6,000 Flight Centre staff stood down, 35 per cent of stores to close globally

6,000 Flight Centre staff stood down, 35 per cent of stores to close globally

Travel agency Flight Centre (ASX: FLT) will stand down 30 per cent of its global workforce, including 3,800 Australian employees, as the tourism sector languishes in limbo.

Covid-19 has had a dramatic effect on the global tourism sector, with many countries closing borders to help slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Flight Centre has felt this downturn crush its operations, with total transaction value tracking at 20 to 30 per cent of normal levels globally this month.

This has led to management making the tough call of reducing its global workforce by 30 per cent, with 6,000 support and sales roles to be temporarily or permanently stood down globally including 3,800 people in Australia.

The travel agency intends to bring the stood-down workforce back to work once travel restrictions are lifted and demand for tourism increases again.

Stood-down employees will be offered the opportunity to take up a call centre job in the meantime; Flight Centre says it has been engaging with other potential employees to secure immediate access to more than 10,000 sales and call centre vacancies. Those who take up one of these roles will be able to return to Flight Centre once conditions improve.

The company has also been working with the government to give employees who exhaust their accrued leave entitlements rapid access to benefits and support schemes if they are unable to find short-term temporary roles.

"We have been forced to make extremely difficult decisions, including temporarily standing down some of our people and cancelling our interim dividend, with a view to preserving more jobs for the future," says Flight Centre managing director Graham Turner.

"These people that we are temporarily standing down are a valuable part of our company and, where possible, we aim to bring them back to work as soon as restrictions are lifted and as demand starts to increase."

After previously announcing the closure of 100 under-performing retail shops the company says it has accelerated and extended its leisure shop closure plans globally and could now close around 30 per cent of its outlets across multiple brands in Australia and 35 per cent of leisure shops globally over the next few months.

"Changes to these plans are likely if market conditions deteriorate further, if restrictions are in place for an extended period or if demand rebounds more rapidly than currently expected," says Flight Centre.

The company's board and senior executives will forego 50 per cent of pay until at least the end of FY20 and short-term incentive payments for the remainder of 2020.

The group's $15 million-per-month sales and marketing spend has been suspended to preserve cash while travellers are effectively unable to take off either domestically or internationally.

Because of the impact on its income FLT has begun renegotiating rental agreements with landlords. These discussions to date have been positive according to FLT, with potential cost savings including rent-free periods and more flexible trading hours on the table.

"We are also making other changes to reduce costs, preserve cash and help the company overcome the current challenges that our industry and almost all businesses now face," says Turner.

"In making any changes, we will be extremely conscious of the impact on all stakeholders and will seek solutions that minimise the effects on any one group."

"We will also be conscious of the need to make changes that allow us to successfully overcome this short-term challenge, but do not harm our culture or prevent us from thriving into the future."


At a glance:

  • 6,000 support and sales roles will either be stood down temporarily or, in some instances, will become redundant
  • FLT will initially retain up to 70% of its global workforce. The company is assessing the timing and nature of further reductions.
  • In Australia 3,800 people in sales and support roles will temporarily stand-down in the near-term.
  • FLT could now close about 30% of its leisure outlets across multiple brands in Australia and 35% of its leisure shops globally over the next few months.
  • FLT has initiated immediate 50% pay reductions for senior executives and Board members at least until the end of FY20. Executives will also forgo all short-term incentive payments for the year.
  • FLT has moved to significantly reduce occupancy costs by renegotiating rental agreements with landlords.  FLT has pursued potential cost savings including rent-free periods and more flexible trading hours.
  • $15 million-per month marketing spend suspended

The remaining Flight Centre team is currently engaged in assisting customers to make it back to their homes; a difficult task considering many airlines have effectively cancelled all international travel and borders are effectively shut both inbound and outbound.

A team is in place to consider all options, including booking charter flights, for customers and other travellers that no longer have access to commercial flights. The company says major areas of concern, given the loss or reduction in scheduled services, includes South America, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

"We are dealing with unprecedented restrictions and extraordinary circumstances that are having a significant impact on our customers, people, suppliers and all other stakeholders," says Turner.

"People are effectively unable to travel in the near-term, either domestically or internationally, and some are actually unable to be repatriated to their home countries, which is affecting thousands of people and is a problem that we're working to help solve."

"Within this climate, our people have been working tirelessly to help our customers amend their plans, but unfortunately the vast proportion of the work that they would normally undertake has now been stopped."

The Covid-19 outbreak has destroyed what would have otherwise been a record 2020 fiscal year for Flight Centre.

The company generated $12.4 billion in first half TTV and broke monthly records in both January and February.

Despite the downturn in business Flight Centre says it is undertaking steps to maintain a robust balance sheet and liquidity position. 

"The company is well progressed in pursuing relevant initiatives and will update the market in due course, at which time it also expects to end the voluntary Australian Securities Exchange suspension that is currently in place," says Flight Centre.

Updated at 10:45AM AEDT on 26 March 2020.


Lovisa closes all stores in Australia, NZ and South Africa

Lovisa closes all stores in Australia, NZ and South Africa

Jewellery retailer Lovisa (ASX: LOV) has now closed the majority of its 400 stores worldwide in response to the government's containment measures against Covid-19.

The company announced today it had temporarily closed all its stores in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

The move follows decisions in France, Spain, Malaysia, the USA and UK, where Lovisa stores have been closed over the past week.

Singapore is the only company-owned market where stores continue to trade.

"Whilst some governments have provided timing for the current containment measures to end, we are not currently in a position to know when our stores will be able to re-open," the group said.

"As a result, the company has taken a number of important actions to manage the cost structure of the business, including the stand-down of store teams in all markets where our stores are closed, and reduction of headcount in our support teams across the world, with a combination of temporary stand-downs and redundancies to ensure teams are appropriately sized to support the temporarily much smaller business during this period."

Due to the disruption of business, Lovisa has also opted to defer 15 cents per share dividend for a period of six months.

The company is estimated to have 1,360 employees worldwide.

LOV shares were up 9.64 per cent at $4.21 at 10:35am AEDT, however they are still substantially below their $11.17 price level on 24 February.

Updated at 10:38am AEDT on 26 March 2020.


Guidance withdrawn at AMP, Dexus Property Group

Guidance withdrawn at AMP, Dexus Property Group

Financial services giant AMP (ASX: AMP) and commercial and industrial property owner Dexus Property Group (ASX: DXS) are the latest ASX100 companies to withdraw their guidance due to uncertainty surrounding Covid-19.

In a release today, AMP explained its capital position and liquidity remained strong while its three-year transformational strategy including its client remediation program was still underway.

"In response to uncertainty in Australia and globally, we have taken decisive action to support our clients and people, while working to maintain the strength and resilience of our business," says AMP chief executive Francesco De Ferrari.

"Whilst the situation is rapidly evolving, our immediate priorities are to support the public health efforts, help our clients make the right choices, and ensure our people are safe and working in healthy environments.

"Protocols and contingency plans are also in place to ensure our operations and client services can continue throughout the pandemic."

Dexus Property Group (ASX: DXS) noted operations had performed in a way that was consistent with expectations, but uncertainty led directors to withdraw guidance for FY20.

"As custodians of many buildings across Australia's major cities, it is incumbent on us to protect our tenant base, particularly the SMEs and retailers who support our office towers and shopping precincts and are bearing the brunt of this evolving global situation," said Dexus CEO Darren Steinberg.

"SMEs are the lifeblood of the country and we need to ensure we look after them, so that when we inevitably emerge from this event, they can return to normal operations as soon as possible.

"As a priority we remain focused on the health, safety and wellbeing of our employees and the people in our buildings. We have adopted internal business continuity measures to minimise the disruption to our business and have implemented government guidelines to reduce the spread of Covid-19 at our properties."

Cloud solutions company Rhipe (ASX: RHP) also withdrew its guidance today for similar reasons. Other major companies that put their guidance on hold yesterday include Reliance Worldwide Corporation (ASX: RWC), Shopping Centres Australasia Property Group (ASX: SCP), Steadfast Group (ASX: SDF), Ingenia Communities Group (ASX: INA) and Fletcher Building (ASX: FBU).

Click here for a full list of companies that have suspended or withdrawn their guidance for FY20.

Updated at 2:24pm AEDT on 26 March 2020.


SA Premier announces $650 million stimulus package

SA Premier announces $650 million stimulus package

Premier of South Australia Steven Marshall (pictured) has teased a $650 million package to help local businesses survive the Covid-19 financial crisis.

While details are yet to be released, Marshall says the Jobs Rescue Package will be discussed with a newly-established Industry Response and Recovery Council.

"This is, without question, the greatest economic emergency of our generation and our collective response must be equally as potent," says Premier Marshall.

"We recognise the enormous economic challenges confronting our key industries, their employers and staff as a result of the coronavirus pandemic and the necessary restrictions imposed to limit its spread.

"Now, more than ever, we must work together utilising our shared expertise and experience to ensure we protect as many industries, businesses and local jobs as possible."

The $650 million stimulus package complements a $350 million package announced earlier this month by the SA Government that focused on infrastructure maintenance jobs like preparing hospitals and upgrading roads and tourism infrastructure.

The 14 member Industry Response and Recovery Council represents many of the state's key industries from business, property, retail, construction and housing to tourism, primary industries, food, wine and hospitality.

Members of the Premier's Industry Response and Recovery Council (in addition to the Premier):

  • Martin Haese Business SA
  • Ian Markos Master Builders Association
  • Daniel Gannon Property Council of Australia (SA)
  • Ian Horne Australian Hotels Association
  • Shaun De Bruyn Tourism Industry Council SA
  • Stephen Knight Housing Industry Association
  • Phil Sutherland Civil Contractors Federation SA
  • Colin Shearing SA Independent Retailers' Association
  • Paul Unerkov Motor Trade Association South Australia
  • Brian Smedley Wine Industry Association
  • Catherine Sayers Food SA
  • Wes Lambert Restaurant & Catering Australia
  • Rob Kerin Primary Producers SA

Updated at 9:40AM AEDT on 26 March 2020.


Vans and Dr Martens to lose grip as footwear giant Accent Group closes 470 stores

Vans and Dr Martens to lose grip as footwear giant Accent Group closes 470 stores

The company that owns the Australia-New Zealand distribution rights to footwear brands like The Athlete's Foot, Hype DC, Skechers, Vans and Dr. Martens has today made the "difficult decision" to temporarily close its network of more than 470 stores.

Accent Group (ASX: AX1) - which also has the rights to sell Platypus Shoes, Merrell, CAT, Saucony, Timberland, Sperry Top-Sider, Palladium and Stance - made the call in the interests of staff health and safety.

Stores will close from 5pm on Friday 27 March for a period of four weeks, affecting almost 4,200 employees.

The company says its retail employees and the majority of support office employees will be stood down without pay for that period, but they will still accrue entitlements and may access their annual and long service leave.

The Group will continue to trade through its 18 websites and wholesale business.

"It is with a heavy heart that we have made this decision, but we believe this to be in the best interests of the health and wellbeing of our team members," says CEO Daniel Agostinelli.

"The Company intends to do everything possible to return the business to normal operations when environmental conditions normalise whilst always prioritising the safety and wellbeing of our team."

Updated at 11:03am AEDT on 26 March 2020.


Hairdresser restrictions lifted

Hairdresser restrictions lifted

The 30 minute per patron social distancing rule imposed on hairdressers has been lifted by the National Cabinet.

Following feedback on the rule Australia's premiers and chief ministers have decided to remove the 30 minute per customer rule but the four square metre per person rule will remain in place.

"Personal contact during the patron's visit should be minimised wherever possible," says the Federal Government.

Further, States and Territories can now provide exemptions to the 10 person attendance rule at funerals in hardship cases.

The clarifications come as Australia reports 2,431 confirmed cases of Covid-19 this morning.

There are 1029 cases in NSW, 466 in VIC, 443 in QLD, 205 in WA, 197 in SA, 44 in the ACT, 42 in TAS, and five in NT.

Victoria this morning reported its first two deaths, bringing the national death toll to 11.

Updated at 9:01AM AEDT on 26 March 2020.


White House, Senate reach deal for US$2 trillion stimulus package

White House, Senate reach deal for US$2 trillion stimulus package

The wheels are now in motion for the largest economic stimulus package in US history, after the Trump Administration and the Senate reached a deal to pump US$2 trillion (AUD$3.3 trillion) into the economy.

The Washington Post reports the breakthrough was announced at 1:30am on the Senate floor by Senate Majority Leader and Mitch McConnell (Republican), and Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (Democrat).

"After days of intense discussion, the Senate has reached a bipartisan agreement on a historic relief package for this pandemic. ... I'm thrilled that we're finally going to deliver for the country that has been waiting for us to step up," McConnell was quoted as saying. 

The agreement follows five days of negotiations with officials from the Administration, and now the legislation is expected to pass both chambers of Congress. 

The LA Times reports a Senate vote could occur by midday on Wednesday in the US, with the House potentially following soon after.

The publication reports negotiators close to the stimulus bill claim it includes US$300 billion for small businesses, US$150 billion for local and state governments, and US$130 billion for hospitals.

The proposal equates to more than 9 per cent of US annual gross domestic product (GDP). In comparison, Australia's $189 billion stimulus package is worth around 10 per cent of our country's GDP last year. 

This proposed stimulus compares to an US$831 billion stimulus package implemented by the Obama Administration in response to the global financial crisis (GFC), more commonly known as the Great Recession in the United States. 


NSW supermarkets and pharmacies can now operate 24/7

NSW supermarkets and pharmacies can now operate 24/7

While there may be restrictions around what you can do when you leave home, in NSW you will at least be free to choose when you shop for groceries or medicine, whether it's 3pm or 3am.

That is if supermarkets and pharmacies make the most of the state government's latest relaxation of laws to guarantee access to essential goods at all times during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Changes to the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 today enabled Planning and Public Spaces Minister Rob Stokes to issue his first order to override normal planning controls restricting hours of operation.

"These orders cut red tape so we can move quickly and decisively to ensure the health, wellbeing and safety of our community during this time," says Stokes.

"The focus of our first order is giving people flexibility to visit their local supermarket, pharmacy or corner store at any time of day if those retail premises choose to operate for extended hours.

"This means the community will have access to food, medical supplies and essential household goods whenever they need it."

He says stores will also be able to dispose of their waste at any time of day, rather than during restricted hours, to dispose of the significant and sudden increase in stock.

The order also provides greater flexibility for home-based businesses to operate at any time and expand their business as necessary.

"For those businesses operating out of home, we are facilitating more flexible operating hours and increasing the number of people working together from two to five, providing they can abide by the social distancing rules," Mr Stokes said.

"This is important as more and more people work from home and need flexible working arrangements."

Updated at 5:46pm AEDT on 25 March 2020.


Yarra Valley winery turns cellar door into grocery

Yarra Valley winery turns cellar door into grocery

With restrictions now in place for hospitality providers and public gatherings, the owner of a Yarra Valley winery is thinking outside the box to keep customers coming through the cellar door.

Normally operating a winery, restaurant and concert venue, it could have easily been a case of sour grapes for the team at Rochford Wines this week.

But owner Helmut Konecsny has risen to the occasion by converting the cellar door space into a grocer, food delivery and wine takeaway hub. 

The company says this heart-felt move was driven by compassion and determination to help keep the team employed and support the greater economy.

Equipped with essentials, customers can now purchase fresh meat, fruit, vegetables, cheese, deli items, freshly baked bread, pasta, rice, specialty items, toilet paper, sanitiser and of course, wine.

At the same location, 400 Gradi Yarra Valley will also be serving up freshly cooked pizza, pasta, hearty shared meals, sides and desserts for pickup or delivery by the so-called 'Rochford Army', a newly created in-house delivery team.

"There has never been a more important time to innovate; the focus is on trying to keep going, to keep people working and to come up with new ideas that serve the purpose of keeping people in jobs, to assist our greater community and to work through the toughest economic and personal challenges any of us will likely ever face in this lifetime," says Konecsny.

"We are a nimble and agile business, with the facility to turn some of our space into different offerings. We are a loyal, passionate family company here, and hope that this move supports our community in more ways than one."

The company will also provide discounts on its wines and offer 48-hour delivery within the greater Melbourne metro area.

Updated at 5:36pm AEDT on 25 March 2020.


ACCC allows medical tech companies to coordinate

ACCC allows medical tech companies to coordinate

The national competition regulator has shown a sign of goodwill to medical technology companies that will allow them to coordinate supplies and manufacturing in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Following a similar approach towards supermarkets, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is putting the immediate national interest first by permitting medical tech businesses to coordinate on ventilators, testing kits, personal protective equipment and other medical equipment.

Under ordinary circumstances, coordination between competitors would run the risk of collusion. 

But now members of the Medical Technology Association of Australia (MTAA) and other groups in the industry will be able to share information between each other, coordinate orders and supply requests, prioritise requests, and jointly tender to supply Covid-19 medical equipment.

This will be made possible through an interim authorisation from the ACCC.

"Our decision will help companies urgently address potential shortages or other constraints on the supply of crucial medical equipment," says ACCC Chair Rod Sims.

"This supports government efforts to ensure governments and health services are able to provide a coordinated response to the pandemic."

The move is expected to allow these companies to keep Federal Government, State and Territory Governments and relevant health agencies up to date on supply issues.

"Medical technology companies will now be able to roll out a coordinated plan for supplies of medical equipment nation-wide, which is likely to be crucial in assisting Australia's response to Covid-19," says Sims.

Updated at 5:18pm AEDT on 25 March 2020.


$5000 fines for NSW businesses that ignore Covid-19 restrictions

$5000 fines for NSW businesses that ignore Covid-19 restrictions

NSW police will now have the power to give on-the-spot fines to individuals and businesses that flout ministerial directions aimed at preventing the spread of Covid-19.

The rules relate to incoming travellers, people who have been diagnosed with the virus, mass gatherings and social distancing rules, and the closure of social gathering places.

The state's police will be able to issue Penalty Infringement Notices (PINs) of $1000 for individuals and $5000 for businesses.

This is in addition to the existing enforcement powers available to officers, which include issuing Court Attendance Notices with a maximum penalty of up to $11,000 and/or six months imprisonment for individuals.

NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller says the circumstances call for strong action, and police stand ready to respond.

"This health crisis is like nothing we have ever experienced, with more than 1000 cases now confirmed in NSW, and the numbers continuing to grow," Commissioner Fuller said.

"I'm encouraged that most members of the community are taking this  issue seriously and are adhering to the government advice."

However, he said it was disturbing that officers have already had to respond to dozens of reports of breaches of ministerial directions from members of the community.

"This is astounding, and incredibly disappointing, as these people are putting themselves and the wider community at an unacceptable risk," he said.

"The last thing we want to do is to have to use police powers to ensure compliance, but let me be clear we have been using them and we will continue to do so."

Minister for Police and Emergency Services David Elliott said the measures were tough but necessary to minimise the risk the pandemic poses to public safety.

"Despite the majority of people doing the right thing, we are still seeing reckless and irresponsible behaviour that endangers the lives of others, particularly to elderly and immunocompromised members of the community," Elliott said.

"The rules are clear. No more than one person should occupy a two by two metre area, and public places such as the beach and retail outlets are no exception.

"Our message to the community is simple: be vigilant, be sensible, and stay up to date with the latest health advice."

NSW Police Force last week launched operation Coronavirus to guide the organisation's response, with highly specialised officers providing practical and logistical support.

The Police Operations Centre (POC), the command location for coordinating all police activities in response to major incidents, has been made operational.

Commissioner Fuller said in addition to responding to reports of non-compliance, police had put in place a number of proactive measures to help stop the spread of the virus.

"Our officers are conducting proactive patrols in every Police Area Command and Police District across the state, to add another layer of enforcement and ensure people in public places are sticking to the rules.

"These patrols also form part of our ongoing work with retailers, to ensure calm and fairness at the checkouts.

"I want to urge the people of NSW to stay safe and follow the official government advice."

Updated at 5:05pm AEDT on 25 March 2020.

 


Fitness, wellness and beauty facilities take stock as Covid-19 restrictions come into play

Fitness, wellness and beauty facilities take stock as Covid-19 restrictions come into play

As new social distancing measures fall into place as per the Federal Government's Covid-19 plan, businesses around the country are trying to figure out where to next.

The fitness, wellness and beauty industries have effectively been ordered to shut down immediately, with many businesses unable to offer a virtual or distance-based alternative to their physical services.

Vita Group (ASX: VTG) which operates 21 aesthetic beauty service clinics, including 13 Artisan/branded clinics, will suspended trade from Thursday 26 March.

The company says the financial impacts arising from the Federal Government's decision to shut down beauty clinics are still being assessed.

Despite the shutdown of its clinics, Vita Group says its ICT (information and communications technology) channel has been deemed an essential service by the Federal Government and remains open for business.

Vita's ICT channel includes more than 100 Telstra retail and business centres, as well as technology accessories brand Sprout.

The company's CEO and executive director Maxine Horne is disappointed but understands the government's decision and will be working to support staff through this period of indefinite suspension.

"Our focus over the next 24 hours is on supporting our team members through this difficult period, and ensuring our clients continue to receive the high levels of service they are accustomed to," says Horne.

"The Vita leadership team is proactively managing its business continuity plans in these unprecedented circumstances with the aim of placing the business in the best possible position for our long term future."

Viva stretches out online

Listed fitness company Viva Leisure (ASX: VVA) has been forced to close all of its 97 clubs around the country to follow the Government's instructions.

While there is no expected reopening date for its portfolio of fitness clubs at this time Viva has turned to non-traditional methods to keep its clients fit and healthy for the meantime.

Over the weekend Viva launched its first at-home workout app called Club Lime LMOD (LesMills on Demand).

The app offers Viva members access to 100 workouts supplied by industry leading group fitness provider LesMills International, and is now available on Android, iOS and iPadOS.

The company will soon release another at-home workout app called Club Lime Workouts on Demand with over 500 different workouts from Yoga to high intensity interval training classes.

Further, Viva's team at Hiit Republic will be running 'Home Work-In' classes on both Facebook Live and YouTube Live for members to maintain their training regime.

While the company is transitioning well into this brave new world that does not mean it has been easy for the group's staff.

Viva closed all of its facilities on Monday leading to the cancellation of all casual shifts from the time of closure (affecting around 800 staff), while non-essential permanent staff were placed on paid or unpaid leave, and 90 per cent of the group's total workforce was stood down.

"This week we face the challenging and unimaginable position to be legally required to close our clubs, together with the entire industry," says Viva Leisure CEO and managing director Harry Konstantinou.

"I am confident that Viva Leisure will come out of this temporary closure and uncertainty significantly stronger, with new opportunities and possibilities, and with a raised awareness of the importance of fitness for many more Australians."

Updated at 3:52PM AEDT on 25 March 2020.


Palaszczuk: The intention is "not to disrupt" border communities

Palaszczuk: The intention is "not to disrupt" border communities

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk (pictured) says the state disaster coordinator "is throwing everything at this" to make the border closure with NSW happens with as little disruption as possible.

It is an issue that is of particular concern to communities living in the Tweed region, whose lives and businesses are heavily tied to the Gold Coast. 

After announcing Infrastructure Minister Cameron Dick had been put in charge of securing the state's supply chains, the Premier said the QLD-NSW border would be closed as of midnight.

"I ask people to be patient, but I also ask people if you do not need to come to Queensland, please do not come to Queensland," she said.

"In relation to those border restrictions the intention is not to disrupt those communities like the Tweed that live very close, but there are exemptions and we're hoping to get those exemptions put together as quickly as possible."

"We know that people living in the Tweed have a legitimate business here in Queensland. It's very close proximity, so we are trying to make it as easy as possible for those residents...we're getting the permit system done as quickly as possible."

State Infrastructure Minister Cameron Dick has congratulated Queensland businesses like Bundaberg Rum and Sunshine Coast sunscreen and aloe vera gel producer Concept Labs for repurposing their operations to produce ethanol for hand sanitisers.

"Queensland businesses and manufacturers have responded magnificently to this call," he said.

"I'm pleased to announce there are no fundamental shortages of supply of goods or essential household goods; we grow and process so much of our own food in Queensland, and we produce many household goods here in our state.

"What we've seen at supermarkets with empty shelves is not because of a problem in supply, it's been a problem of demand and behaviour, but that is now ebbing; that is now going back to more normal levels across Queensland, and I want to thank the retailers and supermarkets for actively managing that, particularly through self-regulating the supply of products to what people need."

He described three critical streams the department was focusing on: the supply of essential goods; the manufacture, procurement and supply of health system personnel protective equipment (PVE) as well as other health products and equipment; and support for impacted businesses and industries.

The Premier also announced the state's 470 camping areas would be closed tomorrow as part of social distancing measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

"This is really important - we need the message to get out. There are no school holidays, we will be having a school break," she said.

"As we know, today is going to be a tough day for a lot of other businesses that work in various industries as they will have either restrictions or will have to be closing.

"I know that no one likes to be making these decisions, but we have to do it in the interest of everybody in terms of protecting people."

The state, which now has 443 cases of the virus, has conducted 29,282 tests for Covid-19.

"This puts us as one of the highest testing states in the nation," the Premier said.

With regards to the council elections taking place in Queensland, Palaszczuk says voting is very low risk and the majority of the population has already been pre-polling.

"Of course there will be exemptions for people who are unwell and cannot turn up to vote.

"We're going to get through this. I know we're going to get through this, just as we did 100 years ago with the Spanish Flu pandemic."

On the latest count there are now 2368 cases of Covid-19 in Australia, of which almost half are in NSW.

Updated at 2:23pm AEDT on 25 March 2020.


All stores to close at Rockmans, Noni B, Millers, Rivers, Katies, Autograph, W.Lane, Crossroads

All stores to close at Rockmans, Noni B, Millers, Rivers, Katies, Autograph, W.Lane, Crossroads

The company that owns iconic brands including Rockmans, Noni B, Millers and Rivers has decided to suspend all store operations starting tomorrow.

Mosaic Brands (ASX: MOZ) will shut almost 1,400 stores across its network because its personal service mandate conflicts with the government's social distancing recommendations.

"All team members affected by the store closures will be stood down with access to leave entitlements while the Group reviews government support schemes that may be available to them," the company said.

"The Group will continue to communicate regularly with the team and will offer other forms of support through this difficult time and period of uncertainty, including access to its Employee Assistance Program."

Mosaic, also known for such brands as Katies, Autograph, W.Lane, Crossroads and Beme, has seen a significant drop in store traffic and revenue.

"The Group is working with its business partners and is reviewing its cost of doing business, with a view to reducing costs to match expected revenue.

"These steps are being taken to ensure the Group is best placed for the coming months and to provide longer-term job security to its 6,800 predominantly female team.

"Mosaic's online operations will continue through this period and customers will be able to purchase from all the Group's nine brand websites."

MOZ shares were down 5 per cent at $0.285 at 1:45pm AEDT.

Updated at 1:48pm AEDT on 25 March 2020.


Challenger bank Tyro Payments sees transactions grow despite Covid-19

Challenger bank Tyro Payments sees transactions grow despite Covid-19

The macro-trend of neobanking has so far held up well against the economic headwinds of Covid-19, with challenger bank Tyro Payments (ASX: TYR) continuing to grow its transaction volume over the past three weeks.

The latest numbers from March 1-20 show processed transactions were up 20 per cent year-on-year at $1.19 billion.

This does however represent a slight slowdown on the 29 per cent growth recorded in February, when volumes hit $1.785 billion.

Tyro, which provides payments and banking solutions to more than 32,000 merchants including many SMEs, has emphasised its commitment to supporting merchants in these unprecedented times.

"Whilst we welcome the Federal Government's initiatives announced on 21 March 2020 designed to assist SMEs impacted by COVID-19, we do know many of our merchants are continuing to find the current environment extremely challenging and some, particularly in the hospitality vertical, are severely impacted," the company said in an announcement to the ASX today.

"We have implemented measures to provide such assistance we possibly can to support those of our merchants experiencing hardship.

"We also continue to operate on a business as usual basis providing the level of service, availability and support our merchants have come to expect from our team - with increased customer support teams in place 24 hours a day to assist our merchants."

Due to the current uncertainty around Covid-19, in the interests of transparency Tyro Payments has pledged to provide weekly transaction values updates for the remainder of FY20.

"This is a temporary measure introduced to address the unusual operating environment we face and to provide transparency as to the impact on our operations. Going forward these updates will be provided on the first ASX trading day of each week.

"Tyro remains in a strong financial position, with cash, cash equivalents and financial investments available at the end of February 2020 of $154 million (excluding net banking funds).

"This compares to a balance of $149 million as at 31 December 2019 (excluding net banking funds)."

Led by CEO Robbie Cooke, formerly of Tatts Group and Wotif fame, Tyro Payments listed on the ASX in mid-December backing from the likes of Mike Cannon-Brookes' investment vehicle Grok Ventures and Euclid Capital Partners managing director Danita Lowes.

TYR shares were up 9.81 per cent at $1.175 at 1:10pm AEDT.

Updated at 1:12pm AEDT on 25 March 2020.


InvoCare shares plunge on funeral limits

InvoCare shares plunge on funeral limits

Funeral home operator InvoCare (ASX: IVC) is dead set on not letting last night's new social distancing measures be the nail in the coffin for business.

As part of the government's wide-reaching restrictions, funerals will not be allowed unless there are no more than 10 people in attendance and only one person per four square metres.

InvoCare, which also runs cemeteries and crematoria, saw its shares plummet by almost 16 per cent to $9.42 by 12:30pm AEDT.

Chief executive officer Martin Earp says the current restrictions will affect the company's ability to offer a full range of services to client families.

"We are now focusing on implementing a series of contingency plans to both reduce the impact of COVID-19 on our business and allow us to continue to meet the needs of our client families during this unprecedented crisis," says Earp.

"I would like to reassure families we will continue to arrange funeral and memorial services."

To keep services operating, InvoCare will have live streaming and webcast recording options available in many locations.

"We want to ensure those family, friends and colleagues who are unable to attend a funeral service due to the current social distancing and quarantine requirements that they feel part of the farewell," says Earp.

"We are focussing on the introduction of services to meet the needs of client families amidst the restrictions on social gatherings. 

"We will continue to offer a 24-hour 7 day a week service to assist our client families and the community."

InvoCare has implemented a raft of measures designed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 across its operations in Australia, New Zealand and Singapore. This includes activating reserve mortuaries to ensure that cases of Covid-19 are kept separate from the core business.

Like so many companies on the ASX, InvoCare's shares have been hit hard over the past month. A strong performance for 2019 reported on 26 February lifted shares by 13 per cent in one day to $14.57, but since then they have progressively declined. 

Updated at 12:40pm AEDT on 25 March 2020.


National Covid Coordination Commission to connect public and private sectors

National Covid Coordination Commission to connect public and private sectors

A new commission established today by Prime Minister Scott Morrison will seek to connect the public and corporate sectors in Australia to help manage the ongoing Covid-19 crisis.

Headed up by Neville Power (pictured), the former CEO of Fortescue Metals Group and current chairman of Perth Airport and the Royal Flying Doctors Service of Australia, the National Covid Coordination Commission will advise the Government on how Australia's companies can assist the public sector's effort in a variety of ways.

The board of the Commission includes:

  • Greg Combet (former Australian politician and trade unionist)
  • Jane Holton (former head of the Australian Finance Department)
  • Paul Little (former head of Toll Holdings)
  • Catherine Turner (the head of Energy Australia)
  • David Thody (the chair of the CSIRO and former head of Telstra)
  • Phil Gaetjens (the secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet)
  • and Mike Pezzullo (the secretary of the Home Affairs Department)

"Whether it's ensuring we get food to supermarkets, and ensure the supply lines remain open there and the trucks can rollout when they need to rollout...these are the many challenges that we need to face," says PM Morrison.

Elective surgeries cancelled

The Prime Minister's National Cabinet has also decided today that from Midnight 25th March all elective surgeries will be suspended in public and private hospitals.

Category one elective surgeries and urgent category two elective surgeries will be exempt from the suspension.

"The cancellation of elective surgery will allow for the preservation of resources including personal protective equipment and allow health services provided to the public to prepare for their role for the Covid-19 outbreak," says PM Morrison.

Updated at 12:38am AEDT on 25 March 2020.


Star Entertainment Group stands down 90 per cent of workforce

Star Entertainment Group stands down 90 per cent of workforce

Covid-19 gathering restrictions have forced Star Entertainment Group (ASX: SGR) to temporarily stand down 90 per cent of its 9,000 strong workforce.

The impact of social distancing measures announced by the Federal, New South Wales, and Queensland Governments forced Star to close its gaming facilities, and food and beverage, banqueting and conferencing offerings on Monday.

This will have a material impact on Star's operations and its three properties The Star Sydney, Treasury Brisbane, and The Star Gold Coast.

"This is a unique environment and one beyond our control in which we're determined to balance the necessary measures needed to protect the business while considering the considerable human impact to our workforce," says SGR chairman John O'Neill.

The 8,100 staff stood down, which includes those in senior management roles, will be given two weeks of paid pandemic leave. In addition these employees will be able to access any accrued annual and long service leave entitlements.

The board and senior management will also forego a percentage of entitled directors' fees and salaries respectively.

Updated at 11:10am AEDT on 25 March 2020.

 


Virgin Australia cuts domestic capacity by 90 per cent, suspends all Tigerair services

Virgin Australia cuts domestic capacity by 90 per cent, suspends all Tigerair services

Airline Virgin Australia Group (ASX: VAH) will extend its domestic capacity reductions from 50 per cent to 90 per cent and suspend all Tigerair Australia domestic services effective immediately.

The measures come as many Australian states and territories make the decision to close borders, forcing around 125 Virgin aircraft to be temporarily grounded.

Because of the cuts, approximately 80 per cent of VAH's workforce - or 8,000 out of a total 10,000 staff - will be temporarily stood down.

The remaining 10 per cent domestic capacity will be retained for transportation of essential services, critical freight and logistics.

The cuts follow Virgin's decision to suspend all international flying from 30 March to 14 June 2020, and close all Virgin Australia operated lounges across the network.

"There has never been a travel environment in Australia as restricted as the one we see today and the extraordinary steps we've taken have been in response to the federal and state government's latest travel advice," says Virgin Australia CEO and managing director Paul Scurrah.

"We are now facing the biggest grounding of aircraft in this country's history. From the end of this week we will be repositioning and grounding more than 125 aircraft in our fleet, suspending almost all our domestic and international flying until at least the middle of June."

"I am only too aware of how much our people are hurting at the moment and these very tough decisions have weighed heavily on me and my leadership team. We are talking to our teams and we are working hard to do what we can to protect jobs and extend payments for as long as possible."

The 90 per cent reduction to the group's flight network means it will suspend services to 19 Australian destinations currently operated by the airline.

VAH team members that have been stood down have been asked to access accrued leave entitlements or take leave without pay.

Virgin Australia guests who are booked to travel between now and June 30 are encouraged to visit the Virgin Australia customer care hub at virginaustralia.com to request a travel credit or obtain more information about their options.

Elsewhere in the aviation industry, Qantas (ASX: QAN) has today announced a new round of debt funding, securing $1.05 billion in additional liquidity to strengthen its position to weather the coronavirus storm.

This debt has been secured against part of the Group's fleet of unencumbered aircraft, which were bought with cash in recent years. The loan has a tenure of up to 10 years at an interest rate of 2.75 per cent.

This funding increases the Group's available cash balance to $2.95 billion with an additional $1 billion undrawn facility remaining available.

"Over the past few years we've significantly strengthened our balance sheet and we're now able to draw on that strength under what are exceptional circumstances," says Qantas CEO Alan Joyce.

"Everything we're doing at the moment is focused on guaranteeing the long term future of the national carrier, including making sure our people have jobs to return to when we have work for them again."

Updated at 9:22am AEDT on 25 March 2020.

 


PM bans all overseas travel, restrictions on funeral attendance, penalties for profiteers

PM bans all overseas travel, restrictions on funeral attendance, penalties for profiteers

On Tuesday evening the Prime Minister held another Covid-19 press conference during which he sought to clarify the Federal Government's position on social distancing measures and travelling overseas.

Australians looking to leave the country will now be prohibited to do so under the Federal Government's powers in the Biosecurity Act.

The National Cabinet hopes this ban will reduce the risk of Australians returning to the country infected with coronavirus.

There are exemptions to the rule including for those citizens ordinarily resident overseas, where travel is essential or necessary, where travel is in Australia's national interest, and on compassionate and humanitarian grounds.

The PM and his National Cabinet have clarified the social distancing rules, building on the existing measures that are in place.

From 11.59pm (local time) tonight the following activities and venues will be prohibited:

  • Cafes (with the exemption of takeaway or home delivery)
  • Food courts (with the exemption of takeaway or home delivery)
  • Auction houses
  • Real estate auctions and open house inspections (with the exemption of private appointments for inspection)
  • Hairdressers and barber shops (with the exemption that appointments take less than 30 minutes and the one person per four square metre rule applies)
  • Beauty therapy, tanning, waxing, nail salons, tattoo parlours
  • Spas and massage parlours
  • Cinemas, nightclubs
  • Casinos, gaming or gambling venues
  • Concert venues, theatre, arenas, auditoriums, stadiums (with the exemption of live streaming which may be permissible with social distancing observed)
  • Amusements parks and arcades
  • Play centres (indoor and outdoor)
  • Community and recreation centres (with the exemption of opening for the purpose of hosting essential voluntary or public services, such as food banks or homeless services)
  • Health clubs, fitness centres, yoga, barre and spin facilities, saunas, bathhouses and wellness centres
  • Boot camps, personal training operating outside and inside (with the exemption of outside events limited to no more than 10 people and social distancing must be exercised)
  • Social sporting-based activities
  • Swimming pools
  • Galleries, museums, national institutions and historic sites
  • Libraries, community centres, and youth centres
  • Local government non-essential facilities and services
  • Community facilities (such as community halls, clubs, RSLs, PCYCs)
  • Places of worship
  • Weddings (with the exemption of weddings with a maximum attendance of no more than five people and where the one person per four square metre rule applies)
  • Funerals (with the exemption of funerals attended by a maximum of no more than 10 people and where the one person per four square metre rule applies).

"These will be significant sacrifices, I know," says PM Scott Morrison.

"We've all been to those events as extended families and gatherings and gathering together in that way, even around the large family table in the family home when all the siblings get together and bring the kids, these are not things we can do, now.

"All of these things present risks and they obviously present them to the elderly members of our families as well, who we need to protect."

The Federal Government has also announced it intends to take action against those exploiting panic and anxiety by profiteering off essential goods.

"These measures will help prevent individuals purchasing goods including face masks, hand sanitiser and vital medicines and either re-selling them at significant mark-ups or exporting them overseas in bulk, which prevents these goods from reaching people who need them in Australia," says the Federal Government.

The measures come as Australia records 2,144 confirmed cases of Covid-19.

There are 913 cases in NSW, 411 in VIC, 397 in QLD, 175 in WA, 170 in SA, 39 in ACT, 34 in TAS, and 5 in NT.

Eight people in total have died in Australia from the novel coronavirus.

Updated at 8:33am AEDT on 25 March 2020.


Justin Hemmes "completely heartbroken" as Merivale venues close

Justin Hemmes "completely heartbroken" as Merivale venues close

Hospitality entrepreneur Justin Hemmes has responded to the "devastating time" the industry is experiencing with the shutdown of all of Merivale's 70-plus venues, potentially putting 3,000 jobs at risk. 

Hemmes, whose company owns such iconic bars and restaurants as Establishment, ivy and the Coogee Pavilion, wrote a letter to guests today explaining trading had ceased as of yesterday.

"As a result of the recent government orders to combat COVID-19, our restaurants and bars have ceased trading as of yesterday for the foreseeable future," he said.

"This is the extremely unfortunate reality of COVID-19 and all Australians are being severely impacted through no fault of their own.

"It is a particularly devastating time for the hospitality industry, but nothing is more important than health. We wholeheartedly support government efforts to protect our country and will happily play our part to help stop the spread."

The company's bottle shops at The Newport, Allawah Hotel and The Royal will however remain open.

He said now that this decision has been made for community health and safety, his absolute top priority is supporting staff.

"Merivale is what it is today because of its people, and I am simply in awe of our team's passion and strength, especially over the last few weeks," Hemmes said.

"Behind the scenes, we are doing everything we can to get the business in the best possible position to reopen its doors, and help rebuild our economy, as soon as it is safe to do so.

"We will continue to update you on developments, including how we can continue to operate under the government's new takeaway and home delivery guidelines, in the hope we can continue to serve you safely and maintain a livelihood for as many of our much-loved employees as possible."

"I am completely heartbroken that this is happening but remain focused on the light at the end of the tunnel.   Together we will get through this and I can't wait to personally welcome you all back into our venues as soon as it is safe.

Updated at 7:22pm AEDT on 24 March 2020.


ResMed ramps up ventilator production to tackle Covid-19

ResMed ramps up ventilator production to tackle Covid-19

Sleep apnoea treatment company ResMed (ASX: RMD) is one of Australia's great medical technology success stories, founded in Sydney by Dr. Peter Farrell in 1989 and now with offices all over the world.

Dual-listed on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE), the company is headquartered in San Diego, California but has a state-of-the-art, 30-acre innovation and manufacturing center in the Greater Western Sydney suburb Bella Vista.

ResMed is a global leader in its field of expertise, but like Ford, GM and Tesla it is stepping up to the plate to help fill demand for other medical supplies, especially ventilators which are critical for treating severe cases of the virus.

"As a global leader in respiratory medicine, ResMed stands with the world in the face of the latest coronavirus disease COVID-19 and is ready to help mitigate its effects, helping people breathe while their immune system fights this virus," says ResMed CEO Mick Farrell, the founder's son.

"More than 7,500 ResMedians are working in over 140 countries for this purpose. We are working with governments, health authorities, hospitals, physicians, and patients worldwide to assess their needs, and to deliver the ventilation therapy that is essential to treat the respiratory complications of Covid-19.

"Our primary focus is to maximize the availability of ResMed ventilators and other respiratory support devices for the patients that need them most."

He says the company is taking "every measure possible" worldwide to maximise the production of ventilators, masks, and other respiratory devices.

"We are looking to double or triple the output of ventilators, and scale up ventilation mask production more than tenfold," says the executive.

"As global leaders in digital health, we're proud that many of our ventilators and bilevel respiratory devices are cloud-connected, enabling physicians and respiratory specialists to remotely monitor their patients.

"There could not be a clearer case for the use of digital health and remote monitoring of patients than this current crisis with a virus that is so contagious stemming from direct human contact."

Farrell expresses his gratitude to the global ResMed team for working through today's challenges to help treat an increasing number of Covid-19 patients.

"I'd like to call out first-responder ResMedians in China's Hubei province, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, in particular one ResMed hero who, since early January, has donned a positive pressure hazmat suit, and helped set up thousands of people on ResMed ventilators and ResMed masks," he says.

"There are also 100-plus ResMedians from Malaysia who in mid-March volunteered to keep working in our Singapore manufacturing plant when Malaysia closed its borders, relocating to live near our plant in Singapore, spending weeks away from their families, so they can continue to produce as many lifesaving ventilators and ventilation masks as possible."

Updated at 6:53pm AEDT on 24 March 2020.


Wuhan residents will be allowed to leave

Wuhan residents will be allowed to leave

Almost four months after the world's first reported cases of Covid-19 in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, authorities are now reportedly preparing to lift outbound travel restrictions for residents.

Last week the city reported no new daily cases for the first time, and CGTN cites reports from the Wuhan Health Commission that there has only been one new reported case over the past six days - a local doctor.

This afternoon the publication reported Hubei provincial health authorities have announced residents would be allowed to leave starting 8 April.

A total of 60,323 patients have reportedly recovered from Covid-19 in the province while in Wuhan there are still 4,200 patients under treatment, of whom 1,203 were in severe condition and 336 were in critical condition.

To date there have been 3,160 recorded deaths from the virus in Hubei.

Updated at 5:15pm AEDT on 24 March 2020.


Guidance withdrawal update: Cleanaway, Cardno, GWA, Bapcor

Guidance withdrawal update: Cleanaway, Cardno, GWA, Bapcor

Cleanaway Waste Management (ASX: CWY), bathroom and kitchen fixture distributor GWA Group (ASX: GWA) and engineering outfit Cardno (ASX: CDD) are among the major companies to withdraw earnings guidance today due to uncertain market conditions with Covid-19.

Other companies that withdrew guidance today include Seven West Media (ASX: SWM)Retail Food Group (ASX: RFG), Pacific Smiles Group (ASX: PSQ). Bapcor (ASX: BAP) and Aventus Group (ASX: AVN).

Click here for a full list of companies that have suspended or withdrawn their guidance for FY20.

Cleanaway's CEO and managing director Vik Bansal highlighted his company's role in providing essential services to customers including municipal councils, government infrastructure, hospitals and more.

"We have not observed any decline in overall trading in any of our operating segments to date," Bansal said.

"However, as the COVID-19 situation evolves and uncertainty increases, we expect the SME part of our C&I waste volumes to be impacted.

"At this stage, we expect the demand for other services, such as health, municipal collections and related post-collections services to remain strong."

GWA actually noted trading to date for the second half was in line with expectations and better than the trend in the first half.

"GWA is well positioned to manage through these unprecedented events and we continue to take decisive action to proactively manage the business through this period," said CEO and managing director Tim Salt.

"Our primary focus is to ensure the health and safety of our employees. We have implemented business continuity plans internally and with our suppliers to minimise disruption to the business and our customers.

"We are in a strong supply position with ample inventory to supply all key products to customers."

Salt noted the company had a three-year multicurrency revolving facility of $210 million which matures in October 2022, as well as a $40 million revolving bilateral facility which matures in October 2020.

Cardno has found trading results over the past 8.5 months have been consistent with guidance previously provided, but as client sites, client staff and the company's own staff self-isolate or are quarantined around the world, there is potential for its project delivery schedule to be impacted in the short to medium term.

"Cardno is committed to supporting our people and our clients around the world as we collectively navigate our way through the challenges posed by COVID-19," said Cardno CEO and managing director Susan Reisbord.

"While we have our eyes very much focused on the long term, our immediate priority is to ensure the safety and well-being of our people, our clients and our stakeholders around the world.

"We are working with our clients to ensure that we can continue to deliver projects and solutions with as little disruption as possible."

Auto aftermarkets part provider Bapcor - known for brands including Autobarn, Midas and Opposite Lock - notes sales in its Burson trade segment have continued to be strong, and the overall business has performed in line with expectations.

But like so many others, the company has found it prudent to withdraw guidance, particularly as there have been business closures in New Zealand, Thailand and Australia.

"Bapcor's businesses provide a critical service for the community in ensuring that replacement and service parts are available for cars and trucks, including emergency services vehicles," said Bapcor chief executive officer Darryl Abotomey.

"Bapcor's team members are dedicated to ensuring they have available the parts and services that are necessary to keep the nation's vehicles, including cars, light and heavy duty trucks and emergency vehicles operating.

"To ensure the safety of our team members and our customers, additional levels of precautions are being undertaken. However the business is not immune from the impacts of the shut downs that are occurring and the drastic actions being undertaken to contain Covid-19."

Updated at 6pm AEDT on 24 March 2020.


NSW emergency Bill proposes new police enforcement powers, lifting Easter trading restrictions

NSW emergency Bill proposes new police enforcement powers, lifting Easter trading restrictions

A raft of legislative measures designed to tackle the spread of Covid-19 are on the table in New South Wales after the State Government announced an emergency Bill to Parliament today.

The proposed amendments will empower police to take action on suspected breaches of Covid-19 public health orders (like breaking quarantine), allowing supermarkets to open over the Easter long weekend and ANZAC Day this year.

The bill also proposes removing red tape for developments designed to protect the health of the community.

"Our number one priority is the health and safety of the people of NSW," says NSW Attorney General Mark Speakman.

"These necessary changes will mean that essential public amenities can continue to operate effectively while maintaining the wellbeing of our frontline workers and the broader public."

The proposed 'COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures) Bill' would make the following changes:

Health:

The proposed health amendments empower police to take immediate action on suspected breaches of COVID-19 public health orders, including returning those in breach to their residence or place of quarantine.

NSW Health will have more flexibility to use private health facilities when urgently required and streamline the establishment of State Vaccine Centres to better manage the flu season and thus, better manage COVID-19.

The Mental Health Tribunal will be able to conduct inquiries by telephone, adjourn an inquiry for 28 days (up from 14 days) and extend existing community treatment orders for a further three months.

Retail:

In response to panic buying and stockpiling, an amendment to the Retail Trading Act will allow supermarkets to stock their shelves and trade throughout the Easter long weekend and ANZAC Day this year, ensuring food and other essential items are available at standard retail prices.

When combined with the decision to lift the supermarket delivery curfew, customers should have greater confidence that essential goods will be available from well-known, trusted suppliers.

The Bill will also protect staff from being compelled to work on these additional days; it will be their choice to work and earn additional income, or to enjoy the holidays.

Planning:

Amendments to the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act will ensure that any development that protects the health, welfare and safety of the community during the pandemic can proceed without the normal development approvals.

Justice:

Amendments to the Criminal Procedure Act, the Evidence (Audio and Audio Visual Links) Act, the Crimes (Domestic and Personal Violence) Act and the Jury Act aim to ensure NSW courts can continue to deliver justice with fewer people required to physically attend court.

The Supreme and District Courts will have greater discretion to order judge-alone trials reducing the need to summon large numbers of potential jurors. Vulnerable people will be exempt from jury summons.

A greater reliance on technology, including increased use of audio visual links and pre-recording evidence of key witnesses, will also help maintain social distancing in courtrooms, as will the extension of provisional Apprehended Domestic Violence Orders from 28 days to six months.

Corrections:

Amendments to the Crimes (Administration of Sentences) Act will create a power for the Governor to make Regulations determining a class of offenders for potential conditional release on parole.

These extraordinary measures are only to be used to respond to the threat of COVID-19, and would allow the Commissioner of Corrective Services to prioritise vulnerable offenders and others who pose a low risk to the community for consideration for conditional release.

Offenders sentenced for the most serious offences cannot be released under these changes.

Any conditional release would be subject to strict parole conditions, as well as any other requirements the Commissioner considers appropriate, including home detention, pre-approved schedule of movements and electronic monitoring.

In addition, the Commissioner may prohibit or restrict any person from entering or visiting correctional facilities.

Local Government:

The Local Government Act is being amended to allow councils to hold official meetings electronically, rather than physically.

The Act is also being amended to give the Minister for Local Government the power to postpone the September council elections for 12 months, with a possible further extension to 31 December 2021.

Community Services:

More than 100,000 Working With Children Check (WWCC) clearances are due to expire in the next six months. This includes teachers and medical staff who require a WWCC.

Changes to the Child Protection (Working with Children) Act will enable the Children's Guardian to extend clearances where appropriate to help prevent any disruption to services because of COVID-19.

Updated at 2:46pm AEDT on 24 March 2020.


Trials advancing for Covid-19 drug and vaccine research

Trials advancing for Covid-19 drug and vaccine research

The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne has recently given the Federal Government a proposal for preventative treatment options against Covid-19.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt (pictured) revealed the proposal in a press conference today, explaining it would be considered immediately.

"I am hopeful that within the next 48 hours that they will have provided a strong case, but I am very predisposed to accept that," Hunt said.

"We've opened up the $13 million round for proposals with regards to antivirals, so suppressing the effects and hastening the treatment.

"I have not previously heard until now of the potential for possible prevention, but it's very heartening that the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute has put this forward, and in addition to that, respiratory medicine which is about making sure that the process of, in many cases, effectively flooding the lungs is limited."

In a statement given to Business News Australia, a spokesperson for the institute said a proposal had been made for a clinical trial with the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine for high-risk health workers.

The institute plans to invite doctors, nurses and other health workers across hospital departments who are at risk of acquiring infection to participate.

"Health care workers are at the front line of the COVID-19 pandemic, and their exposure to the virus increases their risk of infection with SARS-CoV-2 - the virus that causes COVID-19 disease," the spokesperson said.

"We are targeting this group with the goal of reducing the impact on the health care work force so they are able to care for sick patients.

"Beyond personal protective equipment, evidence is emerging that the drug hydroxychloroquine, used for more than 70 years to treat autoimmune conditions such as lupus, has clinically relevant antiviral activity that could prevent COVID-19."

Trial participants would be provided with the drug for four months to prevent Covid-19, with the trial set to include 2,250 people of whom half would be on the drug while the other half take a placebo.

"The clinical study is a collaborative effort with major hospitals across Victoria," the spokesperson said.

"We have identified and engaged principal investigators including infectious disease physicians and emergency department doctors at The Royal Melbourne Hospital, St Vincent's, Austin, Alfred, Monash, Royal Children's Hospital and Barwon Health.

"The proposal is still being considered and, if successful, is expected to begin in the near future, following receipt of the appropriate ethics approvals."

Hunt said the Federal Government had joined the Queensland Government to support clinical vaccine trials for Covid-19 at the University of Queensland. 

Yesterday it was announced the Queensland Government would allocate $10 million and the Australian Government had pledged $3 million to the project, which is led by UQ's School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences. 

A further $4 million has come from philanthropic contributions. 

UQ is the only Australian organisation tasked by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) to develop a vaccine against the novel coronavirus, and the funding announced today is an important extension of CEPI's ongoing financial support.

CEPI is the same organisation that is supporting a Covid-19 vaccine trial in Seattle, Washington State in the US.

Vice-Chancellor and President Professor Peter Høj said the funding would provide additional critical support to UQ and partners such as the Doherty Institute and CSIRO in the analysis of vaccine efficacy.

Høj highlighted a drive to commence clinical trials on the vaccine as early as July in Queensland.

"Importantly, the funding will also support advancing large-scale manufacture with industry partners both locally and overseas," Professor Høj said.

"We know the importance of having a vaccine to protect against influenza, and it is vital for us to be ready to prevent future escalations of COVID-19."

When asked about the US trialling of drugs as treatment for thecoronavirus, Hunt today said trials in Australia would be expanded and could potentially include both an HIV drug and the anti-malarial drug Hexachloroquin.

Updated at 1:31pm AEDT on 24 March 2020.


Queensland Government to halt and refund payroll tax as part of $4 billion package

Queensland Government to halt and refund payroll tax as part of $4 billion package

The Queensland Government has today announced the biggest single relief package of any Australian state or territory, putting forward $4 billion to support businesses, households and the health sector.

Deputy Premier and Treasurer Jackie Trad (pictured) says two months worth of payroll tax will be refunded to businesses impacted by Covid-19, while SMEs will have a three-month payroll tax holiday plus a six-month deferral.

She notes the $4 billion package includes $2.5 billion for protecting Queensland businesses.

"I've been engaging with Queensland industry and business and we've taken on board what they've said," says Trad.

"Combined with the payroll tax deferrals we've already announced, it means no Queensland business impacted by Covid-19 will need to make a payroll tax payment this year."

The $2.5 billion business package includes $500 million for assisting workers who lose their jobs or incomes, and to help them find jobs in industries that are vital to getting the state through this crisis - health care, agriculture, food production, transport, cleaning and mining.

"We're waiving liquor licencing fees for venues that have had to close their doors, providing rent relief for businesses who rent premises from the state government and giving sole traders, small and medium businesses a $500 rebate on their power bill for this year," she says.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk says the measures are an unprecedented response to an unprecedented crisis.

"To date, this is the biggest single relief package assembled by any state or territory," the Premier says.

"Our $300 million household relief package will give Queensland households $200 off their utility bills, building on the $50 asset dividend we have already announced.

"Our society will go through the most difficult period most of us have ever experienced, but I am determined my Government will support Queenslanders through it."

Minister for Health Steven Miles said protecting the health of Queenslanders is the Palaszczuk Government's number one priority.as we navigate through this pandemic.

"We are working to reduce the spread of the virus, but also to ensure we have enough capacity in the health system to support those who need intensive treatment," says Miles .

The State Government will invest an extra $1.2 billion to expand:

  • fever clinics;
  • emergency department capacity;
  • acute care services; and
  • regional aeromedical services for our remote communities.

Minister for Employment and Small Business Shannon Fentiman says today's stimulus package is in addition to recently announced initiatives, including the dedicated small business hotline (1300 654 687) which has seen around 2000 business contacts so far.

"We know our businesses are doing it incredibly tough right now. This package is designed to support themes keep their doors open through this crisis and keep their staff employed," says Fentiman.

"On top of our earlier measures including $500 million in concessional loans and our initial coronavirus assistance package last month, this takes our support package for Queensland workers and businesses to more than $3 billion.

"We will keep talking to businesses and unions and continue to work with the Federal Government to see what further measures can be taken to protect the jobs of Queenslanders."

The Queensland Government is following in the footsteps of Victoria who just yesterday announced a similar business support package worth $1.7 billion.

Like Trad's plan the Victorian stimulus package includes full payroll tax refunds for FY20 to SMES with payroll of less than $3 million.

Payments will begin flowing soon and will save eligible businesses up to $113,975 per year.

The same eligible businesses will be able to defer any payroll tax for the first three months of the 2020/21 financial year until 1 January 2021, freeing up a further $83 million in cashflow.

Updated at 12:56 AEDT on 24 March 2020.


Dentists urged to defer non-urgent treatments for vulnerable patients

Dentists urged to defer non-urgent treatments for vulnerable patients

As practically every sector of the economy seeks out ways to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission, the Australian Dental Association (ADA) has put out recommendations that are expected to chip into practitioners' bottom lines.

The ADA recommends all non-urgent dental treatments be deferred for patients over the age of 70, or those with chronic disease or are immunocompromised.

The association also suggests dentists advise patients attend alone or only bring minimal additional companions.

"Consider longer appointments to allow enough time between treatments to enable additional infection control measures including environmental cleaning," the ADA says.

"Consider staggering patient appointments to minimise patient contact in the waiting room, or if there is a car park on site, ask patients to wait in their cars and call the practice upon arrival."

Click here for the full list of guidelines.

Pacific Smiles Group (ASX: PSQ) expects the reduction will negatively impact on its patient fee income in the coming months, although year-to-date patient fee growth was up 7.9 per cent as of 22 March.

This compares to a growth rate of 15 per cent as at 15 February.

The company was previously forecasting a 15 per cent uplift in its underlying EBITDA result for FY20, but the Covid-19 impact has thrown a spanner in the works, leading Pacific to withdraw its guidance.

"New guidance will be issued when there is an adequate level of visibility into the impact of Covid-19," the group said, noting a cash position of $18.7 million and net debt of approximately $11.3 million.

The PSQ share price remained unchanged at the time of writing, however shares have lost more than half their value since 20 February.

1300 Smiles (ASX: ONT) has not yet responded to the ADA's announcement but its shares were down 2.69 per cent this morning and have lost around a quarter of their value over the past month.

On 10 March, 1300 Smiles advised it had not been affected by any shortage of face masks, citing an "ample supply" of health and safety supplies with all of its facilities operating normally.

Another ASX-listed dental company Smiles Inclusive (ASX: SIL), which has been experiencing financial strife for the past 18 months and has been raising capital to stay afloat, is also yet to provide an update following the ADA's recommendations.

Smiles shares have been suspended from quotation since early this month, and yesterday the company announced two new appointments: Michelle Aquilina (formerly CEO of Primary Dental) as new deputy chief executive officer; and Mark O'Brien as general manager of operations.

Updated at 12:05pm AEDT on 24 March.


Bread and pizza bring in more dough for Retail Food Group

Bread and pizza bring in more dough for Retail Food Group

The Covid-19 pandemic has led to mixed results across Retail Food Group's (ASX: RFG) different businesses, with positive signs over the past fortnight for Crust and Pizza Capers stores, bakery franchise Brumby's, and Di Bella Coffee's e-commerce and grocery divisions.

On the flipside, limitations on restaurants and cafés are expected to negatively impact Di Bella Coffee's retail customer network overall, as well as Donut King outlets.

The company is also gearing up for a reduced customer count across its domestic franchise network; a trend RFG expects will likely be more pronounced amongst outlets operating within shopping centres.

Around 200 of RFG's international outlets have also been temporarily, including 29 in the US.

The situation has led the company to withdraw its FY20 EBITDA guidance of $42-46 million.

RFG executive chairman Peter George highlights increased demand for bread and bakery products is driving strong sales at Brumby's, while home delivery services demand has led to an uplift for the company's quick service restaurant (QSR) division which includes Crust and Pizza Capers.

"Our coffee and bakery brands are all delivering compelling value deals, bundling, grab'n'go, and takehome promotions, and have all now partnered with aggregators to capitalize on the home delivery opportunity," says George.

"Crust and Pizza Capers have quickly rolled out a series of value deals to the broader mass market as well as a contactless delivery promise.

"To date we have only experienced a handful of temporary domestic outlet closures which are attributable to the coronavirus, however some of our master franchise partners and the USA network have indicated more direct impacts on trading as a consequence of stricter health measures within their territories."

George highlighted a commitment to supporting franchise and master franchise partners. This includes "operational modifications to meet changing circumstances, vigorous representation of their interests with landlords, supply chain management, and other initiatives designed to provide direct support".

"However, given the current significant uncertainty and the speed of change, it is difficult to reliably predict future activity and outcomes," he says.

The group has also adopted short-term strategies including realigning promotional activities, workforce planning initiatives to reduce payroll expense, a deferral of non-essential capital expenditure and projects, a recruitment freeze and ceasing non-essential travel.

"Whilst it remains premature to make reliable judgments, we anticipate there will be a growing need for RFG to provide additional financial and other support to its franchise community as the Covid-19 situation develops

"The strategies we are implementing, when coupled with RFG's enhanced balance sheet following the Company's recent recapitalisation, provide the Group with increased scope and capacity to respond to the unique set of challenges and evolving retail landscape in which its retail franchise network operates."

Elsewhere in food retail, yesterday roadside convenience restaurant operator Oliver's Real Food (ASX: OLI) announced the temporary suspension of operations four four weeks.

The decision was based on the government's advice to cancel all unnecessary travel arrangements and shut all non-essential services.

The group said it would continue to closely monitor the situation to seek to re-open its stores as soon as possible.

"The most important thing to focus on right now, is that we protect the health and safety of our staff and customers and that we all get through this in order to preserve our business and as many jobs as possible," says Oliver's CEO and founder Jason Gunn.

"Given our concern for the safety of our staff and customers, and the Government's mandate for people to cancel all unnecessary travel and to shut non-essential services, we feel we have no choice other than to cease trading our stores temporarily.

"We remain committed to providing employment for all of our team when we recommence trading."

 

Updated at 11:28am AEDT on 24 March 2020.


ACCC authorises supermarket coordination measures to ensure supply

ACCC authorises supermarket coordination measures to ensure supply

With panic buyers and hoarders clearing our supermarket shelves, the competition watchdog has authorised supermarkets to coordinate on ensuring consistent and reliable supply.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's (ACCC) interim authorisation will allow supermarkets to coordinate with each other when working with manufacturers, suppliers, and transport and logistics providers.

The watchdog hopes this will ensure the supply and equitable distribution of fresh food, groceries and other household items.

Benefits from the measure are expected to flow to those who are vulnerable or living in rural or remote areas.

Supermarkets will not be allowed to discuss and agree on retail prices for products under the interim authorisation.

The authorisation applies to Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and Metcash, as well as any other grocery retailer wishing to participate in coordination efforts.

Supermarkets will be protected from any court action for conduct that might otherwise raise concerns under the competitive provisions under the Competition and Consumer Act 2010.

"Australia's supermarkets have experienced unprecedented demand for groceries in recent weeks, both in store and online, which has led to shortages of some products and disruption to delivery services," says ACCC chair Rod Sims.

"This is essentially due to unnecessary panic buying, and the logistics challenge this presents, rather than an underlying supply problem."

"We recognise and appreciate that individual supermarket chains have already taken a number of important steps to mitigate the many issues caused by panic buying. We believe allowing these businesses to work together to discuss further solutions is appropriate and necessary at this time."

The measures come as Australia hits 1885 total confirmed cases of Covid-19.

Most of the cases are in New South Wales (818 total), followed by Victoria (411), Queensland (296), Western Australia (140), South Australia (134), Tasmania (27), the Australian Capital Territory (32) and the Northern Territory (4).

Seven deaths have been recorded to date.

Coles extends Community Hour

Coles is extending two of its daily Community Hour shopping periods per week to emergency services and healthcare workers.

The first hour of trade on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7am to 8am will be for emergency services and healthcare workers including doctors, nurses, paramedics, hospital and ambulance staff, police, firefighters, and emergency service workers who hold an AHPRA card, have a workplace ID or are wearing their uniform.

Monday, Wednesday and Friday Coles Community Hours will continue to be dedicated to vulnerable and elderly customers who hold a government-issued Pensioner Concession Card, Commonwealth Seniors Health Card, Companion Card, Seniors Card, Disability Card and Health Care Card.

Updated at 11:24am AEDT on 24 March 2020.


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