Monday, 23 March 2020
Questions without Notice
My question is to the Minister representing the Prime Minister, Senator Cormann. In what is an unprecedented health and economic crisis, Australians need leadership, decisive and early action, and clear, consistent advice from government. 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?
I thank Senator Keneally for that question. Senator Keneally is right. This is an unprecedented health crisis, and it's an unprecedented health crisis with significant economic implications. Indeed, the effects of it are being felt by Australians all around our country as we speak. The Prime Minister has provided significant national leadership in relation to this. As you would be aware, the Prime Minister convenes, on a regular basis now, the national cabinet, made up of the Prime Minister and all premiers and chief ministers from around Australia, and they have made decisions on how best to respond to all of the relevant aspects in responding to this crisis.
From a health point of view, the mission is very simple: we want to slow the spread of this virus, to save lives. We want to slow the spread of this virus—acknowledging that we cannot stop it—because we want to ensure there is a more consistent and more manageable flow, to the extent that is possible, of patients into our health system, to ensure our most vulnerable Australians can be appropriately prioritised. I think the messages have been very, very clear. But, in the face of some apparent reluctance by a sufficient number of Australians to follow the advice and follow the requests in relation to social distancing and the like, the measures have become increasingly stringent. As you would be aware, premiers and chief ministers have agreed to implement, through state and territory laws, new stage 1 restrictions on social gatherings, to be reviewed on a monthly basis. Australians should expect that these measures will be in place for at least six months. As of 23 March 2020, pubs, registered and licensed clubs, excluding bottle shops— (Time expired)
Last night the Prime Minister said that schools will be open today, in line with medical advice, and that parents can now keep their children home from school if they choose to do so. State and territory governments have contradicted the Prime Minister, and there are conflicting reports about whether schools are open or closed. Are schools around Australia open or closed?
I completely reject the premise of the question, of there being any conflict between what the Prime Minister is saying and what state and territory premiers and chief ministers are saying. That is just completely and utterly false. The advice that is available to the federal government and, indeed, to all state and territory governments is that schools should remain open. Indeed, the safest place for children to be is at school. That is the safest place for them to be and it's also advisable from a public health point of view, and all the statements of premiers and territory chief ministers have been consistent with that.
Victoria was reaching the end of its term later this week. It has decided to bring that forward by a couple of days. It is yet to make announcements as to what will happen after the holiday period, based on advice. If you look at what all of the premiers have said, they've accepted that there's a consensus that schools should remain open. We have always accepted that ultimately parents will decide what is best for their children— (Time expired)
Workers are already being laid off and businesses are already closing, but the government is delaying support for households until late April and providing no guarantee that wage supports will flow directly to employees. Why won't the government provide assistance to those who need it and stimulus for the economy immediately?
We're working as fast as we can. We're here today to pass the necessary legislation in order to provide that boost of income support to those Australians who need it. The passage of the legislation is a necessary prerequisite and we're doing it as fast as we can. Obviously, we are talking about making payments to millions and millions of Australians, potentially, and there are already 800,000 Australians or thereabouts who are receiving the Newstart allowance. We accept the costing for the increased income support measure for those who lose their jobs assumes that about a million Australians may well access that additional payment. There is a level of practical work involved in making sure the systems are able to process and administer these things, but we're working as fast as we can.
I thank Senator Dean Smith for that question. As I mentioned earlier, this is first and foremost a health crisis and the government is dealing with the health battle as our highest priority. Our health mission is to slow down the spread of the virus to save lives. We will not be able to stop the spread of the virus, but by slowing it down we will ensure that our health system has the best possible chance to appropriately prioritise treatment and support for our most vulnerable fellow Australians. Already 14,079 individuals, as of 1 pm today, have tested positive to COVID-19 and sadly there have been seven deaths.
That is why we have, through the national cabinet, put in place a series of stage 1 restrictions on social gatherings. The following facilities have been restricted from opening from today: pubs; registered and licenced clubs; hotels, excluding accommodation; gyms and indoor sporting venues; cinemas; entertainment venues; casinos; nightclubs; restaurants and cafes, which are restricted to takeaway and/or home delivery; religious gatherings at places of worship; and funerals in enclosed spaces and other than in very small groups where the one-person-per-four-square-metre rule applies.
These enhanced measures build on prior measures, including there being no non-essential gatherings of more than 500 people outside or more than 100 people inside. All non-essential indoor gatherings of fewer than 100 people must have no more than one person per four square metres. Where possible, keep 1½ metres between yourself and others. Avoid all non-essential travel. Restrictions on entering aged-care homes to protect older Australians have, of course, also been put in place.
Unfortunately, there will likely be more restrictions to come. This is a very difficult period. We're only at the beginning. This will get worse before it gets better, although it will get better. Federal cabinet will continue to act on the medical advice as this crisis unfolds. Everything we do will be aimed at protecting the health and livelihoods of the Australian people.
Today, sadly, we have seen Australians lining up at Centrelink offices across our nation as this crisis deepens. We have put in place an unprecedented safety net to cushion Australians from this crisis. The government is temporarily expanding eligibility to income support payments and establishing a new, time-limited coronavirus supplement to be paid at a rate of $550 per fortnight. This will be paid to both existing and new recipients of the jobseeker payment, youth allowance, the parenting payment, the farm household allowance and the special benefit. The coronavirus supplement will be paid for the next six months. Eligible income support recipients will receive the full amount of the $550 coronavirus supplement on top of their payment each fortnight. In addition to the $750 stimulus payment announced on 12 March 2020, the government will provide a further $750 payment to social security and veterans' income support recipients and eligible concession card holders. The government will also allow individuals facing financial stress to access up to $10,000 of their super. (Time expired)
(—) (): The government is providing up to $100,000 to eligible small and medium-sized businesses and not-for-profits, including charities. The minimum payment is $20,000. These payments will help businesses' and not-for-profits' cash flow so they can keep operating or go into hibernation while still paying their rent, electricity and other bills and retain staff. This measure will benefit around 690,000 businesses, employing around 7.8 million people, and around 30,000 not-for-profits, including charities. The government will establish the Coronavirus SME Guarantee Scheme, which will support small and medium enterprises to get access to working capital to help them get through the impact of the coronavirus. Under the scheme, the government will guarantee 50 per cent of new loans issued by eligible lenders to SMEs. The government's support will enhance lenders' willingness and ability to provide credit to SMEs, with the scheme able to support $40 billion worth of lending to SMEs. The government is temporarily increasing the threshold at which creditors can— (Time expired)
My question is to the Minister for Families and Social Services, Senator Ruston. Today we are witnessing extraordinary scenes right across the country. There is an unprecedented number of Australians queuing outside Centrelink offices to get urgently needed assistance, and the myGov website has melted down due to unplanned demand. When asked on ABC Adelaide this morning whether a man who has lost his job but whose partner earns $70,000 a year would be eligible for assistance, the finance minister said: 'If he has lost his job, he will be eligible for the jobseeker payment and, also, he will get a significantly boosted jobseeker payment; we've effectively doubled it.' Did the finance minister provide the caller with an accurate answer?
Thank you, Senator Watt, for your question. Rightly, you point out that these are unprecedented times and the level of demand that we are seeing on Centrelink—Services Australia—services is absolutely unprecedented. As an example: this morning, in a half-hour period, we experienced 25,000 calls; normally we would expect to receive somewhere around 2,000 calls. One of the things that I'm delighted you have given me the opportunity to say in this place is that people who are already on benefit don't need to contact Centrelink. They don't need to call, they don't need to go in, they don't need to go online. They will automatically receive their payments from Centrelink. For those who do have to interface with Centrelink for the first time, as they're not an existing client, they only need to contact Centrelink by phone or online and provide their details. They will only be required to have evidence of things like their 100-point check. They can do that over the phone, verbally, and will not be required in the first instance to provide that direct information. So it is very important that Australians who do require the services—
On relevance: I know we've got limited time, but I'd like an answer to my question, which is whether the finance minister provided this caller with an accurate answer when he assured him that he would get the jobseeker payment.
On the point of order and to assist the Senate: firstly, there was no caller, so you're not quite representing the facts. But what I would say is that I misheard the number that was mentioned to me and I made a mistake. If I can clarify that for you: I'm happy to say that, in relation to what is clearly a very complicated set of arrangements when it comes to welfare payments—and based on having misheard the number—I did not provide an accurate response. But it was not in response to a caller.
Given the circumstances of this parliamentary sitting, I'll grant some discretion, as I always do, to party leaders. On the point of order, Senator Watt, that was the second part of your question. I think the minister can be directly relevant to refer to the first part of your question, which talked about the workload of Centrelink staff and the Centrelink call centre and the queues that you mentioned, and the minister can be directly relevant by also referring to the second part of your question. You have reminded the minister of part of your question, which Senator Cormann has addressed. I'll ask Senator Ruston if she wishes to continue.
Thank you very much. In the legislation that is in the House of Representatives at the moment, which I assume will come to the Senate this afternoon, are a number of eligibility changes that will make it easier for Australians to access support from government if they find themselves without a job, by waiving the waiting period, the liquid assets waiting test and the assets test. We are not waiving the income test, simply because we are making sure that the policies that we are directing into this chamber for the agreement of this place are focused on those Australians who are currently the most vulnerable—those who have no income and whose families have no income. That is what the suite of measures that is going to be brought before this place will be delivering today.
It is reported that 88,000 workers in the hospitality industry alone lost their jobs over the past few days. Given the urgency of this situation, with people losing their income and being forced to self-isolate right now, why is there a five-week delay for the coronavirus supplement and why won't people at least be back-paid?
The legislation that is before us today is particularly technical, so you may not have got all the way through the detail. Quite clearly one of the things we are seeking to do today is to change the eligibility criteria as they apply to the jobseeker payment, and the other payments the coronavirus supplement will be applicable to, such that people are able to get broader access. As I said, we are waiving waiting periods, assets tests and the like so that, after the passage of this legislation and its royal assent, those 88,000 people you are referring to will be eligible for immediate payment; there is no longer a one-week waiting period, so they will be eligible for immediate payment. They will also be immediately eligible for the $750 bonus that was announced in the stimulus package a couple of weeks ago. So—
With respect, Senator Watt: the minister was being directly relevant. I cannot instruct the minister how to answer. If the minister is talking about the supplement you referred to—I heard that she did refer to it, and I was listening carefully—I cannot instruct her how to answer the question.
I'll give this one a go: Minister, who is eligible for the coronavirus supplement? Can the minister confirm that students will not be eligible even if they lose their part-time job or have their hours drastically reduced? Who else will miss out on this supplement?
The principal purpose of the coronavirus supplement is to provide assistance to those Australians whose principal reason for being unemployed is that they have lost the job. That means it applies to jobseeker payment and all of the payments that have been rolled into jobseeker payment from Newstart—including sickness benefit, which is one of the most topical ones of recent days. It also applies to youth allowance (other), which is young people who are currently working and may lose their job. It also applies to special benefit, farm household allowance and parenting payment both single and double.
As I said, the purpose of the package that was announced yesterday was clearly twofold: to address those people who have become unemployed and whose principal reason for being on a payment is that they have lost their job; and to make sure we are supporting business to remain in business and remain connected to those employees over the period of this coronavirus crisis so that they are ready to go back to work when it's over.
I thank Senator Molan for the question. As of Sunday morning, Australia had experienced over 1,100 cases of the coronavirus and, sadly, seven people had lost their lives. Globally we have now seen over 253,000 cases, and 11,000 lives have been lost. Our priority as a government is to flatten the curve and reduce the number of cases and delay the onset of cases.
We have established the national cabinet which, on receipt of the expert medical advice, is continuing to coordinate a national response across state and federal governments, and across party lines, in order to ensure consistency and responsiveness to this threat and the challenges it presents. We've taken further steps to enforce social distancing measures, we've implemented further travel restrictions to prevent the spread of the disease, and we have 130 fever clinics up and running around the country.
We are now running one of the world's leading testing programs, with just over 120,000 tests conducted in Australia, one of the highest per capita rates of testing in the world. Encouragingly, of those tests, we are receiving around a 99 per cent negative rate. Less than one per cent of people tested for coronavirus are diagnosed with the disease. We're testing more widely than almost every other country, and the breadth and depth of our response has been unmatched anywhere else in the world, other than Korea and Singapore.
Our early actions have put us well ahead of much of the rest of the world. Our early bans on arrivals from China, the bans on Iran, and the early declaration of the coronavirus pandemic potential have afforded us a valuable advantage in protecting Australians.
As the Minister for Health has stated, we are managing a global supply shortage of different pieces of equipment. One of them is testing kits. We have had an additional 97,000 arrive in the past week. Of all the countries in the world, there are very few that have actually conducted more tests than Australia.
But, to be safe, we're also looking at alternative forms of testing, such as point of care. The first of those new point-of-care tests was approved provisionally by the Therapeutic Goods Administration last week. That will expand the range of testing kits available through general practitioners, fever clinics, emergency departments, and other mechanisms. Ultimately, we have to protect our elderly and we have to support them, and we have scaled up and conducted over 36,000 telehealth consultations.
As the Prime Minister has said, this is a shared national mission. We need to work together to protect the elderly, protect the vulnerable and protect those with lung conditions. We can do this by making sure we're limiting the number of people who contract the virus and by taking important steps to delay the spread of the disease so our resources are available to treat those most in need.
Whilst social distancing and containment measures may seem extreme, it is crucial to follow them so that we can protect our neighbours, our friends, and our family. All of our advice is that this is likely to be for a six-month period. It is a challenge, but if we commit to following the medical advice, whilst continuing to do the small human things that we can—checking in on our neighbours, helping a friend with their shopping—we can succeed in minimising the impact.
My question is to the Leader of the Government in the Senate, representing the Prime Minister. Minister, does the government believe that no-one should get left behind during the pandemic? If so, what is the government's plan to immediately double the number of intensive care unit beds, ventilators and other necessary medical equipment, and further increase those supplies in line with the advice of medical experts, so that Australians can be confident that no-one will be left to die unnecessarily during the pandemic? Does the government have such a plan? If so, what is it?
I thank Senator McKim for that question. We are absolutely focused on making sure that we protect the health of all Australians and all those who are in Australia. We have released a $2.4 billion health package to ensure our world-class health system is as well prepared as it can be, in the circumstances, and has the resources to fight COVID-19 and protect Australians, but this is a pretty challenging situation. That is why we are being so adamant that people need to comply with the restrictions that have been put in place by the national cabinet. That is why we're so adamant that every single Australian has a civic duty to do the right thing by their fellow Australians and by all here in Australia to help us slow down the spread of the virus. We're not able to stop the spread of this virus, but we have to slow it down so that we can ensure that our health system is in the best possible—least bad—position to deal with the pressures that are undoubtedly coming our way.
In relation to ventilators, Australians should be assured our health system is well placed to respond to this pandemic. We have a sufficient number of ventilators in our hospitals at the moment, and the states also have processes to convert existing equipment into ventilators and purchase new ventilators. We're also working to secure further supply and increase domestic production as the virus peaks. The Australian government is currently working with local manufacturers and medical professionals to understand capacity and support an increase in production of ventilators.
If we need to further boost the $2.4 billion additional allocation that we have already made, we will, of course, do so. This is an evolving situation. We're working with state and territory governments to ensure that we continue to review all of the data, information and advice in front of us to continue to make decisions to put us in the best possible position to respond.
Minister, students at TAFEs and universities who can no longer get casual work, as a result of the pandemic, as well as carers and people on the disability pension, will not be available for the $550-a-fortnight COVID-19 supplement. Will you extend the supplement to them so that they do not live beneath the poverty line and have to deal with the very real threats of rental eviction and having essential services cut off?
Firstly, Australia has a residency based income support system, and meeting the residency requirement is a fundamental component of our safety net. Special benefit is available to specified temporary visa holders. The classes of temporary visa eligible for special benefit are specified in a legislative instrument and currently include temporary partner visas, temporary humanitarian visas and bridging visas for victims of human trafficking.
I confirm that the income support payment categories eligible to receive the coronavirus supplement are: jobseeker payment recipients, which includes all those on payments progressively transitioning to jobseeker payment; those currently receiving partner allowance, widow allowance, sickness allowance, wife pension, youth allowance, parenting payment—partnered and single—farm household allowance and special benefit, which is what I was talking about earlier.
Minister, the government announced $715 million of support for airlines and, in the next breath, Qantas sacked 20,000 workers. What measures will the government take to ensure businesses that receive financial support will be obliged not to sack workers and not engage in share buybacks to artificially inflate the share price? Will the government take an equity stake in corporations that have assistance where appropriate?
It's not our intention to take an equity stake. In relation to Qantas, it's a business which employed 30,000 Australians as we went into this crisis. You're quite right: they have had to make the difficult decision to stand down 20,000 employees in a context where, essentially, their international business and most of their domestic business has collapsed. We want Qantas to be a strong and viable airline, employing 30,000 Australians, on the other side of this crisis. If we forced Qantas to keep 20,000 additional people employed who did not have any work to do, that would cost a lot of money. At the end of it, we would not be certain that Qantas would still be a viable business that would be able to employ 30,000 Australians. We did provide fee relief to a number of airlines in this industry as part of helping to ensure that those businesses could stay in business. (Time expired)
My question is to the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians, Senator Colbeck. Can the minister confirm how many COVID-19 tests have been conducted for (1) residential aged care residents and (2) for aged and home-care workers? Of these tests, how many have returned positive results?
I can't give you a specific number of how many aged-care workers have been tested or, for that matter, how many residents have been tested, but what I can say to you is that those who have needed a test have received a test. In the context of the number of residents who have tested positive in aged-care facilities across Australia, I can say that, as of today, there are 10 aged-care residents who have tested positive, and there are seven staff members who have tested positive in aged-care facilities across Australia. There are four aged-care facilities in New South Wales where there has been a positive test of either a staff member or a resident. There is one in Western Australia and there is one in South Australia.
I refer to concerns raised with the minister that residential aged-care and home-care workers do not have sufficient access to equipment to protect themselves and those for whom they care against the COVID-19 infection. Can the minister guarantee that all residential aged- and home-care workers will receive the required protection?
I thank Senator Kitching for the question. One of the things that this government has done and has been very proactive in doing is ensuring that we have access to appropriate quantities of PPE. We know that there is a global shortage of PPE, not least because Wuhan, where COVID-19 started, was one of the global centres for the production of PPE. But we've been very aggressive in looking to have PPE available. In every circumstance where there has been a requirement for additional PPE in an aged-care facility, that has been provided through the national stockpile. In particular, we are managing PPE for those who are providing home care, where some concerns have been raised publicly, but we are triaging— (Time expired)
What is being done to manage potential workforce shortages and ensure that there will be no interruptions to these critical services and that all older Australians will be properly cared for? Additionally, to address any shortages, is the government taking steps to retrain people who have lost their jobs in other industries?
This is a very, very important question because ensuring that we have the workforce required to provide care in aged-care facilities around this country is important. We've taken a number of measures. We announced just last week that we're providing a retention supplement for aged-care workers across the sector of $800 after tax per quarter for two quarters for residential-care workers and up to $600 after tax per quarter for full-time home-care workers. Part-time workers will receive a pro rata amount of that. We've also extended capacity for those on student visas to work additional hours and, cooperatively with the states, we've put a significant amount of money into a surge workforce. (Time expired)
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Health. Has the minister gathered data to compare the two different virus-management approaches, those being mitigation, used in Italy, France, the USA and elsewhere, or suppression, practised successfully in Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore? In asking this question, I note that South Korea first let things get out of hand, like Italy, and then, through rigorous testing, specific isolation and treatment, the South Koreans quickly brought it under control, at minimal cost and with minimal disruption to their economy. Has the minister gathered data to compare the two different virus-management approaches—those being mitigation, which has failed, and suppression, which is proving to be so effective and successful?
I thank Senator Roberts for his question. In relation to the gathering of data itself, I will take that on notice. But, in terms of the Australian government's approach, I will reconfirm what the Minister for Finance, the Leader of the Government in the Senate, has stated. This is an unprecedented challenge and it has required an unprecedented response. In terms of the Australian government's response, you'd be aware: Australia is well placed, with a world-class health system. We also have a health system and health emergency responses that are flexible, scalable and able to respond effectively to the evolving situation. Australia has been responding to rapid changes in the epidemiology of COVID-19 and has activated and is implementing the Australian Health Sector Emergency Response Plan for Novel Coronavirus, which, as you now know, is known as the COVID-19 Plan. Australia, because of the response that we have taken, is well placed to respond to ill travellers and those at risk of contracting infection, with border isolation, surveillance and contact tracing mechanisms already in place. You'll also be aware that a 24/7 national coronavirus health information line is available, on 1800020080. What this health line does is provide health and situation information on the COVID-19 outbreak.
Senator Roberts, I would also point out—this is very, very important: the Australian government is also aware of COVID-19 disinformation, misinformation and scams targeting Australians— (Time expired)
Minister, if the government adopted rigorous testing, combined with strict isolation for people with the virus and for vulnerable people, then most everyday Australians could return to work with minimal disruption to them or our economy. Has the minister modelled this, and will you consider changing Australia's mitigation strategy, that is failing disastrously in Italy and wherever it is used, and, instead, adopt a rigorous testing and suppression strategy—reportedly, highly successful in South Korea and elsewhere?
Senator Roberts, to confront the threat of coronavirus, the Australian government is ensuring we know who has it and where they are. Australia actually, as the Minister for Health has said often, has one of the highest coronavirus testing rates in the world—I'll just repeat that: one of the highest coronavirus testing rates in the world—with over 135,000 tests completed so far. In terms of the outcome of those tests: for every 100 tests completed, 99 have returned a negative result. I'll say that again: for every 100 tests completed, 99 have returned a negative result. That is why it is important that testing is only undertaken where the patients meet the national guidelines for testing.
Minister, on a second associated factor, hospital beds: in the 55 years from 1961 to 2015, the number of hospital beds per 1,000 people in Australia fell from 12 to 3.8, a decrease of two-thirds. In Italy, the number fell from nine to 3.5. In South Korea, though, it has risen from less than one to almost 12. In Japan it increased from nine to 13. What will be the impact of high immigration numbers on coronavirus's potential for overwhelming our hospital system?
Again, Senator Roberts, the Australian government has put in place incredibly strict procedures at the border, and you will be aware that we have taken a number of decisions in relation to those who are now able to enter Australia. And, in fact, a number of the states, Queensland being the most recent, have also now put in place very, very strict procedures in relation to who is able to enter the particular state, and, if they do, the conditions for the self-isolation that they are now required to undertake. So, Senator Roberts, in answer to your question, the Australian government has taken a comprehensive response to the issues that you have raised.
My question is to the Minister for Aged Care and Senior Australians, Senator Colbeck. What scalable and sustainable measures has the Morrison government put in place to ensure the aged-care sector is supported and to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our senior Australians who require aged care?
Thank you, Senator Antic, for your question. Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the significant work that the sector's done so far in preparing for this quite unprecedented situation. I've appreciated the direct input from too many stakeholders to name individually—through forums, webinars and many conversations. And the resilience of the sector is really showing through and will help get us through this terrible situation.
On Friday the government announced an additional $444.6 million for the aged-care sector to ensure the continuity of the aged-care workforce. The funding will be used to provide $234.9 million for a COVID-19 retention bonus to ensure the continuity of workforce for both residential and home care. It will provide $78.3 million in additional funding for residential care to support continuity of workforce supply; and $26.9 million to increase the residential and home-care viability supplements and the homeless supplement, including increased viability supplements for national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flexible aged-care program providers and multipurpose services. It will deliver $92.2 million in additional support to home-care providers and organisations which deliver the Commonwealth Home Support Program—including, importantly, for services such as Meals on Wheels—and to provide early access to those services, and an additional $12.3 million to support the My Aged Care call centre to cater for the anticipated increased demand for those services from older Australians. This is on top of the $2.4 billion in the health package we announced that includes funding for things like telehealth, home medicine service and respiratory clinics, as well as $101.2 million for surge workforce and infection control training for residential and—
I thank Senator Antic for his question. Our $444.6 million announcement on Friday shows our commitment to aged-care workers. As part of this announcement, full-time direct-care workers in residential care facilities will receive a payment of up to $800 after tax, per quarter, paid for two quarters. Full-time home-care workers will receive payments of up to $600 after tax, per quarter, paid for two quarters. Part-time direct-care workers will receive a pro rata payment for the amount of time that is worked. For example, if you work two days a week, you'll receive 40 per cent of the payment. Payments will be made via a worker's employer, with the first payment expected in June for the preceding quarter. The second payment will be made in September. We're also supporting specific infection control training right across the sector, and a total of 19,000 aged-care workers have undertaken infection control training so far.
This is a very difficult time for people in aged care and their families, and one thing that Australians can do is limit their ingress to aged-care facilities. It's a really tough message to tell people to limit visiting their loved ones in aged-care facilities, but it's everybody's job to keep our senior Australians safe. The government has announced a number of measures. The following people will not be permitted entry into residential aged-care facilities: people who have returned from overseas in the last 14 days, people who have been in contact with a confirmed case of COVID-19 in the last 14 days, people with a fever or symptoms of acute respiratory infection—for example, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath—and, from 1 May, people who have not been vaccinated for influenza. Children under the age of 16 are also asked not to attend aged-care facilities.
My question is for the Minister representing the Minister for Home Affairs, Senator Cash. More than 2,700 people were allowed to disembark from the Ruby Princess at Sydney's Circular Quay, despite more than 150 cases of illness being logged on board. Almost 50 people from that ship have tested positive to coronavirus, including six people who subsequently travelled to Western Australia. How was this allowed to occur?
The Australian government banned all cruise ship arrivals from 16 March for 30 days. This action reinforced those of the industry, which has already moved to scale back its activities. The government is committed to slowing the spread of the virus and will consider taking further action as a response in this space. The New South Wales government has addressed its response to the Ruby Princess. The Ruby Princess cruise originally left Sydney port on 8 March for a planned 13-night journey to New Zealand. This was cut short after the government announced bans on vessels. Because the vessel was already on the water at this time, in transit, it was granted an exemption to port in Australia. The decision to allow passengers to disembark was made by New South Wales authorities, who assessed them as low-risk. This meant passengers could go home but would need to self-isolate for 14 days. We're aware of media reports that, since disembarking, passengers have tested positive for COVID-19 and we understand that New South Wales health authorities are contact tracing passengers. As of 21 March the ship is at sea off the New South Wales coast near Sydney, with the crew in isolation on board the vessel.
This morning the Commissioner of the Australian Border Force said:
… I've asked my officers, when they're boarding a ship that's coming from international waters, to ask the master a simple question—has anyone on this vessel got flu-like symptoms? If the answer is yes, nobody will be getting off that vessel …
Is this the protocol the Chief Medical Officer recommended the Australian Border Force use on cruise ships? Why isn't Australia taking the temperature of all international passengers arriving at airports and cruise ship terminals?
In relation to temperature screening, as part of our ongoing strategy of containment and minimising risk to the Australian community, as detailed in the COVID-19 plan, on advice from health experts we've implemented additional screening of passengers at Australian airports. This has included implementing enhanced health screening and temperature-testing arrangements for arrivals from high-risk countries and ill travellers, based on the advice of health experts. The screening is conducted by officers from the departments of health and agriculture—
A point of order on direct relevance: I've been hesitant to draw such points of order, given the nature of what we're discussing today, but Senator Ayres has asked a question, and, with only 18 seconds left, we're trying to determine if the protocol outlined this morning by the Australian Border Force commissioner is actually what was recommended by the Chief Medical Officer. If the minister could, in her remaining 18 seconds, provide that answer.
Senator Keneally, you have reminded the minister of that part of the question. I do believe, when the minister is talking about the issue of temperature screening, she is being directly relevant. I can't direct her how to answer a question, but I have allowed you to remind her of that part of it.
I can advise that screening arrangements are on high-risk countries on health advice. But in terms of temperature screening, because, Senate Ayres, you did actually raise temperature screening, as the Chief Medical Officer has said, because of the incubation period of COVID-19, many people who are— (Time expired)
As you would be aware, Senator Ayres, the Australian government is putting in place procedures based on the advice coming from the Chief Medical Officer. In relation to what occurred with the Ruby Princess, I'll refer you to the answer that I gave in relation to your primary question.
My question is to the Minister representing the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, Senator Ruston. Can the minister outline how the Liberal and Nationals government is working to support the agriculture sector and its workforce to face the challenges posed by COVID-19? How is it keeping the supply chain moving?
I thank Senator McKenzie for her question and her very obvious longstanding interest in all things rural and regional Australia. Agriculture and its downstream industries are absolutely an essential part of the Australian economy and they are an essential service. The government recognises the necessity of keeping these industries running efficiently and effectively but particularly in the time of crisis that we are now facing.
Agriculture obviously has linkages right through the supply chain, which has flow-on benefits for employment in other industries but particularly for employment in our rural and regional areas. The food and beverage manufacturing sector is one of the largest manufacturing sectors in Australia and not only plays a critical role in our economy but also plays an extraordinarily critical role in the ongoing food security for this country. We obviously understand that COVID-19 and potential associated travel restrictions may have an impact on the availability of both domestic and migrant labour to harvest horticultural commodities. That's why the government is in the process of preparing a number of options to minimise the impact on the supply chain—from labour right the way through to the transportation of our primary produce. We will keep working closely with farmers because we believe the farmers are best placed to inform us about what they need to ensure the solutions are actually going to be designed with the farmers in mind to protect our food chain for all Australians.
To that end, we convened the Food and Grocery Sector Group as part of the government's critical infrastructure network to ensure supermarkets and food producers have access to the information they need to ensure the supply chains remain flowing. We are also working with states and territories through the national coordination mechanism to make sure that we continue to coordinate critical agriculture and food supply chain issues during this time. I want to reassure all Australians that, despite the current outbreak of COVID-19, we have more than enough food to feed ourselves.
As Senator McKenzie would be well aware, Australia produces significantly more food than we actually consume in this country. In fact, last year, around 70 per cent of our agriculture was exported. To that end, we have plenty of food for Australians. But it is also very important that we keep farm businesses in business and give them the opportunity to continue to sell their goods into other markets where it is possible. This ensures that these businesses continue to turn a profit and continue to operate efficiently and, importantly, helps them to retain staff, which is so important to keep money flowing through local economies.
We will continue to closely monitor the impact of COVID-19 on our exporters, working together with our trading partners through the work of Senator Birmingham as the Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment. We understand travel restrictions have the potential to impact on new and existing marketplaces and we will be working diligently to make sure that we do everything that we can to mitigate that impact. (Time expired)
The government has a range of programs to support agriculture because we recognise that agriculture is one of the most fundamental essential services in Australia at this time. For instance, the farm household allowance, which gives farming families the assistance they need through these tough times just to get food on the table, received a boost this morning. I thank all of those opposite for supporting the final set of amendments to that particular bill to assist our farmers—who are doing it tough not just because of the coronavirus but also because of the drought they have been in for quite a sustained period of time—and those others that have been impacted by bushfire. We've also invested more into rural financial counselling services so farmers can access timely advice when they need it. We are also very conscious of the mental health of our farmers and our farming communities and we want to make sure, through our mental health measures, that we are supporting our farmers. So we have boosted that, as well as boosting concessional loans and taking generous taxation measures to support our farming communities.
My question is to the Minister for Employment, Skills, Small and Family Business, Senator Cash. Can the minister inform the Senate how many Australians the Morrison government anticipates will meet the ABS definition of 'unemployed' as a result of COVID-19?
I thank the senator for the question. The labour force figures came out last Thursday. It was pleasing to see that Australia currently has a record number of Australians in employment—now in excess of 13 million. We also have a record number of Australians in full-time employment. But the point I made at the press conference I gave was that the February figures do not represent the impact of COVID-19. As the Prime Minister has said, as the Treasurer has said and as the Minister for Finance has said, tens of thousands—if not hundreds of thousands—of Australians are going to either be stood down or be out of work as a result of the impact of COVID-19.
That is why the government has put in place a process, which the Prime Minister stated when we announced our first stimulus package. It was squarely focused on keeping Australian businesses in business and keeping Australians in work. We recently announced a second package, which was squarely designed at cushioning the blow. The government is moving rapidly to provide assistance that supports businesses to survive this disruption and rebuild once the virus has passed. But, as I said, Australians are going to lose their jobs. We are very aware of that, in particular given what occurred this morning with the shutdowns in some of the states. We are doing everything that we can to keep businesses in business and Australians in jobs and to cushion the blow for those who find themselves unable to work.
Treasury is modelling a number of scenarios at this point in time. The impact on unemployment is not going to be known for some time because we do not yet know the impact COVID-19 is having on the economy. But, again, the government is very, very aware of the challenges that the labour market now faces as a result of COVID-19. That is why we have now announced in excess of $187 billion in support to get Australians, whether they're a business, an employee or an employer, to the other side of this crisis and then back into business and back to work.
You raise a very, very good point. That is exactly what the Prime Minister talked about yesterday, particularly in relation to the impact on, for example, sole traders. There are many sole traders whose businesses are going to be significantly financially impacted because of COVID-19. I've been working very closely with Minister Ruston to ensure that they are able to get access to or are eligible for the COVID-19 supplement, but the key here is what we've done with mutual obligation. We are going to allow them to continue to work in their business, and by doing that they will actually discharge their mutual obligation. Connectivity with the workforce is one of the most important things that we can do not just as a government but certainly for businesses out there, because we want Australians to maintain any form of connectivity that they can so when we come out the other side of this crisis— (Time expired)
I ask that further questions be placed on the Notice Paper.
That the sitting of the Senate be suspended until the ringing of the bells.
Question agreed to.
Proceedings suspended from 15:01 to 18:24