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2020 will be "toughest year of our lives": Morrison

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The prime minister is rallying Australians to the dramatic action needed to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus, invoking the Anzac spirit as pubs, cinemas, gyms and churches are forced to close around the nation.

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From midday Monday, registered and licensed clubs, entertainment venues, cinemas, casinos, nightclubs, indoor sports venues, including gyms, and places of worship will close.

Restaurants and cafes will be restricted to takeaway only.

Scott Morrison said the decision was taken because Australians were not adequately sticking to rules around social distancing, which called for staying at least 1.5m apart and not gathering in large numbers.

Morrison today addressed a scaled-down House of Representatives, saying it was understandable people feared the unknown and there was still much not known about the virus.

“So we summon the spirit of the Anzacs, of our Great Depression generation, of those who built the Snowy, of those who won the great peace of World War II and defended Australia,” he said.

“For many, young and old, 2020 will be the toughest year of our lives.”

Labor leader Anthony Albanese said most Australians only knew stories of war, hunger and financial strife from their grandparents.

“Fear and panic, of course, feed on uncertainty and inconsistency and at the moment those ingredients abound,” he told parliament.

“This is a time for national leadership, consistent messages, clear directions.”

Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner emphasised that most services were still open.

“Bottle-os are still open. You can still get a beer – God knows we all might need one – but everything else, there are no changes right now,” he told reporters.

But leaders will look at further shutdown measures if Australians continue to fail to heed the warnings to keep their distance and stop all non-essential travel and outings.

Virus cases are doubling every three days, with more than 1600 recorded on Monday morning. The death toll remains at seven.

Schools confusion

The prime minister insists schools remain open, but Victoria and ACT have brought forward school holidays to Tuesday and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has urged parents to keep their children home if possible.

South Australian state schools also remain open.

Berejiklian said online education would be in place in NSW schools until the holidays, scheduled to start at Easter on April 10.

“There won’t be a separate class for kids at home, there won’t be a separate class for kids at school, there will be one unit of teaching which makes it simple and practical,” she said.

Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk defended the national decision to keep schools open, in the face of rising anger among teachers who’ve said they feel abandoned and endangered by the policy.

She said she understood the anxiety being felt by teachers and anyone in high-risk categories should discuss their situation with their principal, but she would continue to act on medical advice that it’s still safe for kids to go to school.

If and when that advice changed, school operations could change, she said.

But teachers who don’t want to be named out of fear they’ll lose their jobs told AAP government schools lack hand sanitiser and soap, and there is no possible way for them to enforce the four-square-meters per person rule in classrooms.

They’re also angered by the federal government’s ongoing assurances that infected children rarely get very sick with the virus, but say no-one is talking about what might happen to teachers if they’re infected by students.

The Queensland Education Union, which initially backed the schools open policy, has hardened it’s stance and is now questioning how there can be two sets of rules about social distancing.

“You cannot argue that the whole community should shut down, and we should keep our schools open without any change,” union president Kevin Bates said radio.

Police coronavirus taskforce

A dedicated taskforce of 500 police officers will enforce Victoria’s coronavirus shutdown of non-essential services and self-isolation of travellers.

Pubs, clubs, Crown Casino and schools will all close for at least three weeks in the state-wide shutdown to curb the spread of coronavirus.

Victoria recorded 59 new cases overnight, taking the state’s total to 355 cases which is expected to rise further today.

To make sure people are sticking to the 14-day self-isolation mandate for travellers into Australia and the shutdown, 500 police have been redirected to a dedicated task force.

“In some respects, it is disappointing that it has come to this,” Victorian premier Daniel Andrews said today.

“But we’ve seen people on beaches in Sydney, we could just as easily have seen pictures of people in bars and cafes and restaurants and nightclubs here in Melbourne and nightclubs here in Melbourne and right across Victoria.

“It’s unacceptable, it will cost lives.

“We are going to see deaths, we will see more deaths than would otherwise be the case if people are selfish.”

Andrews cited a case of one dinner party held last week.

“As best we can tell the dinner party started with one person who had the coronavirus by the end of the dinner party, almost everybody at the dinner party had the coronavirus – this spreads rapidly.”

Stimulus legislation

The Morrison government will work with Labor to ensure laws to put cash in Australians’ pockets, prop up businesses and help families pass on Monday, with the legislation expected to pass by 5pm.

Bills will roll out two massive economic stimulus and safety net packages worth $17.6 billion and $66 billion respectively to stem the damage from a likely recession as a result of COVID-19.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has hinted at the potential need for a third stimulus package down the track.

“We will do what it takes to support the economy,” he told ABC radio.

“The spread of the virus and the pain caused by this global pandemic will only really stop when we have a vaccine.”

Labor will be offering a number of amendments to the bills but won’t stand in the way of them passing if the proposed changes are rejected.

Albanese is concerned about a new measure that would allow eligible people to tap their superannuation for $10,000 this financial year and next if impacted by the coronavirus.

“It clearly isn’t in the interest of individual superannuants to essentially sell-out at the bottom of the market. That would have a negative impact on their retirement incomes,” he told ABC radio.

“And it would also, of course, have a negative impact potentially on superannuation if super funds have to sell their assets once again at the bottom of the market.”

The pandemic has seen tens of billions of dollars wiped off share prices in the past few weeks.

Beyond this week, talks are under way between the government and opposition on how often parliament will sit.

The next scheduled sitting was to be in May for the federal budget but the budget has been postponed until October 6.

Morrison says he is hopeful of reaching a deal with Labor on how parliament will operate on an “emergency basis”.

“We have to be conscious of the fact that because of the spread of the virus, it may not be physically possible to convene the parliament over the next six months,” he said.

Virgin, Rex cut domestic flights

Virgin Australia is likely to cut more domestic flights as a virus-spooked nation prepares to bunker down following new travel and trading restrictions.

Virgin on Monday said it expects its domestic schedule to suffer a material impact as a result of new federal and state government travel restrictions at the weekend.

The beleaguered airline will provide more information in the coming days.

Virgin has already reduced domestic capacity across Virgin and Tigerair brands by 50 per cent and ceased its international operations in response to tightening quarantine measures.

Ratings agency Moody’s on Friday also downgraded Virgin’s credit rating to B3 from B2 and placed it on review for further downgrade.

Regional airline Rex entered a trading halt on Monday pending an announcement to the ASX of cessation of passenger services in all states but Queensland.

Last week Regional Express announced a 45 per cent reduction in capacity including suspending its Port Augusta, Armidale and Newcastle routes.

Air and travel firms have been among the hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic as demand plummets amid government-imposed bans and calls for increased social isolation measures.

Virgin’s larger rival Qantas last week stood down 20,000 – or two-thirds – of its workforce and slashed international travel to help it absorb the virus blow.

Qantas has also reduced its domestic capacity.

Sydney Airport on Monday said it was working through the exact scheduling impacts with its airline partners but it anticipated, and is planning for, a “significant but temporary reduction in international and domestic traffic”.

Travel firm Webjet has suspended trading on the ASX as it works on a proposed capital raising.

Flight Centre voluntary trading suspension until at least March 30 as it works through the impact on its business.

Banks consider credit card rates

Commonwealth Bank of Australia is “looking at” lowering interest rates on credit card debt as more people pull out the plastic to pay their bills during the coronavirus crisis.

CBA boss Matt Comyn has also reassured customers the bank will remain “open” during the crisis, which has prompted widespread shutdowns of businesses across the country.

“It’s critical we are able to give our customers certainty,” the head of Australia’s largest home loan lender told ABC radio on Monday.

Asked if the bank would lower interest rates on unsecured credit card debt, Comyn did not rule it out.

“We certainly are looking at how we might price credit cards over this period,” he said.

The average credit card carries an interest rate of around 20 per cent. The average credit card debt in Australia is about $3,000 and the average card limit is $9,000.

Comyn said so far only a “small number” of CBA customers had contacted the bank to take up an industry-wide offer of a six-month “holiday” on their mortgage repayments.

But there had been a lot of interest in the bank’s offer of short term loans up to $1000 to pay for “essential expenditure”, particularly from casual workers whose jobs have been shuttered or threatened by the pandemic.

These loans will attract an interest rate of about 4-5 per cent, which is less than half the normal rate for a personal loan before the virus hit.

And after the Reserve Bank of Australia cut official rates last week, Comyn was also quizzed on why the bank only cut interest rates for fixed-rate mortgages and not the standard variable rate.

He said the bank was focused on providing interest rate relief for small businesses and giving older people with term deposits a bit of a boost.

CBA has about 45,000 staff and Comyn on Monday said all would be kept on during the crisis.

The bank is also looking to hire another 500 service staff and has been in talks with Qantas boss Alan Joyce about taking on some of the airline’s workers, who will be temporarily stood down or forced on leave at the end of this month after it cut services.

-with AAP

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