The Albanese government will reinstate the pandemic leave payment for workers who have to isolate but do not have sick leave, after earlier vigorously defending its ending on budgetary grounds.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced the decision after a national cabinet meeting, which had been brought forward from Monday to early Saturday to discuss the escalating COVID wave.
The leave payment expired on June 30 under a decision by the Morrison government. The Albanese government initially insisted it was time to transition from emergency measures but huge pressure has come over the past week, including from state governments and within the Labor party.
The cost of the extension will be about $780 million, to be shared on a 50-50 basis with the states. The cost for those on temporary visas, for whom the states previously paid, will also be shared.
People can apply for the payment from Wednesday. Eligibility will be backdated to July 1.
Albanese said the change was appropriate given the increasing infection risks from the new variants. “I want to make sure that people aren’t left behind, that vulnerable people are looked after, and that no one is faced with the unenviable choice of not being able to isolate properly without losing an income,” Albanese told a Saturday news conference in Sydney.
He said the health advice was that the new wave is likely to peak next month and then decline
The government is also restoring the crisis payment for people who receive an income support payment or ABSTUDY Living Allowance and who are in severe financial hardship. This will also run until the end of September.
In another change of position, the government will bring in a new temporary telehealth item “so GPs can spend longer with their patients to assess their suitably for oral COVID-19 antivirals”.
Under a decision of the Morrison government which took effect under this government, telephone consultations of longer than 20 minutes ended.
The new Medicare item will run until the end of October.
Although the federal government has not stepped back from ending the program of free RAT tests for concession card holders – another inherited decision – Albanese pointed out free RATs were widely available.
Amid a widespread community debate about masks, national cabinet agreed mask wearing should be encouraged.
First ministers agreed to provide “consistent health messaging encouraging Australians to follow the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee’s recommendations on health behaviours including wearing masks indoors, getting tested and practising good respiratory hygiene”.
But there was no suggestion of the extension of mandated mask wearing.
On his return from overseas on Friday, Albanese received a health briefing on the impact of new variants, and national cabinet was also briefed. The increasing case load will further intensify the pressure on the hospital system.
Albanese said first ministers understood “we need to get the health outcomes right in order to protect people’s health but also to protect our economy. When you get the health outcomes right, you protect jobs and you protect the economy.”
“The really positive thing as well today is working towards a much more consistent national approach. And that was agreed.”
Until at least the end of September, the national cabinet will meet each two or three weeks “to make sure that we’re hearing the updated reports from the AHPPC and to respond as need be, to make sure that our approaches are consistent so that people can be clear about the messages which are out there.”
Albanese stressed there would be “less spread if people take more action. If more people wear masks, if more people get vaccinated, it will provide more protection.”
“This is a very infectious disease. The chief health officer likened it to the infection rate of measles rather than the previous variants of COVID, and that is something which is a sobering thought for people. So I would encourage people to follow the advice, to make sure that they engage in social distancing, to make sure that they wear masks indoors if they’re in crowded areas.
“There are still some measures in place, for example, wearing a mask is mandated in specific areas – in aged care, in areas like on public transport here in New South Wales. So I’d encourage people to follow that advice.”
The Business Council of Australia and the ACTU both welcomed the leave payment’s reinstatement. The Australian Medical Association, while welcoming the telehealth decision, said it didn’t “address the needs of vulnerable Australians with other medical needs, who need access to longer consultations by telephone during this surging COVID pandemic”.