Staying informed is more important than ever as the situation unfolds with Covid-19. Stay tuned here for our live updates, and be sure to let us know what your business is doing to face this unprecedented challenge.


 

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Click here for a full list of companies that have suspended or withdrawn their guidance for FY20.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


Seven West Media withdraws guidance as sports revenue dissipates

Seven West Media withdraws guidance as sports revenue dissipates

The suspension of the AFL season and the potential postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games is expected to cut into Seven West Media's (ASX: SWM) revenue for FY20.

As such, the company has withdrawn earnings guidance for the financial year.

"Such postponements are likely to result in rights payments by SWM being pushed back to reflect the revised scheduling; any adjustments remain subject to negotiation," says SWM.

"Likewise, local productions are also facing challenges with COVID-19 issues, and our teams are working tirelessly to deliver on commitments."

SWM says it has implemented business continuity plans over the last two weeks including establishing remote working for the majority of staff.

Southern Cross Austero parent Southern Cross Media (ASX: SCA) has gone into a trading halt this morning.

The company says a suspension from trade is necessary to enable SCA to assess the impacts of Covid-19 on its business. 

Updated 9.35am AEDT on 24 March 2020.


Michael Hill to shut down entire store network

Michael Hill to shut down entire store network

Jewellery retailer Michael Hill (ASX: MHJ) will close all stores in Australia and New Zealand indefinitely as consumer sentiment nosedives.

In a statement to the ASX Michael Hill says the current conduct of its business is not in line with social distancing guidelines, and immediately shutting down its physical store network is in the best interests of staff and customers.

The group's Canadian store network was suspended on 20 March this will now be for an indefinite period.

Michael Hill's e-commerce business will continue as usual.

In all markets employees will be stood down with access to leave entitlements while government support schemes are assessed.

On 25 February, the company announced an interim dividend of 1.5c per share, with an exdividend date of 12 March 2020. In light of expected interruptions to trade the Board has decided to defer payment of that dividend for a period of six months.

"Whilst it is clear that the suspension of our store networks is necessary for the safety and wellbeing of our people and our customers we know also that this will be a time of great uncertainty for them too, and we are doing our best to provide them with the support that they need through this difficult time," says Michael Hill chair Emma Hill.

Updated at 8.37am AEDT on 24 March 2020.


Queensland to impose border restrictions

Queensland to impose border restrictions

Queensland will follow the lead of South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory by imposing border restrictions.

As announced by Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk on Twitter the Queensland Government will force anyone entering the State to quarantine themselves for 14 days after arrival.

These new measures will come into force on midnight Wednesday 25 March.

Queensland's Disaster Management Committee will meet tomorrow to finalise the details of the restrictions and what exemptions will come into play. 

Updated 3:14pm AEDT on 23 March 2020.


Regulators ASIC and APRA make Covid-19 the top priority

Regulators ASIC and APRA make Covid-19 the top priority

Australian regulators will put aside consultations on non-essential matters as priorities are recalibrated to tackle the challenges posed by the coronavirus.

The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) will be predominantly focused on the issue until at least 30 September, although it will also afford priority to matters where there is the risk of significant consumer harm, serious breaches of the law, risks to market integrity or time sensitive issues.

ASIC emphasises it is committed to working constructively and pragmatically with the firms it regulates, whilst mindful they may encounter difficulties in complying with their regulatory obligations due to the impact of Covid-19.

"ASIC has immediately suspended a number of near-term activities which are not time-critical," the regulator states.

"These include consultation, regulatory reports and reviews, such as the ASIC report on executive remuneration, updated internal dispute resolution guidance and a consultation paper on managed discretionary accounts.

"ASIC will also suspend its enhanced on site supervisory work such as the Close and Continuous Monitoring Program."

The regulator adds relief or waivers from regulatory requirements will also be provided where warranted, for example in relation to secondary capital raisings and audits.

"ASIC has already indicated a 'take no action' stance in relation to the timing of AGMs until 31 July and the conduct of AGMs by electronic means. 

"ASIC will also work with financial institutions to further accelerate the payment of outstanding remediation to customers. ASIC will take account of the circumstances in which lenders, acting reasonably, are currently operating when administering the law."

Key business as usual functions will be maintained including registry operations and services, receipt of whistleblower, breach and misconduct reports and general contact points for industry.

Meanwhile, the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) has suspended the majority of its planned policy and supervision initiatives in response to the impact of the virus.

The decision is intended to allow APRA-regulated entities to dedicate time and resources to maintaining their operations and supporting customers, while also enabling APRA to intensify its focus on monitoring and responding to the impact of a rapidly changing environment on entities' financial and operational capacity.

APRA is therefore suspending all substantive public consultations and actions to finalise revisions to the prudential framework that are currently underway or upcoming, including consultations on prudential and reporting standards.

The regulator's refocused supervision effort will involve frequent communication with entities, monitoring key financial settings, such as capital and liquidity, and responding accordingly. These engagements will be conducted virtually, unless absolutely necessary, and will continue as long as necessary.

APRA chair Wayne Byres says it is essential that both APRA and financial institutions are able to give their fullest attention to the impact of Covid-19.

"Australia's financial system is strong and resilient, and a key reason is that APRA's current prudential framework is fundamentally sound and incorporates international best practice," says Byres.

"APRA set out an expansive policy and supervision agenda in January, but right now it is more important that banks, insurers and superannuation trustees as well as APRA devote their energy and resources to responding to the impact of Covid-19.

"We will be working with financial institutions to balance the need for timely data and information on current conditions with institutions' ability to effectively manage their own response. Given the rapidly evolving environment in which everyone is operating, we will continue to closely monitor the extent and impact of COVID-19 on APRA-regulated entities to consider if any further modifications to our supervisory and policy activities are necessary."

Updated at 13:20pm AEDT on 23 March 2020.


Stockland and Link join guidance withdrawal bandwagon

Stockland and Link join guidance withdrawal bandwagon

More companies have joined the growing list of guidance withdrawals today, including Stockland (ASX: SGP), Link Administration (ASX: LNK), JB Hi-Fi (ASX: JBH), nib Group (ASX: NHF), Abacus Property Group (ASX: ABP), Viva Leisure (ASX: VVA), Arena REIT (ASX: ARF), Coventry Group (ASX: CYG) and MMA Offshore (ASX: MRM).

This adds to a raft of similar actions on Friday from Sonic Healthcare (ASX: SHL), Vicinity Centres (ASX: VCX), Scentre Group (ASX: SCG), Carsales.com (ASX: CAR), Charter Hall Retail REIT (ASX: CQR), Credit Corp (ASX: CCP), Raiz Invest (ASX: RZI), Vita Group (ASX: VTG), Valmec (ASX: VMX) and iCar Asia (ASX: ICQ).

Other companies that have previously withdrawn guidance in response to the pandemic include: Boral (ASX: BLD), Downer EDI (ASX: DOW), Adairs (ASX: ADH), Village Roadshow (ASX: VRL), GPT Group (ASX: GPT), Nine Entertainment (ASX: NEC), Bluescope Steel (ASX: BSL), Redcape Hotel Group (ASX: RDC), Prospa Group (ASX: PGL), Hills (ASX: HIL) Accent Group (ASX: AX1), EML Payments (ASX: EML), Ramsay Health Care (ASX: RHC), Aristocrat Leisure (ASX: ALL), Mirvac Group (ASX: MGR), REA Group (ASX: REA), Monadelphous Group (ASX: MND), Coca Cola Amatil (ASX: CCL), Cochlear (ASX: COH), oOh!media (ASX: OML), Qantas (ASX: QAN), Webjet (ASX: WEB), Helloworld (ASX: HLO), Flight Centre (ASX: FLT), Corporate Travel Management (ASX: CTD) and Apollo Tourism & Leisure (ASX: ATL).

Covid-19 uncertainty claims scalp of Freedom Oil and Gas

The Covid-19 pandemic - combined with lower oil prices driven by a reduction in demand and a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia - appears to have claimed the scalp of Freedom Oil and Gas (ASX: FDM).

The company has seen its share price deteriorate to an eighth of its former value over the past 12 months, but it was planning to raise capital to stay afloat.

As equity markets are so volatile at the moment that is no longer on the cards, so Freedom Oil and Gas announced this morning it had appointed Mr Steven Nicols of Nicols + Brien as a voluntary administrator.

"The Company has been working closely with its primary lender Wells Fargo and preferred equity holder, Ramas Capital Management, over the past few months, however, the current oil price environment combined with COVID-19's impact on the global equity markets has impacted the Company's opportunities to recapitalise and contributed to the Directors decision to put the company into voluntary administration," the company said.

Updated at 11:13am AEDT on 23 March 2020.


Victoria rolls out the coronavirus enforcement squad

Victoria rolls out the coronavirus enforcement squad

A squad of 500 police officers will enforce social distancing rules and conduct spot checks on those in self-quarantine in a bid to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Coordinated by the Police Operations Centre, the officers will be taking action against anyone caught breaking the rules.

It comes as part of a gradual shutdown of non-essential activity across the country, announced Sunday evening, which includes the mandatory closure of pubs, clubs, nightclubs, casinos, licensed venues in hotels and pubs, gyms, indoor sporting venues, places of worship, cinemas and entertainment venues. Restaurants will only be allowed to provide home delivery or takeaway services.

"This decision and other containment measures are meaningless if Victorians don't take them seriously or don't think they will be caught if they flout the rules," says Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews.

"Such thinking is wrong and the new coronavirus enforcement squad at Victoria Police will take action against anyone caught doing the wrong thing."

Updated at 11.02am AEDT on 23 March 2020.


Germany enforces drastic social distancing measures

Germany enforces drastic social distancing measures

Strict social distancing measures have come into force in Germany overnight just as Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel goes into self-quarantine.

As reported by Deutsche Welle Germany's new social distancing measures include:

  • Public gatherings of more than two people will be banned. There will be exceptions for families and those living together.
  • General contact with others should be reduced to a minimum.
  • A 1.5-meter (4.9 feet) distance should be kept at all times when in public.
  • Gastronomy businesses must close. Businesses offering food delivery and collection will be allowed to remain open.
  • Service providers such as hair-dressers, cosmetic, massage and tattoo studios where a 2-meter distance between people is not possible must also close. Businesses and centres offering medical treatments may remain open.
  • Police and other law enforcement agencies will enforce any infractions of the new rules Merkel did not state what the punishment would be for anyone not abiding by the new measures.
  • Hygiene regulations must be implemented for staff in the workplace, or for visitors.
  • Commuting to work, helping others and exercising alone outside will still be permissible, as long as the activities are carried out in abidance with the guidelines.

The measures will remain in place, initially for the next two weeks. 

Merkel announced the new measures just before being forced into self-quarantine after coming into contact with an infected doctor.

Updated at 10:49am AEDT on 23 March 2020.


Sydney Airport withdraws capital expenditure plan

Sydney Airport withdraws capital expenditure plan

With no non-citizens or non-residents allowed into the country, coupled with heightened restrictions on domestic travel, Australia's largest airport is scaling back.

Sydney Airport (ASX: SYD) announced today it no longer expected to implement its previous capital expenditure forecast of $350-450 million in 2020.

The airport's entire capital expenditure program is under review with the objective of only continuing with critical projects and deferring less critical until there is more clarity on the persistence of current travel impacts.

"Last year we demonstrated strong operating cost control. We are accelerating this focus in the current environment, and we are eliminating all discretionary spend in order to keep operational costs to a minimum," the company said.

"This includes working with our airline and other business partners to optimise the safe and secure facilitation of our passengers at a lower cost.

"Based on the information presently available to us we are confident in Sydney Airport's strong balance sheet and liquidity position."

Between Sydney Airport's cash reserves, undrawn bank facilities bond market debt, it has around $2 billion in available funds.

Updated at 10:43am AEDT on 23 March 2020.


Helloworld puts 1,575 jobs on the chopping block

Helloworld puts 1,575 jobs on the chopping block

As the travel industry draws to a standstill, tourism deal provider Helloworld (ASX: HLO) is slashing jobs to keep its costs down while CEO and executive director Andrew Burnes will forego his salary for the next three months.

All the cost-cutting and cash preservation measures being put in place are expected to reduce monthly outlays by 80 per cent.

The company announced today it would be actioning 275 redundancies in various countries at an estimated cost to the business of $1.4 million.

Today the group has also initiating the stand down of approximately 1,300, or 65 per cent of its workforce around the world. These will begin at 5pm tomorrow and last for an initial period of 10 weeks to 31 May 2020.

All remaining personnel will be offered reduced working hours, which will be assessed further depending on work volume in the weeks and months ahead.

As part of its cost-cutting initiatives, Helloworld is in the process of re-negotiating rents with its major landlords who have agreed to more favourable terms over the next six to nine months.

For its 2,500 network members around Australia and New Zealand, membership and marketing fees have been frozen for six months.

All discretionary expenditure has ceased along with marketing and advertising, while major project expenditure has been materially curtailed or put on hold.

HLO has also welcomed stimulus packages in Australia and New Zealand, and will draw on all available government assistance in both countries as well as elsewhere to support the business and personnel.

Elsewhere in the travel agency, Webjet (ASX: WEB) and Flight Centre (ASX: FLT) announced suspensions from official quotation today.

Updated at 10.21am AEDT on 23 March 2020.


Sales rise at JB Hi-Fi, The Reject Shop

Sales rise at JB Hi-Fi, The Reject Shop

"Essential services" is a term that has become the new holy grail for Australian retailers amidst the pandemic, and two companies that have benefited include JB Hi-Fi (ASX: JBH) and The Reject Shop (ASX: TRS).

JB Hi-Fi, which also owns home appliances retailer The Good Guys in addition to its eponymous electronics stores, reported year-on-year sales growth of 9.1 per cent in Australia between 1 January and 22 March.

Sales growth at The Good Guys was higher still at 10.4 per cent, but JB Hi-Fi sales were down 2 per cent in New Zealand.

"The Company continued to see strong momentum in Australia through the quarter, with an acceleration in recent weeks as both JB HI-FI and The Good Guys provided retail and commercial customers with the essential products they need to respond to and prepare for COVID-19," the company said in an update this morning.

These essential products include technology products that enable remote working, learning and communication, and essential home appliances for food storage and preparation.

Despite the positive sales scenario, uncertainty arising from the Covid-19 outbreak has led the company to withdraw its guidance for FY20.

The Reject Shop has announced a material increase in sales driven by customer concerns around coronavirus over the past four weeks.

Comparable sales for the first 12 weeks of the second half of FY20 now sit at 8.2 per cent for TRS.

But this figure belies a more sudden spike in the last week alone, as for the first 11 weeks the year-on-year growth rate was much lower at 5.7 per cent.

Comparable sales for the week between 16 March to 22 March 2020 were 36.1 per cent, driven by strong category performances in groceries, cleaning, toiletries and pet care.

"In these extraordinary times, The Reject Shop will continue to serve all Australians through providing access to essential grocery and household products at everyday low prices while doing everything we can to keep our customers and our team safe and healthy," says TRS chief executive officer Andre Reich.

Updated at 9:54am AEDT on 23 March 2020.


Victorian Government announces $1.7 billion stimulus package

Victorian Government announces $1.7 billion stimulus package

A $1.7 billion 'survival package' will assist Victorian businesses and workers to overcome the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic according to the state government.

The 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.

Commercial tenants in government buildings can apply for rent relief and 2020 land tax payments will be deferred for eligible small businesses.

The Government will pay all outstanding supplier invoices within five business days releasing up to $750 million into the economy earlier.

Liquor licensing fees for affected venues will be waived for 2020 to support businesses in the hospitality sector.

A $500 million Business Support Fund will also be established to support sectors hit hardest by Covid-19 including hospitality, tourism, accommodation, arts and entertainment, and retail.

Another $500 million Working for Victoria Fund will be established in consultation with the Victorian Council of Social Services and Victorian Trades Hall Council. The fund will help workers who have lost their jobs find new opportunities, including work cleaning public infrastructure or delivering food.

"We've listened to business and workers and now we're taking unique and unprecedented action to help businesses and their workers through this crisis," says Premier Daniel Andrews.

"Cash is better in the hands of struggling businesses than in a Government bank account right now Victorian workers need us to step up to help get them through."

Updated at 9:49am AEDT on 23 March 2020.


Theme parks, casinos and cinemas shut down

Theme parks, casinos and cinemas shut down

Theme parks on the Gold Coast will close from today in order to comply with restrictions on non-essential indoor and mass gatherings.

Dreamworld and Whitewater World, owned and operated by listed entertainment group Ardent Leisure (ASX: ALG), will retain minimal staff during this period to ensure the ongoing care of animals and maintenance of rides and attractions.

The theme parks will cease operation until 31 May 2020, but this date may change as further information becomes known.

"The decision to close our parks is a direct result of the COVID-19 outbreak," says Ardent Leisure chairman Dr Gary Weiss and theme parks CEO John Osborne.

"We are deeply aware that the decision to close our parks will create a great deal of uncertainty for our team members, their families and the broader community."

All Ardent Leisure board members will not take fees until further notice.

Village Roadshow (ASX: VRL), the operator of Gold Coast theme parks Warner Bros. Movie Word, Sea World, Wet'n'Wild, Paradise Country and Topgolf Gold Coast has also announced the closure of its parks this morning.

Sea World Resort, as an accommodation provider, will remain open at this stage and all cinemas operated by VRL will also close today.

Some staff will be retained to look after animals and conduct theme park maintenance, while others have been stood down.

Casino operators SkyCity (ASX: SKC) and Acquis Entertainment (ASX: AQS) have similarly announced closures.

SkyCity's Adelaide casino will be closed by 12.00pm (ACST) today, leaving 1,000 employees in a precarious position.

The closure requirements do not impact SkyCity's construction sites, meaning the company will continue to work on its Adelaide expansion project.

As a result SkyCity has withdrawn its FY20 earnings guidance.

Acquis Entertainment will also close its Canberra-based casino from 12pm today and will not be reopened until advised it is safe to do so by the Government.

Cinema operator EVENT Hospitality & Entertainment (ASX: EVT) has announced its cinemas in Australia and New Zealand will close with effect from today until the end of May 2020.

EVENT will stand down the majority of cinema employees during this time, and the company will allow employees to draw down on annual leave and long service leave. Negative annual leave balances up to five days will be offered.

Ginger processor Buderim Group (ASX: BUG) has announced that it will close The Ginger Factory Tourism Park from today until further notice.

Updated at 8:46am AEDT on 23 March 2020.


Australia will go into lockdown with restaurants and pubs to close

Australia will go into lockdown with restaurants and pubs to close

After Australians flouted social distancing recommendations this weekend by flocking to public beaches and clubs, the country's federal, state and territory governments have determined an escalation to "Stage 1" restrictions is necessary.

Following a national cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the country would go into lockdown starting midday tomorrow, with closures to the following categories of indoor venues:

  • Registered and licensed clubs;
  • Licensed premises in hotels and clubs;
  • Restaurants except for takeaway and delivery;
  • Places of worship; and
  • Cinemas and other indoor entertainment venues (this includes casinos).

With 1,315 cases of Covid-19 now in Australia, Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy observed a disregard of social distancing measures by some younger Australians.

He noted many had taken the attitude they would not be high risk, and for most younger people this is true, but he urged them to take greater care in order to protect older and more vulnerable people.

The government has also decided to keep schools open, with Murphy pointing to discussions with the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC) that found there was very little evidence of transmission between schoolchildren both here and overseas.

It comes as a number of Australian states and territories begin to place restrictions on those coming in.

Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory are imposing restrictions on those entering for 'non-essential travel', subjecting those coming into the states/territories to a 14-day quarantine period on arrival.

This mirrors the Federal Government's restrictions on those arriving in Australia from an overseas country who must self-quarantine for 14-days on arrival.

Updated at 9:39pm AEDT on 22 March 2020.


PM commits an extra $66.1 billion to businesses and households

PM commits an extra $66.1 billion to businesses and households

PM commits an extra $66.1 billion to businesses and households

The Federal Government has announced a third stimulus package targeted at those receiving government benefits and Covid-19 affected business.

Included in the $66.1 billion package is support for Australia's households, and assistance for SMES struggling to pay their employees.

It brings the total injected into the economy by the Government to $189 billion, and follows the $17.6 billion first economic stimulus package, $90 billion from the RBA and $15 billion from the Government to make access to finance easier.

"We want to help businesses keep going as best they can and for as long as they can, or to pause instead of winding up their business. We want to ensure that when this crisis has passed Australian businesses can bounce back," says the Prime Minister.

"Our focus is on cushioning the blow and providing hope to every Australian that we will get through this and come out the other side together.

"The next few months are going to be a difficult journey but we all have a role to play to adapt to the changes we're facing, to cushion the impact of what is happening and to pull together so we can bounce back when we get to the other side."

Support for SMES

In addition to previously announced support for Australian businesses affected by the coronavirus the Government has committed a further $31.9 billion to try and keep employees in jobs.

Eligible SMES can apply for up to $100,000 to employ people, with a minimum payment of $20,000.

Under the enhanced scheme from the first package, employers will receive a payment equal to 100 per cent of their salary and wages withheld (up from 50 per cent), with the maximum payment being increased from $25,000 to $50,000. In addition, the minimum payment is being increased from $2,000 to $10,000. The payment will be available from 28 April 2020.

"By linking the payments to business to staff wage tax withholdings, businesses will be incentivised to hold on to more of their workers," says the Federal Government.

Small and medium business entities with aggregated annual turnover under $50 million and that employ workers are eligible.

The payments are tax free, there will be no new forms and payments will flow automatically through the ATO.

The Government says this measure will benefit around 690,000 businesses employing around 7.8 million people and around 30,000 not-for-profits.

A Coronavirus SME Guarantee Scheme will also be established under which the Government will guarantee 50 per cent of new loans issued by eligible lenders to SMES.

It comes in conjunction with last week's announcement form the Reserve Bank of Australia of a $90 billion term funding facility intended to reduce the cost of lending.

The Government will guarantee up to $20 billion to support $40 billion in SME loans.

Support for workers and households

The Government will establish a new, time-limited Coronavirus supplement to be paid at a rate of $550 per fortnight to existing and new recipients of the JobSeeker Payment, Youth Allowance jobseeker, Parenting Payment, Farm Household Allowance and Special Benefit.

This supplement will be paid every fortnight for the next six months and will be paid on top of regular payments already received by those on income support.

This measure is estimated to cost $14.1 billion over the forward estimates period.

In addition to the $750 stimulus payment announced on 12 March 2020, the Government will provide a further $750 payment to social security and veteran income support recipients and eligible concession card holders, except for those who are receiving an income support payment that is eligible to receive the Coronavirus supplement.

This second payment will be made automatically from 13 July 2020 to around 5 million social security, veteran and other income support recipients and eligible concession card holders. Around half of those that benefit are pensioners.

Those in financial stress as a result of Covid-19 will be allowed to tap into their superannuation.

Eligible individuals will be able to apply online through myGov for access of up to $10,000 of their superannuation before 1 July 2020. They will also be able to access up to a further $10,000 from 1 July 2020 for another three months. They will not need to pay tax on amounts released and the money they withdraw will not affect Centrelink or Veterans' Affairs payments.

CBA to extend $10 billion to small business support

In addition to the Australian Government's SME Guarantee Scheme Commonwealth Bank (ASX: CBA) will make available up to $10 billion of additional unsecured credit to support SMES.

The measure will mean SMES can access an unsecured business loan through the Commonwealth Bank for three years of up to $250,000 at historically low rates.

Interest rates on unsecured small business loans will be up to 500 bps lower than current rates. No interest will apply unless the loan is used, no repayments will be required for six months, and there will be no establishment or monthly account fees.

Australian businesses with less than $50 million turnover are eligible.

"We welcome today's announcement by the Government, which will help hundreds of thousands of small businesses stay afloat and millions of workers keep their jobs over the next six months," says CBA CEO Matt Comyn.

"It will help businesses reopen and help people get back to work following this unprecedented set of circumstances."

Updated at 1:41pm AEDT on 22 March 2020.


China releases industrial output and retail sales update

China releases industrial output and retail sales update

China's National Bureau of Statistics has revealed the extent of the economic impacts of Covid-19 in the first two months of the year, with big drops for manufacturing and retail consumption in particular.

The total value added for industrial enterprises with annual revenue above AUD$4.6 million fell by 13.5 per cent year-on-year, with the decline more pronounced for private companies than for state-owned enterprises.

"In terms of sectors, the value added of mining went down by 6.5 per cent, manufacturing down by 15.7 per cent and the production and supply of electricity, thermal power, gas and water down by 7.1 per cent," the bureau reports.

"An analysis by items and output showed that protective medical equipment and products concerning people's livelihood registered fast growth.

"The production of masks, fermented alcohol grew by 127.5 percent and 15.6 percent respectively, and that for frozen meat and instant noodles grew by 13.5 percent and 11.4 percent respectively."

Strong momentum was seen for high-tech products with steady growth for smart watches, smart bands, semiconductor discrete devices and integrated circuits.

The production of basic raw materials such as cast iron and crude steel was steady as well, while a survey of purchasing managers an 85.6 per cent resumption rate for large and medium-sized businesses.

"Production and business operation are being restored in an orderly manner," the bureau states.

In terms of retail, 5.2 billion yuan (AUD$1.2 billion) worth of consumer goods were sold in January and February, representing a year-on-year decline of 20.5 per cent.

Updated at 5:52pm AEDT on 16 March 2020.


PM recommends avoiding mass gatherings, but not until Monday

PM recommends avoiding mass gatherings, but not until Monday

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has advised Australians to take precautionary measures by advising against attending mass gatherings from Monday.

The PM says the Government advises against organised, non-essential gatherings of 500 people or greater.

By non-essential gatherings the PM is not referring to places like university, school or airports.

Ultimately, the advice is just a recommendation, which Morrison describes as a "scalable response".

"These are things that will be scaled up in the weeks ahead," says Morrison.

"Parliament is essential, school is essential, going to work is essential."

The PM has also urged Australians to reconsider the need to travel overseas at this time, irrespective of location.

"Only essential travel should be considered if you're going overseas from this point forward," says Morrison.

Fox Sports reports NRL clubs are due to hold a call at 4pm AEDT to prepare for a potential shutdown.

NRL CEO Todd Greenberg has confirmed the Brisbane Broncos vs North Queensland Cowboys will still go ahead tonight, and the Canberra Raiders vs Gold Coast Titans will also proceed as planned.

The AFL is also due to start next weekend, but the league now says "there's a lot up in the air".

"A decision on whether games will be played in front of no fans or whether the season will be postponed has not been made yet," the AFL said in its latest update.

Despite a broad share market fall this morning, the All Ordinaries rebounded after the Prime Minister's press conference and is now up 4 per cent.

Updated 3.30pm AEDT on 13 March 2020.


Filming of Baz Luhrmann's Elvis biopic and Marvel movie postponed indefinitely

Filming of Baz Luhrmann's Elvis biopic and Marvel movie postponed indefinitely

Staff working on Baz Luhrmann's film about Elvis have been given one week of severance pay after the Covid-19 threat led producers to postpone the project.

A source close to the production has told Business News Australia that filming was put on hold for two days after actor Tom Hanks tested positive to the virus, but they came back on the set at the start of this week.

For now Warner Bros has officially called off the Gold Coast-based production as the company believes it would be unable to protect staff safety, although it is hoped that filming will be able to recommence in August.

The film, so far untitled, will explore Elvis' rise to fame, his stardom, and his impact on the world of music.

The movie is also expected to explore Elvis' complex relationship with his manager Colonel Tom Parker, played by Tom Hanks.

The production alone is estimated to be employing around 900 Queenslanders in behind-the-scenes roles, including set construction, catering and transportation, and inject more than $105 million into the local economy.

Filming of another production, Marvel's 'Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings', has also been cancelled.

Production was postponed after director Destin Daniel Cretton was advised to self-isolate and tested for Covid-19, which came back with a negative result.

The movie was being filmed at Fox Studios in Sydney.

Updated at 13:26pm AEDT on 20 March 2020.


CBA to auto-enroll loan repayment deferrals

CBA to auto-enroll loan repayment deferrals

After announcements from thee of the big four banks about how they would implement a six-month loan payment deferral for pandemic-affected businesses, the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (ASX: CBA) put forward an idea that could take a lot of rigmarole out of the process.

The bank's streamlined solution involves auto-enrolling tens of thousands of businesses in the scheme, ensuring immediate support for small businesses likely to be most impacted by the coronavirus.

"We welcome today's announcement by the Australian Banking Association (ABA), which benefits 200,000 of the bank's small business customers," says CEO Matt Comyn.

"To ensure immediate support, CBA will also auto-enrol 76,000 of its small business customers into loan deferral arrangements for up to six months from 1 April. This will ensure that $240 million of support immediately reaches small businesses who are most vulnerable in the current environment" he says.

"A digital registration process will be available from Saturday for any home loan customer wishing to defer their repayments. Unless the request for support is urgent, there is no need for customers to contact us before this time. We will also be communicating with our small business customers from next week and giving them the choice to opt out of the auto enrolment process."

Comyn says the ABA's loan deferral scheme will also include all customers with a home loan, therefore providing $10 billion in support to households and small businesses.

Updated at 6:50pm AEDT on 20 March 2020.


Air cargo networks in turmoil as international flights cancelled

Air cargo networks in turmoil as international flights cancelled

Qantas and Virgin Australia's decision to cut international passenger flights will have a tremendous impact on Australia's air freight industry according to a coalition of independent global business associations.

While closing borders to international travellers and slashing flights en masse is expected to slow the spread of Covid-19 in Australia, the Global Business Coalition (GBC) says the global air freight sector will struggle to keep up with time-critical deliveries that rely on passenger flights.

Specifically the GBC says the deliveries of life-saving medical supplies, urgent repair components, and essential inputs into global supply chains will struggle to reach their destinations in a safe and timely manner as a result.

"Almost all of our airfreight space is under the feet of passengers. No passenger planes equals no freight space for often time-critical supplies," says chief executive of GBC member organisation Ai Group Innes Willox.

"Ai Group has joined with our international counterparts to call for Governments and companies to prioritize all available space for crucial medicines, medical equipment and supplies including vitally needed safety products such as gloves, masks and HAZMAT gear."

Willox says governments must take a pragmatic approach to not only air freight but cargo ships too.

GBC's plea follows heavy criticism against Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ) from the peak shipping industry body Shipping Australia about the regulator's declaration that cargo ships cannot dock in Queensland for 14 days after leaving an international port outside of Australia.

Shipping Australia said the declaration will lead to shortages of goods for Queenslanders and could cut off vital trade routes. 

This morning the Queensland Minister for Transport and Main Roads Mark Bailey hit back at Shipping Australia, saying MSQ's decision prioritises the safety of Australians.

"Given the health threat our nation is facing, this is a tough but necessary policy and meets the community's expectations to tighten border control to contain COVID-19 to minimise the threat to our sea based trade from this virus," says Bailey.

"It reduces the potential for international seafarers who may be sick or carrying the virus to come into contact with local maritime workers while they may be contagious.

"Losing highly skilled marine pilots to infection, particularly at regional ports could have a catastrophic effect on trade at those ports over many months. The Australian economy can't afford that."

Despite the restrictions Bailey says cargo continues to move through Queensland ports efficiently and that bulk exports have been largely unaffected. 

"MSQ has promptly processed a number of exemptions to the measures where special circumstances can be demonstrated. Notably, where there is a need to maintain critical supply lines, for countries including New Zealand, Papua New Guinea and the South Pacific islands, and where risk is sufficiently managed, in line with Federal Health directives," says Bailey.

"Almost 2200 ships entered Queensland ports between 31 January, when MSQ first enacted restrictions from China then South Korea, and 18 March.

"To date, no cases of COVID-19 have been identified at our Queensland ports or affecting port workforces."

Updated at 4:21pm AEDT on 20 March 2020.


PM tightens indoor gathering restrictions, ups support for aged care, national budget postponed

PM tightens indoor gathering restrictions, ups support for aged care, national budget postponed

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced tougher restrictions to indoor gatherings during a press conference this afternoon as the Covid-19 situation worsens in Australia.

Indoor, non-essential gatherings will be restricted even further to four square meters per person in a room.

For example, in a room the size of 100 square meters only 25 people would be able to gather inside at any one time.

It comes in conjunction with a new stimulus package targeted at the aged care sector worth $444.6 million, adding to $100 million in funding already announced.

The package includes $234.9 million for retention bonuses, $78.3 million for residential care to support continuity of workforce supply, $26.9 million to supplement viability of residential aged care facilities, $92.2 million in additional support for home care providers like Meals on Wheels, and $12.3 million toward the My Aged Care service to respond to needs of older australians.

The PM has also advised all Australians to reconsider the need for unnecessary travel anywhere. 

Ultimately the messasge from the PM and the Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy was clear and simple: stay home, practice social distancing, and do not work if you are sick.

"It is your civic duty to your fellow Australians to stay home for that entire 14 days if you've come back to Australia," says Murphy.

"No exceptions."

Further, the national budget will be postponed until the sixth of October. The states are making similar arrangements to postpone their own budgets.

"Forecasting the budget is difficult at the best of times, let alone when we're in the midst of a global pandemic," says Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.

"It's important that we are able to deliver a budget at a time when there is more certainty about the economic environment, and that is planned for the first Tuesday of October."

Schools around the country have been instructed to continue to stay open, but the PM does encourage holding classes remotely where possible or practicable. 

What is next on the PM's agenda?

In addition to the gathering restrictions, travel advice and the aged care support package the PM hinted at a number of changes that may be implemented in coming days.

Referring to the announcement made this morning by the Australian Banking Association that banks will defer loan repayments for all small businesses affected by Covid-19 for six months, the PM says landlords should expect to make similar sacrifices in the coming months.

"I want to particularly welcome the decision...that was made by the banks today which showed that they are pulling together with everyone else to ensure that we can get Australians through this," said the PM.

"States also agreed today, and further work will be done on this, working to identify how relief can be provided to tenants in both commercial tenancy and residential tennancies to ensure that in hardship conditions there will be relief that will be available."

"Now I know that will mean something for landlords...all Australians are going to be making sacrifices, and everyone does have that role to play, and that will include landlords at the end of the day for people who are enduring real hardship."

It also appears as if the Federal Government is working on a plan to deal with localised outbreaks of Covid-19 in specific communities.

Morrison says he is working with his medical expert panel on constructing a response plan to manage outbreaks that are localsed to specific communities of Australia.

No plans or details are set in place as of yet, but the PM says they are working on a scalable plan should a localised outbreak occur.  

The PM's announcement comes as the global death toll cracks 10,000, with 10,030 people having died from Covid-19. 244.517 people are now confirmed to have been infected, and 86,025 people have recovered. 

In Australia there are now 786 confirmed cases, with 382 in New South Wales.

Updated at 2.51pm AEDT on 20 March 2020.


More guidance withdrawals: Scentre Group, Vicinity Centres, Sonic Healthcare, Carsales.com

More guidance withdrawals: Scentre Group, Vicinity Centres, Sonic Healthcare, Carsales.com

Yesterday's stimulus package and an emphasis on "essential services" have lifted shares in shopping centre owners and operators, despite two major players withdrawing guidance.

Vicinity Centres (ASX: VCX) suspended its guidance yesterday evening, and its shares jumped by more than 10 per cent to $1.147 this morning.

Vicinity's CEO Grant Kelley noted a deterioration in the retail trading and operating environment, with increasing uncertainty around the impacts of COVID-19.

"Given this, we have made the decision to withdraw our FY20 earnings and distribution guidance provided at that time," Kelley said.

"Our shopping centres continue to play an essential role for our communities, especially during this time of concern, providing access to food, household items, products, medical services and banking for everyday needs."

He highlighted shopping centres were defined as providing 'essential services to the community' by the Federal Government, and as such would remain open.

"Vicinity has a solid balance sheet. We are currently operating well within our covenants and have $1.3 billion of undrawn facilities," he said.

"We also have flexibility to defer capital expenditure on major projects until COVID-19 uncertainties are resolved. However, as part of our prudent approach to capital management, and given volatile market conditions, the securities buy-back program has been suspended."

Scentre Group (ASX: SCG), an owner and manager of Westfield shopping centres across Australia and New Zealand, suspended its guidance this morning citing volatility due to the pandemic. Nonetheless, SCG shares rose 23 per cent this morning to $1.85.

Shares also rose 6.3 per cent for Shopping Centres Australasia Property Group (ASX: SCP), and 2.7 per cent for Moelis Australia (ASX: MOE).

Carsales.com (ASX: CAR) has withdrawn guidance due to continued uncertainty in Australian market conditions.

"With the continuing spread of COVID-19, our overriding priority is the safety and wellbeing of our employees and customers in these difficult times," says carsales CEO Cameron McIntyre.

"We have a strong plan in place to reduce exposure to our employees and we have strong business continuity measures in place.

"As a business, we had good momentum prior to the impact of COVID-19 and we are confident in the underlying performance and resilience of our business model. We have a strong balance sheet and prudent gearing, which positions us well to deal with this challenging environment."

On a positive note, the company claims the international business remains resilient with continued good growth in revenue and earnings in South Korea, as well as a similar pattern in Brazil. 

Shares drop for Covid-19 frontline player

Sonic Healthcare (ASX: SHL) was another company to withdraw guidance today, and its shares plummeted a further 8.68 per cent this morning.

"As a global laboratory company, Sonic is currently playing a crucial frontline role in combating the pandemic," says Sonic's CEO Dr Colin Goldschmidt.

"Our laboratories in Australia, the USA and Europe are testing thousands of patients every day for COVID19, and we continue to increase our testing capacity to meet the needs of the communities in which we operate.

"Our expert and experienced management teams and medical staff are working with governments and other healthcare organisations to provide as much assistance as possible."

Sonic Healthcare is also working with its major suppliers to ensure it has the necessary materials and equipment for testing.

"In addition to our focus on meeting the diagnostic testing needs of our communities, we remain focussed on the well-being of our 37,000 staff. I could not be prouder of the reaction of Sonic's people to this crisis," Goldschmidt said.

Other companies that have withdrawn guidance today include Credit Corp (ASX: CCP) and Raiz Invest (ASX: RZI), while Vita Group (ASX: VTG).

Other companies that have previously withdrawn guidance in response to the pandemic include: Boral (ASX: BLD), Downer EDI (ASX: DOW), Adairs (ASX: ADH), Village Roadshow (ASX: VRL), GPT Group (ASX: GPT), Nine Entertainment (ASX: NEC), Bluescope Steel (ASX: BSL), Redcape Hotel Group (ASX: RDC), Prospa Group (ASX: PGL), Hills (ASX: HIL) Accent Group (ASX: AX1), EML Payments (ASX: EML), Ramsay Health Care (ASX: RHC), Aristocrat Leisure (ASX: ALL), Mirvac Group (ASX: MGR), REA Group (ASX: REA), Monadelphous Group (ASX: MND), Coca Cola Amatil (ASX: CCL), Cochlear (ASX: COH), oOh!media (ASX: OML), Qantas (ASX: QAN), Webjet (ASX: WEB), Helloworld (ASX: HLO), Flight Centre (ASX: FLT), Corporate Travel Management (ASX: CTD) and Apollo Tourism & Leisure (ASX: ATL).

Updated at 11:24am AEDT on 20 March 2020.


Michael Hill shuts down stores in Canada

Michael Hill shuts down stores in Canada

Pursuant to public health guidance in Canada jewellery retailer Michael Hill (ASX: MHJ) will shut down its store network for a period of two weeks.

The company says it will revisit the decision and either reopen or extend store closures as necessary.

Michael Hill's Canadian workforce will take leave without pay or allow staff to take up leave entitlements during the period.

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in a significant drop in foot traffic in each of Michael Hill's markets (Australia, New Zealand and Canada) and the company is seeing a corresponding impact on sales.

The company has so far not provided guidance on earnings for the current financial year and is now no longer in a position to make a reliable forecast.

"The Board and management team are confident that the business will be able to continue to work constructively with all of its stakeholders to navigate the uncertainties presented by the COVID-19 public health crisis," says Michael Hill CEO Daniel Bracken.

"Whilst there remain many uncertainties about the potential impact and duration of the crisis, we are focused on taking all necessary actions to reduce our costs and cash outflows so that they better match the very subdued consumer demand in all our markets."

Updated at 10:50am AEDT on 20 March 2020.


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