Australia making wage subsidies easier as COVID-19 surges, PM to say

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia will make it easier to qualify for wage subsidies, the centrepiece of its response to the coronavirus crisis, following a surge in infections that has forced Melbourne into strict lockdown, Prime Minister Scott Morrison will say on Friday.

FILE PHOTO: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a joint press conference held with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Admiralty House in Sydney, Australia, February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

The capital of Victoria state, and the country’s second largest city, began a six-week total lockdown on Thursday, requiring its five million people to stay home and shuttering shops and businesses.

Australia last month said it would spend A$16.8 billion to extend its wage subsidy scheme until March 2021, a programme that has been widely credited with propping up economy on course to post its first recession in nearly three decades.

Morrison said on Thursday that the latest restrictions would swell jobless numbers, and on Friday he will announce steps to help firms retain workers by making it easier for them to qualify for a wage subsidy of A$1,500 per employee every two weeks.

“We’re doing whatever it takes to save lives and save livelihoods,” Morrison will say.

Businesses disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic will now have to demonstrate that revenues between June 1 and Sept. 30 fell from levels recorded one year earlier.

Previously, businesses needed to show revenues fell for two consecutive quarters to Sept. 30 compared to the corresponding 2019 levels.

The relaxation of the criteria and an expected surge in the number of people out of work will swell the size of the subsidy package by a further A$15.6 billion this financial year, Morrison will say.

On Thursday, he said unemployment was forecast to peak at 10%. But, counting those workers in the wage subsidy scheme, Morrison said effective unemployment would be closer to 14%.

Victoria reported on Thursday 471 new COVID-19 cases and eight deaths in the past 24 hours.

Australia has 20,000 reported cases, of which Victoria accounts for 13,000. Nationwide, deaths total 255, still far fewer than many other developed nations.

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore