health to add to this answer. The minister for industry may wish to answer as well, because she has been working to ensure a domestic supply to increase our capacity to produce that equipment here in Australia. That includes the support of the Australian Defence Force.
Thank you very much, Prime Minister. I acknowledge the history and service of the member for Macarthur. To date, more than 3.1 million masks have been deployed from the National Medical Stockpile. This includes to primary health networks, general practices, community pharmacies, Aboriginal community controlled health organisations and state health authorities. Additional distributions are planned this week. We have had significant supplies arrive over the weekend, and we have over 300 million masks on order.
I do want to be honest: there has been some practice at some borders where some countries or individuals have diverted some of those supplies at the last minute. It is a difficult world out there, and we're doing everything we can to make sure that those masks that are ordered are arriving. Those orders are very significant, and they are being distributed as they arrive. We do have supplies which are being shared out with dentists and others. The supplies are being managed very carefully by the National Medical Stockpile. They are triaging and prioritising. Again I thank the health workers. One of the significant things we're doing is the extraordinary domestic production, which is now being ramped up. I will refer to the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology.
To add to the responses already given by the Prime Minister and the Minister for Health, we are working very closely with manufacturers right across Australia for them to either ramp up their production or to change their manufacturing processes so that they can produce the PPE that is needed. That includes things such as gloves, gowns, masks and critical pieces of infrastructure and supplies that are needed, which includes ventilators, as has already been touched on. I am happy to add to that later.
I thank the member for Chisholm. Many members in this House have faced many pressures over the last two months. Few have faced more pressures than the member for Chisholm. In the earliest days of this outbreak, when borders were closed with China, perhaps before almost any other significant country, she along with others fielded many of the questions and the pressures that fell upon the Chinese community particularly. She managed that with great grace and dignity and effectiveness.
Our overall plan is built around four pillars: firstly, primary care; secondly, aged care; thirdly, hospitals; fourthly, vaccines and medical research. That is underpinned by the work in relation to critical supplies, which has been addressed during the course of today.
In relation to primary care, we focused, as I said, on telehealth earlier. Those facilities are now being ramped up to stage 3. As I have indicated, we will work to a whole-of-population plan in conjunction with the medical authorities and representatives over the course of the coming days, with more than 100,000 services having been provided.
In relation to testing, this has been one of our most important elements. There was a global supply of test kits. I can inform the House we now have a significant number of test kits, more than 1½ million test kits, of different forms, on order. We have had a series of different approvals provided by the TGA over the course of the weekend for different types of what are called point-of-care tests. These will include different types of finger-prick tests, and significant orders have been made. We also have the work on preparation for Indigenous communities.
I particularly want to focus on aged care. More than half a billion dollars all up, with an initial $100 million and an over $440 million package, has been provided. This is looking at three elements in relation to aged care. The first $100 million was about emergency support in cases such as Dorothy Henderson Lodge. The additional funding then goes to ensuring that we have retention of current staff. There will be a significant staff bonus, which will amount to approximately $800 per quarter for full-time equivalent residential-care staff and to $600 per quarter for full-time equivalent home-care staff. Then we have funds for extra staff, and other costs which will be required by aged-care facilities.
We recognise that the pressures on those facilities are great. This is where our most vulnerable are. We have seen, with Dorothy Henderson Lodge, the tragic consequences if infections are allowed in. So, in preparing them, in preparing hospitals, as I mentioned earlier, and in the research, we are taking a comprehensive approach.
My question is to the Prime Minister. Who is responsible for allowing passengers to disembark the Ruby Princess cruise ship, many of whom are now presenting with coronavirus symptoms? Why isn't Australia taking the temperature of all international passengers on arrival at our airports and ship terminals still today?
Upon arrival in Sydney on 19 March, and following immigration and customs clearance, the vessel was placed under the control of the New South Wales authorities, including New South Wales Health and the Port Authority of New South Wales, who lead the human quarantine process. Australian government quarantine and self-isolation requirements were communicated through announcements and fact sheets, and declaration cards were required for all crew and passengers. I remind all passengers from the Ruby Princess that they need to self-isolate for 14 days, like all travellers arriving from overseas.
I note that New South Wales Health has stated that it undertook a full assessment of the Ruby Princess and allowed the passengers to disembark. The Chief Health Officer of New South Wales said that this was considered a low risk, given that it is transported between Sydney and New Zealand. I also note that yesterday the Australian Defence Force provided assistance to the New South Wales health department to provide contact-tracing support, with a team to undertake contact-tracing activities, including relating to passengers from this vessel.
In relation to the broader measures of screening at airports, the screening arrangements that have been put in place have targeted high-risk countries. That has been done on the advice of the AHPPC.
My question is to the Treasurer. Will the Treasurer update the House on what action the Morrison government is taking to support Australian households, including casuals, sole traders, retirees and those on income support, during the coronavirus pandemic?
I thank the member for Fisher for his question and acknowledge, with his background in business, his focus on ensuring that his constituents and, indeed, the people of Australia can continue to stay in a job and that businesses can stay in business. The economic environment, both domestically and internationally, has deteriorated. We expect that the economic shock from the coronavirus will be deeper, will be wider and will be longer. As a result, today we introduced into this parliament a series of bills which represent the most significant support, outside of wartime, for the Australian community and economy.
There is $189 billion of support being injected into the Australian economy in just the last 10 days in terms of announcements. We've partnered with the Reserve Bank of Australia. We're working closely with the commercial banks of Australia to support their customers. And, of course, we have had our first stimulus package, and our second package, which has been designed to support the Australian people by cushioning the blow, particularly for those who have seen their income being reduced or their hours reduced or who are being stood down or, indeed, becoming unemployed. This is very much a 'Team Australia' moment for everyone to come together for the same end.
In terms of the specific measures that we have announced, there's a $550 coronavirus supplement, which effectively doubles what was known as Newstart and now is known as the jobseeker payment. There's a second $750 payment that will go to more than five million Australians. The first payment, which will go from 31 March, is going to 6½ million Australians. People on a carer's payment, people on family tax benefits, people on a Commonwealth seniors health card, people on a disability support pension and, indeed, more than two million people on a pension will be receiving the $750 payments.
We've also changed the deeming rates. That is important because, obviously, many pensioners are affected by that. We're also changing the drawdown rates by halving them, as those opposite did during the GFC, to make it easier for retirees to control their own savings and their own super, and we're providing early access to superannuation for people who have been impacted by the coronavirus. That is very significant because that is the people's own money—$10,000 this year, $10,000 next year—which will help cushion the blow, together with our other measures.
Treasury believe that the measures we've introduced will add the equivalent of about five per cent worth of GDP in the June quarter and around seven per cent of GDP in the September quarter. When it comes to growth, Treasury believe that in terms of the June quarter it could add up to 2¾ per cent and in terms of September it could add up to 3¼ per cent. That doesn't take into account the obvious negative impact of the coronavirus. But, in costing the coronavirus supplement, Treasury estimate that up to a million people, in addition to those who are already on Newstart, could be accessing this new coronavirus supplement. That's a lot of people. But not every one of those people are actually out of a job and unemployed. It could mean that, if you are a sole trader whose income has reduced or if you're someone who's a casual who's had their hours reduced, you can still access this new coronavirus supplement without, effectively, being unemployed. That's the work Treasury has undertaken. It's obviously a very difficult situation to predict. Treasury themselves, as the member for Rankin would be aware, have said that producing forecasts and estimates in this environment—just as the Reserve Bank have said—is very difficult. But those are their best estimates about some of the numbers involved in our costings.
My question is for the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development. Will the Deputy Prime Minister inform the House how the Morrison-McCormack government is ensuring that freight and logistic supply chains continue to deliver food and supplies around Australia in this challenging time?
I thank the member for Nicholls for his question. He represents towns such as Seymour, Shepparton, Yarrawonga, Echuca and Cobram, and they all fit very neatly into the supply chain. They produce a lot of food in the electorate of Nicholls. If every farmer in the Murrumbidgee irrigation area produces enough food to feed 450 foreigners and 150 Australians each year, they'd be no different from the farmers in the member for Nicholls' electorate. They're fine people and we thank them for the work that they do.
Australians, as we all know, are resilient people. They will get through this together—we will get through this together. This government is working hard every single day and every single night to make sure we get through this unprecedented time, this time of crisis. While restrictions on the movement and association of people are necessary, I want to reassure Australians that logistics and supply chains remain in place. There will be no shortage of food for families over coming months.
Just look at the facts. Our agriculture sector is a net exporter, producing enough food for 75 million people. There's more than enough to go around. Our supply chain, farm gate to plate, is effective and efficient and will continue to deliver. It will not let Australians down. Our truckies, the heartbeat of our nation, will continue to deliver food and other necessary supplies to the supermarkets. I will add in there our train drivers. Rail will play its part too of course. There is just no need to hoard food, to raid regional supermarkets. It is not on; it has to stop; people have to desist from doing it. We will not run out of food. To help make sure of that I've been chairing regular teleconferences of state Transport and Infrastructure Council members. We've liaised with the shadow minister, the member for Ballarat, and we've talked to key stakeholders. As I've said—and I'll say it again—we will get through this together. We're working to ensure that freight and logistics supply chains remain sound and continue to operate effectively. Freight and logistics are critical to this nation; particularly, as the member for Nicholls well knows, to the regions.
The aviation sector, of course, is already experiencing a considerable downturn, with most airlines operating drastically reduced services. In addition to creating the $715 million aviation package to provide a range of relief from taxes and charges, the government is working very closely, very collaboratively and very cooperatively with the airlines to make sure they'll be in a position to get people moving again once the travel restrictions are lifted. The airline sector is crucial, and we'll continue to do everything we can to ensure it survives.
As well as our various economic actions to back regional Australians and their jobs and to keep the doors of small business open, the government has set aside a billion dollars for the regions' communities and industry sector, to ensure that those most impacted by the coronavirus will receive the help they deserve and need.
My question is addressed to the Prime Minister. According to the government's proposed legislation before the House, the coronavirus supplement will not begin until 27 April, most people won't receive the first payment to households until April and the second payment until July, pensioners won't see a boost in their income due to the changing deeming rates until 1 May, and employers won't receive a cash flow boost until 28 April. When we all agree that the economy needs immediate support, why will these payments take so long to start?
I thank the member for his question. The packages and measures are dealing with different challenges. When it comes to those who are on fixed incomes, obviously—through benefit payments and things of that nature—their incomes are not being directly affected, because they are on those fixed-income payments. The payments that the member refers to, the $750 payments, are coming in April and they are coming in July. Those individuals will continue to receive all the other income at the same levels they have been receiving it, and that will provide a pulse support to them at that time, on those two occasions. As I've said at length, we need to be in a position not just to do this now but to continue to do it for at least the next six months, and if we have to extend these measures further then of course we will.
One of the other important principles we have applied as we have put these various packages of assistance together is that we have sought to use existing payment mechanisms both in the tax system and in the payment system. The Leader of the Opposition may be aware that the redesigning of major payment systems would only add even further delay to the processes of getting additional payments out to benefit recipients. Working through the payments systems that we have enables us to get these payments to Australians in the most effective way possible. I note that in overseas jurisdictions where they are not following these principles and are designing new schemes there is further complication in setting up payment systems, which means those payments are even further away.
Our department of government services will be working night and day and taking on some additional 3,000 staff to ensure that they can meet the timing requirements. If it can be done more quickly than that, in the turn-around of these arrangements, I have no doubt it will be. The public servants, particularly here in the ACT, are doing an outstanding job in turning around these measures. Those Public Service members are out there doing that job, working late into the night to ensure they can turn this around as quickly as possible. They're the ones on the phones taking the many calls from distressed Australians. They're the ones who are redesigning systems. They're the ones at Centrelink offices. They are doing a fantastic job. We will continue to support them to do that job as effectively as possible and with the additional resources they need to turn around this support as fast as we can provide it.
My question is for the Treasurer. Will the Treasurer update the House on what the Morrison government is doing to provide regulatory protection and financial support to help small businesses stay in business during this challenging time?
I thank the member for Longman for his question and his support for the government's efforts to ensure that Australians can remain in a job and businesses can remain in business. Our stimulus package No. 1 and our second package, which is designed to cushion the blow and enhance the safety net, involve measures that are targeted, temporary and scalable and that use, as the Prime Minister said, our existing tax and transfer system. I want to put on the record my appreciation for the Department of the Treasury and the secretary, for their close help and outstanding work, and of course for the Department of Finance, in preparing this package. Treasury and Finance have done a wonderful job.
We have focused on supporting small and medium-sized businesses to keep people employed. Three out of every four dollars that we spent in the first stimulus package were designed to support small business. Among the numerous important measures that we have announced are measures like expanding and extending the instant asset write-off and accelerated depreciation. In terms of the instant asset write-off, we have taken it from companies who have a turnover of up to $50 million and extended it to those with a turnover of up to $500 million. We have taken it from purchases of $30,000 and extended it to purchases of $150,000. When it comes to the 50 per cent accelerated depreciation, we have also extended it to companies with a turnover of up to $500 million, and out to June 2021. Other initiatives include a 50 per cent wage subsidy for employers who have apprentices. There are 117,000 apprentices. Whether carpenters, plumbers, mechanics or hairdressers, it will be easier for people who are employing these apprentices to keep them on in work, despite the difficult times, because of the wage subsidy. Our other support through the tax system, providing cash flow support, is critical for 690,000 small and medium-sized businesses and 30,000 not-for-profits. This is a $32 billion measure that we have announced, from a minimum of $20,000 up to a maximum of $100,000 cash payments to small and medium-sized businesses. We have worked with the banks to ensure that there are no interest payments or principal payments for small business on loans for six month. That will be an important lifeline, as will the fact that we're co-guaranteeing, with the banks and other lenders, loans of up to $250,000 for three years, with no payments in the first six months. That is extremely important, as are the regulatory changes around insolvency and bankruptcy laws to ensure that businesses can trade through this difficult time. We are standing with small and medium-sized business operators and all their employees through this very difficult time.
I want to add to an answer I just gave. It is 5,000 additional staff that we're putting on in government services and related areas to deal with the workload. The earlier number related to the earlier package we were working on. The second package upgraded that amount to 5,000.
My questions to the Prime Minister. Can the Prime Minister confirm that, under the business cash flow measure, businesses will be paid based on their staffing levels in the first quarter of this year, not on how many staff they have kept on through the crisis? Doesn't that mean that employers who stand down staff will receive the same assistance as employers who keep people in work?
I can confirm to the House that the wages bill, which is assessed based on the tax withheld, will count all the way to 30 June, both for quarterly and monthly BAS payments. Now, of course, how much a particular business will receive will depend on the size of its wages bill, and there are going to be individual circumstances, but, for a quarterly payer, the wages bill, up to and including 30 June, is relevant to how much that business will receive—that is, whether they receive the minimum of $20,000 or up to $100,000. There is an alignment of interests between the employer here and the employee. Small and medium-sized businesses are doing it tough, and they want to keep their employees on as much as possible. They also have other expenses, as the honourable member would understand. What is relevant to the assessment of how much a business will get can be all the way up to 30 June in relation to their particular BAS statements.
My question is for the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme and Minister for Government Services. Will the minister outline to the House how the Morrison government is supporting Australians, including vulnerable Australians, who are being impacted by the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus?
I thank the member for Boothby for her question. Building on what the Prime Minister has said, the government is establishing a new time-limited coronavirus supplement to be paid at a rate of $550 per fortnight. This means anyone eligible for the maximum jobseeker payment will now receive more than $1,100 a fortnight, effectively doubling the payment for the next six months. This will be paid to both existing and new recipients of the jobseeker payment, the youth allowance, the parenting payment, the farm household allowance and the special benefit.
Eligible income-support recipients will receive the full amount of the $550 coronavirus supplement on top of their payment each fortnight. We're also waiving the one-week ordinary waiting period, the liquid asset waiting period and the newly arrived resident waiting period. In addition, there are a range of other supplements that are triggered when someone gains access to the jobseeker payment. This includes the energy supplement, the pharmaceutical allowance and the Commonwealth rent assistance, which pays up to $139 for singles and more for families. The government provides family tax benefit A and B, which potentially puts hundreds of dollars more into the pocket of those families to help cushion the blow in this difficult time.
On Sunday, the Prime Minister announced further $750 payments will be made to Australians on income support who are not eligible for this coronavirus supplement. This includes those receiving the age pension, carers allowance and the family tax benefits, as well as disability support pensioners, veterans, income support recipients, student payment recipients and eligible concession cardholders. For those eligible, this payment is in addition to the $750 stimulus payment announced on 12 March. It will automatically be paid from 13 July to about five million Australians. Half of those who will benefit are on the age pension.
The first $750 payment will be paid from 31 March to people who have been on one of the eligible payments any time between 12 March and 13 April. We've also announced a further reduction in the deeming rate of 25 basis points to reflect the latest rate reductions by the RBA. As of 1 May, the lower deeming rate will be 0.25 per cent and the upper deeming rate will be 2.25 per cent. This will benefit about 900,000 income support recipients, including age pensioners.
I want to assure all Australians that the Morrison government is absolutely committed to supporting everyone through the very difficult months ahead so that we can bounce back as a nation a lot stronger than ever before.
My question is also to the Minister for Government Services. I refer to the fact that the myGov website crashed shortly before 9 am this morning. Was this because the site only permits a limited number of people to access the site at once and was simply overwhelmed, or was there another reason? When will the delays be over?
I thank the Leader of the Opposition for his question. The advice to me this morning was that myGov attracted 95,000 concurrent users at 9.40 am. That triggered the DDoS alarms—denial of service attack alarms—going off and slowed the system. The system had been designed for 55,000 concurrent users, so it was overloaded by hitting 95,000. Fifty-five thousand is the maximum number. It was doing 6,500 users last week. We are currently looking at how we expand the 55,000 concurrent users to a stronger basis.
I also asked the department to investigate the DDoS alarm triggering, and the advice to me is as follows: 'Our systems have had multiple and sustained denial of service attacks over the past few weeks. The network alert status is now at high. This, combined with all of the data'—the 95,000 users—'gave rise to a very strained performance because of the high number of usage, and that caused the outage. The DDoS alarms show no evidence of a specific attack today.' The advice here doesn't mean there is no need for heightened cybersecurity. We do need to remind all of our clients that, unfortunately, nefarious actors will use the current situation to their advantage, and we have seen the ACSC put out advisory notices about things today.
My question is to the Attorney-General and Minister for Industrial Relations. Will the Attorney-General update the House on how the Morrison government is working with employers and employees, as well as their representatives, to provide certainty about workplace rights and entitlements as we tackle the impacts of coronavirus?
I thank the member for his question. I think probably the coarsest but most accurate summary I can give is that the challenges that we're facing are (1) around information and (2) around flexibility. Information is becoming absolutely critical, and the flows of information that will allow employers and employees to make the best decisions are becoming absolutely critical. The issue of flexibility, if we can get that right, could make a profound difference to the number of jobs that we can save through this, and it's a matter that we can work on on a bipartisan basis.
With respect to the information, as soon as we realised that this was going to cause enormous disruptions in the IR space, we dedicated a guidance page on the Fair Work Ombudsman website, which is interactive to the extent that it learns from itself. So information comes out about situations that were merely hypothetical weeks ago, and the advice is refined all the time in a general sense. That has had over half a million visits since we established it, which goes to show the level of information exchange and how critical it is. There's a direct advice line, 131394, with the Fair Work Ombudsman. That's had, very recently, a 250 per cent increase in the number of calls coming in. The information going out is, I think, of high standard and accurate, but we're improving it all the time. We also have, at the suggestion of one of the meetings that I had with employer and employee organisations, a dedicated consultation page on the Attorney-General's Department website about the types of situations that are arising that we might need to think about how we can fix in the near future.
I also note for the benefit of the House that we're going to allocate an additional $42 million to the Fair Work Ombudsman to continually improve and ramp up this information delivery system. I can say, I think, that that information is not going to merely be of the traditional type, on what is the status and lawfulness of a decision and how it relates to the law, but will extend—short of legal advice—to the sort of thing where we're answering questions like what we can do or what we should be doing in certain circumstances.
As to the issue of flexibility, I think it's fair to say that the Fair Work Act wasn't designed with this challenge in mind, but there are provisions in the Fair Work Act which would allow for a modification of award with respect to extraordinary circumstances. Those extraordinary circumstances are here. Business and unions are doing a great job at the moment about trying to reach agreement. I can give one example, an example that was put to me with respect to a modern award. If you could modify the time and attendance record-keeping obligations in a modern award, that could save jobs, because many of them aren't coping with the fact that we are now needing to have people work from home. Some very important meetings are occurring now between senior union leaders, who have been fantastic, and senior business leaders, who have been fantastic, to see if they can reach agreement around the types of things and specific awards that we might be able to modify through existing processes provided for in the act to save jobs. They are cooperating as they have never cooperated before. They're cooperating as if jobs depend on that cooperation, because they do. I look forward to further cooperation from members opposite.
My question is for the Prime Minister. In response to COVID-19, other countries are providing wage subsidies of up to 80 per cent. The Australian government hasn't guaranteed any worker will benefit from a wage subsidy and, for a worker on a medium wage, that subsidy could be just 20 per cent. How will the government guarantee employers are able to keep workers on during this crisis with only a 20 per cent wage subsidy?
I thank the member for his question. The government has designed measures to support the situation in Australia. There are many different responses all around the country. We are seeking to do two things: first, ensure that we can keep businesses as viable as possible, particularly under the rather stringent conditions we're asking businesses to operate under; and, second, ensure that those who do have loss to their income, those who do lose their jobs, those who are stood down and those sole traders who can't earn what they did before can get access to a strengthened safety net to support them through the many months that are ahead.
There will be massive changes in our economy. We want to ensure that businesses can still be there on the other side so they can do two things: first, keep Australians employed for as long as possible; and, second, if they're unable to do that, be in a position to re-employ them on the other side. This is the approach the government is taking. This is also the advice that we've received from Treasury. The issues in the United Kingdom were considered. Our Treasury actually recommended against us taking those measures, and I think that was sound advice. The measures, as they are being designed in United Kingdom, require a complete redesign of delivery mechanisms which will take many months, and they aren't immune from the sorts of integrity issues that, sadly and inevitably, follow poorly designed measures. I trust and I hope they get it right.
The government are endeavouring to get the safety net to you if you find yourself in a position where you've lost income or lost your job or if you are a sole trader. And if we need to further enhance or strengthen these safety net provisions then we will. This is a safety net for all Australians. Whether you run a small business, whether you're a casual employee or whether you're an employee—permanent, part-time or whatever—we are seeking to strengthen the safety net for you and your family. It is not just the doubling, effectively, of the jobseeker payment but also the many other payments, whether it's family tax benefit, rental assistance or the many other supplements that exist within the automatic stabilisers of our system. We should have confidence that the social security system in Australia is one of the most targeted and most extensive anywhere in the world. It is built to ensure that when shocks hit like this, more and more Australians, particularly those who would be most vulnerable, will be supported. Whether you're on a higher wage or you're on a lower wage, if you find yourself in a position where you're no longer in a job, we want to give you that support and ensure that we can support you and your family through what will be a very difficult next six months at the very least.
I thank the member for her question. The coronavirus is challenging Australia and the rest of the world on so many fronts. That includes an unprecedented demand for food, for medicines and for vital equipment at this time. But I want to assure the Australian people that our supply chains are working well, are functioning well and remain open. I say that because I want to assure the Australian people that there is no need for them to panic buy. There is no need for them to hoard, particularly food and medicines.
When it comes to food, we can produce enough food for 75 million people, three times the population of Australia. Our food manufacturing sector has grown every quarter for the past four years, so it's thriving. We produce significant amounts of food, so there's nothing for Australians to be concerned about. I understand that it's alarming when you go into the supermarket and you don't see food on the shelves but that is a restocking issue rather than a supply issue, so rest assured that we do have sufficient supply. We also have a sufficient supply of medicines here in this country. So, again, there is no reason for you to have to panic buy and to hoard your medicines.
There have already been discussions and debates here today about personal protective equipment. I will take the remaining time to just add to my previous answer, particularly in relation to manufacturing of personal protective equipment. We have gone out with a request for information quite broadly across Australia so that we can bring out as many manufacturers as we can with regard to those who are capable of and are currently producing personal protective equipment and those who have the capacity to retool and to start producing those products. I want to speak about one of the businesses that we are currently helping. Med-Con, a manufacturer of surgical masks, based just outside Shepparton, has already doubled its manufacturing capacity of surgical masks and continues to do so with the support, over the short term, of the Australian Defence Force.
In relation to hand sanitisers—which, again, is something that people are starting to see is not on the shelves—I can say that production is fine. Ego Pharmaceuticals, which make Aquim sanitisers, are now producing 90,000 bottles a day—five times their forecast levels. So you will start to see hand sanitisers back on shelves very soon.
My question is to the Prime Minister, and it concerns the critical importance of education. Will the government guarantee resources to ensure that all students who can't attend school during the COVID-19 crisis won't miss out on learning opportunities?
I thank the member for his question. This is a matter that has been the focus of a lot of my attention. The coronavirus crisis will take many things from this country, but one of the things that I am determined that it will not take is a year of learning from our children. This has been a key focus of the discussions of the national cabinet, ministers of education at the state level and, of course, here—and I acknowledge the Minister for Education. The arrangements that were put in place by the national cabinet last night were that schools should remain open. The advice says very clearly that the AHPPC does not support closure of schools at this time. They advise that there is no health reason for schools to be closed or for children not to go to schools. I want to make that very clear: your children are safe to go to school, on the basis of the medical advice that has been provided to the national cabinet.
Two arrangements have been put in place for those students. Students can present at school and undergo their normal learning in classrooms in the way that it is conducted. The other way that many schools are looking at is to provide distance learning opportunities for those students who are at home. Whether the parents choose for their children to go to school or to remain at home, the children must be learning in either place. That is the absolute position of our government in supporting the states and territories under the existing funding arrangements that we have.
I agree with those who have said that teachers are not childminders; they are teachers. I want kids to go to school to learn and to be taught, not to be minded, and I want them to have classes in those places. I know that they are best positioned to learn when they go into a learning environment like that. We must sustain this for as long as is possible, subject to the health advice. That's why I have urged that we take the position to ensure that schools remain open, subject to that health advice.
I want to thank the teachers and I want to thank everyone who works in the school communities—the principals and others—who have been under enormous pressure, based on the various positions that have been commentated on around the country. They are making the best decisions they can, and I know that they are putting their students and their education first. I want to assure parents that we are doing exactly the same thing. We are going to be working closely with state and territory governments to ensure that children's education is protected, including early childhood education. You don't get to be four years old in another year. That year of your learning is very important, whether you are four or six or 10 or 16.
I'd also say to parents who choose to keep their children at home that they are at home for the purpose of learning, they are not home for the purpose of just running around and doing whatever they like. The decision to take children home from school and to keep them at home is intended to enable them to continue their learning at home. I would encourage parents to take the responsibility of that decision, as every parent has to, very seriously.
My question is to the Prime Minister. The coronavirus pandemic is changing the way we live and challenging us in ways we haven't experienced in almost a century. Would you please inform the House how meeting this challenge will require all Australians to do their duty as public citizens so we can get through this and emerge strong, safe and united on the other side?
I thank the member for Berowra for his question. I thank all members of this place and I thank all the staff of the members of this place for the incredible job they are doing providing support to their local communities at this very difficult time and disseminating information as best they can to their communities. I thank my own electorate office staff back in Cronulla, who are doing exactly the same thing as every member's office is doing. There are so many people putting in an extraordinary effort. I thank again the members of the national cabinet, all the premiers and chief ministers and all those who are working as part of their governments to make difficult decisions and get the best possible information to make those decisions. I thank the opposition for their cooperation in this chamber here as we work to ensure the parliament continues to function, that our democracy continues to operate and to support the various measures and supports that are necessary to see Australia through this very difficult crisis.
I want to thank all of those more broadly in the public service at the federal and state level—the nurses, the doctors, the Border Force officials, the police officers, the Centrelink staff, the teachers, the bus drivers and so many more—even those who were preparing the myriad of legislation which are on this desk over in the departments of Finance and Treasury and others at 2 or 3 am Saturday evening. Everyone is working hard for the benefit of the Australian people in the national service that they are all engaged in. I thank those who are able to keep going to work and keep doing their job and keep servicing their community in the private sector. I thank the employers who are keeping people in jobs for as long as they possibly can. On the other side, if they're unable to do that, they know they will want to stand those staff up again and put them back on their payrolls and put them back into those jobs when we build that bridge and get to the other side of the recovery.
I also want to thank those in the financial sector for the work that they have done with the Treasurer and others to ensure that the lifeline of credit, which is so important in an economic crisis, continues to be extended—and the waivers that are provided on payments and fees and interest and other things that relieve the burden. The energy companies have also come to the aid of the nation and are providing the same sort of relief. We are in this together. It's a national effort in which all Australians—all arms, all sections, all institutions of our country—are enlisted to work together to take the actions we need to bring all Australians through. But, importantly, it is at the most personal level, the interactions with each other, with our families, with our communities where we will be called on most. Through this, together we will make it to the other side.
I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.