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April sees sharpest fall in retail turnover on record

April sees sharpest fall in retail turnover on record

April's retail trade figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics today show the strongest seasonally adjusted fall ever published.

Retail turnover fell by 17.9 per cent in April 2020, and follows the strongest ever seasonally adjusted rise in March 2020 which was largely the result of stockpiling.

Not a single retail sector was spared, with particularly strong falls recorded in food retailing, cafes, restaurants, clothing, footwear and personal accessories.

The figures are the direct result of COVID-19 restrictions implemented nationally in a bid to slow the spread of infections of the coronavirus.

While March saw a mix of impacts related to COVID-19 across industries, these impacts were overwhelmingly negative in April, as regulations regarding social distancing measures limited the ability of businesses to trade as normal for the entire month," says the ABS.

"Cafes, restaurants and takeaway food services, clothing, footwear and personal accessory retailing, and department stores fell heavily in April and there were no offsetting rises in the other industries.

"Turnover in clothing, footwear and personal accessory retailing, and cafes, restaurants and takeaways is around half the level of April 2019."

The food retailing sector, which saw a significant rise in March due to "unprecedented" demand, fell 17.1 per cent in April.

Via: ABS

In seasonally adjusted terms Australian retail turnover fell 9.4 per cent in April 2020 compared with April 2019.

Analysis of supermarket and grocery store scanner data shows that monthly retail turnover fell in original terms for non-perishable goods, perishable goods and all other products by 23.7 per cent, 15.3 per cent and 24.5 per cent respectively in April 2020 compared to March 2020.

These falls follow significant unprecedented demand in March 2020 where non-perishable goods rose 39 per cent, perishable goods rose 21.6 per cent and all other products rose 30.5 per cent.

Turnover in clothing, footwear and personal accessories in April 2020 was around half the level of April 2019.

Updated at 2:47PM AEST on 20 May 2020.


South Australia to lift restrictions earlier than planned

South Australia to lift restrictions earlier than planned

After reporting zero active cases of COVID-19 in South Australia on Friday, the State Government has decided to accelerate its plan to lift restrictions.

From Friday restaurants and cafes will be able to entertain 20 guests - 10 seated inside and 10 seated outside - and serve alcohol.

SA will also be moving to its second stage of easing restrictions earlier than planned.

Stage 2 will now come into effect on Friday 5 June, three days earlier than originally envisioned.

The specifics of what exactly will be allowed on 5 June are still being organised by medical officials and will be announced closer to the date, but the State Government has confirmed that all pubs across the state will be permitted to open.

The Premier says the lifting of restrictions on 5 June will be outlined in a "principles-based approach" in the coming days.

The changes will mean more SA businesses are able to operate over the June long weekend.

"I think everybody knows that we have done extraordinarily well in Australia in managing the health crisis and in particular in South Australia we have done an outstanding job," Premier Steven Marshall said this morning.

"We know that the economic crisis is really hitting the people of our state, the businesses of our state, the families here in South Australia; people have lost jobs. So we really have got to get the balance right."

"We have listened to what the people of South Australia have they want to move to stage two sooner than the Monday of the long weekend. We know that it would be great for regional South Australia. We know it would be great for businesses in metropolitan Adelaide."

 

When the State's roadmap for easing COVID-19 restrictions was announced earlier this month Stage 2 envisioned the reopening of the following with a capacity of 20 people:

  • Cinemas and theatres
  • Seated dining
  • Galleries and museums
  • Beauty, nails, tattoo, massage (non-therapeutic)
  • Driving instruction lessons
  • Gyms and indoor fitness
  • Funerals (50 max)
  • Sports transition to competition without spectators, including indoor sports

The announcement comes as Australia only has nine people in ICU for COVID-19 treatment.

1.1 million tests have been conducted, and there have been 11 new cases of COVID-19 today to a total of 7,079. Four of these cases were in NSW, seven in VIC, and one in QLD.

Updated at 11:48am AEST on 20 May 2020.


Sydney Airport traffic crashes 97.5 per cent

Sydney Airport traffic crashes 97.5 per cent

Traffic figures released today by Sydney Airport (ASX: SYD) reveal a drastic fall in passenger numbers in April due to travel restrictions relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The airport reports total traffic fell 97.5 per cent year-on-year to 92,000 passengers, of which 43,000 were domestic and 49,000 were international.

The reduction for domestic travel was slightly more pronounced at 97.9 per cent, compared to the 96.9 per cent fall for international travellers. 

But what is also telling about this crisis is that the number of domestic passengers was only slightly higher than for their international counterparts, whereas normally the figures for domestic are almost two-thirds higher. 

"We expect the downturn in passenger traffic to persist until government travel restrictions are eased," the airport said.

Australians continued to be the leading nationality of passengers, followed by the UK which was ranked fifth in April 2019. China fell one spot to third in terms of nationality, and was followed by South Korea (7th in April 2019) and Germany (outside Top 10 in pcp).

The Top 10 nationalities travelling through the airport is completed by Japan, France, the USA, Canada and New Zealand, the latter holding third place this time last year.

According to an update released last month, Sydney Airport has a combined liquidity of $2.8 billion split by $430 million in available cash, $1.75 billion of undrawn bank facilities and approximately $600 million of new USPP bond market debt.

"This is comfortably in excess of the $1.3 billion of debt maturing in the next 12 months and the $150 million to $200 million of expected capital expenditure over the same period. We also expect to remain compliant with our covenant requirements," the group said at the time.

"Given the strength of our balance sheet and liquidity position, at this time we do not see the need to raise equity."

Photo: Kurt Ams

Updated at 10:26am AEST on 20 May 2020.


Intrastate travel restrictions to be lifted from 1 June in NSW

Intrastate travel restrictions to be lifted from 1 June in NSW

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has encouraged residents to get out and visit the state's regions when intrastate travel restrictions are lifted on 1 June.

Timed just one week before the Queen's Birthday long weekend, Berejiklian hopes people will take a "well-earned holiday" and stimulate the state's hardest hit regions.

"This is the day we've all been looking forward to since the COVID-19 travel restrictions were put in place earlier this year and I would like to thank everyone for their patience during the past few months of being cooped up at home," Berejiklian said.

"I must stress to everyone that, while we want people to enjoy a well-earned holiday, we must do this responsibly and continue to abide by physical distancing measures, as the last thing we want is further outbreaks that will force us to reintroduce restrictions."

Deputy Premier John Barilaro says the lifting of intrastate travel restrictions will be welcomed with open arms by communities in NSW who have been decimated by both the bushfires and now COVID-19 restrictions.

"COVID could not have come at a worse time for regional NSW, with towns already doing it tough due to bushfires and drought and so I encourage everyone to make plans to safely and responsibly visit their favourite regional holiday destination, or discover a new one," Barilaro said.

"I encourage holidaymakers to visit local businesses, enjoy local attractions and feast on the best food regional NSW has to offer, and for those not able to get away in June, to start making plans for later in the year when even more businesses will be open.

"I'm very pleased to share that this means we will have a ski season this year, however holidaymakers should be aware that ski resorts will likely need time to put COVID plans into place and you should make contact before visiting."

In addition to intrastate travel restrictions being lifted, museums, art galleries and other cultural institutions will reopen on 1 June.

Berejiklian has once again emphasised that NSW's borders are still open, saying it is imperative that the State's economy keeps on ticking.

"Of course, New South Wales is always open to welcome people from other states, we intend to keep our borders open," says Berejiklian.

"We think that's best for New South Wales but also best for Australia and we will play our part as the largest state, as traditionally the economic powerhouse of the nation, to make sure we generate as much economic activity as possible in a safe environment."

Berejiklian says the decision to lift intrastate travel restrictions comes as the data being recorded about COVID-19 infections proves to be promising.

"At this stage the numbers are so small that we're very comfortable with the steps we're taking," says Berejiklian.

"Even the community transmission is less than what we anticipated at this time.

"But it doesn't come without risk, and our measure of success shouldn't be a small number of cases every day because we won't be able to maintain that."

Updated at 9:46am AEST on 20 May 2020.


Job sharing portal BenchOn sees spike in SME sign-ups

Job sharing portal BenchOn sees spike in SME sign-ups

With Australian talent sharing platform BenchOn reporting a 275 per cent increase in remote work opportunities, founder and CEO Tim Walmsley believes portals that reallocate jobs will help the economy bounce back faster, especially in regional areas.

After making its name supporting large corporates and government agencies, this month BenchOn's proprietary technology went live in a national first for the Toowoomba Regional Council in Queensland. 

Through an initiative supported by Toowoomba and Surat Basin Enterprise, the platform allows businesses to temporarily 'loan' their excess staff to companies experiencing a temporary increase in demand.

Walmsley hopes the development will be replicated elsewhere, and says he has proposed the model to the Federal Government in a bid to "save as many jobs as possible".

"If we strengthen businesses and provide them more opportunity to keep their people, then it creates a more resilient economy that will bounce back much faster, rather than just moving people wherever the demand is and not having any continuity of employment," he tells Business News Australia.

"Through COVID-19 companies are starting to realise that they can get a lot of work done just through video conferencing and trusting people."

The entrepreneur has observed a large increase in talent sharing for professional services and consultants.

"Companies that are having this unprecedented demand are starting to realise they need these higher-level skill sets to support their work, and they're putting out more contracts to do it," says Walmsley.

"The industries are still nowhere near where they were in terms of demands pre-COVID, but they're starting now to put their feelers out.

"We firmly believe that we should be allocating as much of this work now to small businesses across Australia so that we can keep them going, so that we don't eradicate our entire small business base and are left with a very hollow industry at the end of it."

He notes workers from hospitality and tourism in particular are moving into other industries to improve their stability, and he fears this may make the recovery "that much harder on the other side" for sectors of the economy that have already been badly hit.

"That's why we've got our model which allows the company not only to reallocate that person to a task, potentially in another industry or with another business using a skill they might not have been employed for, but it maintains their employee relationship," he explains.

"The portals are definitely our key driver for growth, because those portals are gateways for large companies to allocate their workload directly to SMEs."

"We've seen massive spikes in signups, particularly in the SME space. We've had days here we've had 50 companies a day signing up."

Can remote work job sharing to boost regional economies?

Walmsley is excited about the new portal in Toowoomba as local companies will be able to sign up and share talent locally first, but the platform will also tap employers in the area into national networks.

"It brings in more work from companies all across the country by linking them through the BenchOn national network," he says.

"We can not only stabilise regional jobs, but we can also bring more work in from the cities in order to grow regional jobs, which is something really important that we're very passionate about."

He says the platform will enable accurate reporting on how many regional jobs can be saved by secondment or sub-contracting.

"My question is how many skilled people are sitting in our regions, and the only reason that they're not being productive in our economy is because they haven't been given the opportunity?

"I think we're now going to see more of a focus on how do we allocate work in a more fair and efficient manner across the whole industry, rather than just allocating it to the larger companies that they've always just gone to."

TSBE CEO Ali Davenport says the economy is facing unprecedented stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in this time of disruption there has never been a greater need for collaboration by sharing staff to manage the unpredictable troughs and spikes in demand.

"BenchOn has the ability to allocate business opportunities swiftly from businesses who are temporarily experiencing increased demand, to businesses who are experiencing a downturn or who have the capacity to support," she said.

"This platform will also benefit local recruitment firms and labour agencies by allowing them to make their talent available for suitable contract roles.

"It will essentially notify them when an opportunity is available that suits their business specialisation, which they can then choose to respond to."

Other partnerships highlighted by Walmsley include a jobs sharing portal with Anywise Consulting to support SME jobs in the defence and professional services sector, as well as for South Korea's Hanwha Defense.

"They [Hanwha] have just entered the Australian market and they're bidding on around $17 billion worth of work over the next five years," he says.

"It's their policy that they want all of their work to go to Australian businesses, so they've created an industry portal with BenchOn so that they can allocate all of the work that they win to Australian companies that have signed up to their portal."

Growth through shifting the business model

BenchOn has only been in existence for just over 3.5 years, and when Business News Australia profiled Walmsley in October 2017 the company had hosted more than $20 million worth of contracts.

Now the group is supporting thousands of businesses and processing more than $100 million worth of contracts.

"In the early days when we built the platform the idea was to create a national network of companies to manage supply and demand. We had a whole bunch of small to medium businesses sign up to try and make that work," said Walmsley.

"But what we realised was that even though every business has peaks and troughs in their workload, if you look at it generally the large enterprises and corporates are where all the demand is at because they have the ability to go and win large programs of work. 

"Small to medium businesses are where all the oversupply is because they don't have that ability to go out and win work whenever they need it."

He says this led to a mismatch, so in 2018 BenchOn pivoted towards enterprise software, working with pilot companies including big four banks and big four consulting companies to better understand their sourcing and pain points.

"We built a number of products that suit large companies to manage sourcing support from large pools of companies, and we launched those at the beginning of 2019 - they included internal employee matching," says Walmsley.

"For large companies that have thousands of staff and multiple divisions, we would hear stories about one division was laying off 25 project managers because a program ended, but then another division would be recruiting for 15 project managers.

"They were paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in recruitment fees when they actually had those people there and they were actually firing those people at the same time."

This didn't make any sense in Walmsley's view, so his team created a system whereby if a job is needed within a company, existing employees will be prioritised in order to maximise productivity and job stability while ascertaining where true talent shortages lie before looking externally.

"Once they've done that and looked at their own internal staff, we've then provided another product called supplier panel management," he says.

"Large companies normally have supplier panels of companies maybe 10, 20 or 30 companies - that they normally go to when they need support.

"But those large companies, no matter how much technology and everything they had, they were still managing those supply panels manually with emails and phone calls and Excel spreadsheets. It was just very inefficient."

The solution was to bring in those suppliers on a BenchOn profile, allocate them to a specific supplier panel, and then manage that panel digitally within the one system.

"What we found there was that sped up sourcing time from six to eight weeks, which is what our pilot customers were telling us it takes to fill a position and it dropped it right down to one day," says Walmsley.

This relatively instant matching was well received by companies and government organisations alike, and was the impetus for the kind of branded portals that are now on offer with the Toowoomba Regional Council and Anywise Consulting.

The entrepreneur aims for these platforms to play a key role in the next steps for the economy, which he sees as opening up again slowly.

"But it'll be a longer slower recovery than a lot of people think. Just because they lift the restrictions doesn't mean everything's going to go back to normal," he says.

"Companies are now already looking at new ways of working and how they can be more flexible and agile. We will see a greater proportion of work that's being allocated remotely."

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Business News Australia


NSW approves $160m facelift for St Leonards

NSW approves $160m facelift for St Leonards

The NSW Government has given the nod to rezoning proposals from the North Sydney Council that will bring a range of residential and commercial developments to the suburb of St Leonards.

The approval forms part of a fast-tracked assessment program from the state government to keep people in jobs and the economy moving through the COVID-19 pandemic.

Proposals include 500 new homes to be built, along with new retail outlets, cafés, restaurants, and new and upgraded public parks.

The rezoning approvals include:

  • 575-583 Pacific Highway: the site has been rezoned to allow for an 18-storey residential tower that will retain the local heritage of the existing building façade. The proposal will create 63 jobs and inject $31.4 million in to the economy;
  • 100 Christie Street: the rezoning will provide an upgrade to Christie Street Reserve and allow a 36-storey residential and commercial tower to be built, replacing the existing office building. It will create 164 jobs and inject $82.2 million in to the economy; and
  • 23-35 Atchison Street: the site can now accommodate a 16-storey building, provided a new park is created along Oxley Street and Hume Street Park is upgraded. It will create 92 jobs and inject $46 million in to the local economy.

"St Leonards already boasts a thriving commercial sector and these approvals will pave the way for more people to live close to where they work in a vibrant community hub," says NSW Planning and Public Spaces Minister Rob Stokes.

"In the past two weeks alone, the Planning System Acceleration Program has injected more than $2.4 billion into the state's economy and created opportunities for more than 17,500 jobs.

"The NSW Government has all hands-on deck to ensure ongoing investment in our state and to help provide as many jobs as possible."

To be considered for an accelerated assessment, the development application (DA) or rezoning must already be progressed within the planning system, deliver a public benefit, demonstrate an ability to create jobs, and be able to commence construction or lodge a DA within six months.

Updated at 12:04pm AEST on 19 May 2020.


Qantas, Jetstar embark on "Fly Well" Covid-safe protocols ahead of relaxed restrictions

Qantas, Jetstar embark on "Fly Well" Covid-safe protocols ahead of relaxed restrictions

Optional complimentary masks and sanitising wipes are among the new frills passengers can expect from a COVID-safe program to be rolled out by Qantas (ASX: QAN) and its subsidiary Jetstar as they clear the runway for an easing of domestic travel restrictions.

Dubbed the "Fly Well" program and based on the Qantas' Group's temporary measures for repatriation flights from virus hot-spots, the range of measures will be rolled out from 12 June.

The program has been designed to give passengers peace-of-mind with contributions from best-practice medical advice and customer feedback.

"Safety is absolutely core to how we operate and that applies to new challenges like managing the risk of coronavirus so people can fly with confidence," says Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce.

"From the early rescue flights we operated right into Wuhan and then more recently bringing Australians back from places like the US and Europe, we have a lot of experience at creating a safe cabin environment for passengers and crew.

"We're relying on the cooperation of passengers to help make these changes work for everyone's benefit, and we thank them in advance for that. Given the great job Australians have done at flattening the curve, we're confident they'll respond positively to these temporary changes to how we fly."

He says the company will continue to work with the government and monitor the roll-out of these measures closely, while the group's medical director Dr Ian Hosegood claims the data shows the actual risk of catching coronavirus on an aircraft is already extremely low.

"That's due to a combination of factors, including the cabin air filtration system, the fact people don't sit face-to-face and the high backs of aircraft seats acting as a physical barrier," Dr Hosegood says.

"As far as the virus goes, an aircraft cabin is a very different environment to other forms of public transport.

"Social distancing on an aircraft isn't practical the way it is on the ground, and given the low transmission risk on board, we don't believe it's necessary in order to be safe. The extra measures we're putting place will reduce the risk even further."

The air conditioning systems of all Qantas and Jetstar aircraft are already fitted with hospital-grade HEPA filters, which the group says remove 99.9 per cent of all particles including viruses. Air inside the cabin is refreshed on average every five minutes during flight.

Key measures of Fly Well include:

Pre-flight

  • Information sent to all customers before they fly, so they know what to expect;
  • Contactless check-in (via online/app) and self-serve bag drop strongly encouraged, including use of Q Bag Tags;
  • Hand sanitising stations at departure gates;
  • Temporary changes to Qantas Lounges, including increased physical distancing, hand sanitising stations, enhanced disinfection of surfaces and adjustments to food and drink service; and
  • Working with airports on other safeguards in the terminal, including regular disinfection of security screening points and installing hygiene screens at airline customer service desks, wherever practical.

On board

  • Masks provided to all passengers on each flight while not mandatory from a safety point of view, they are recommended to be worn in the interests of everyone's peace-of-mind;
  • Enhanced cleaning of aircraft with a disinfectant effective against Coronaviruses, with a focus on high contact areas seats, seatbelts, overhead lockers, air vents and toilets;
  • Sanitising wipes given to all passengers to wipe down seat belts, trays and armrests themselves, if preferred;
  • Simplified service and catering to minimise touchpoints for crew and passengers;
  • Passengers asked to limit movement around cabin, once seated; and
  • Sequenced boarding and disembarkation to minimise crowding.

Updated at 11:37am AEST on 19 May 2020.


Queensland Government launches $100 million small business grant program

Queensland Government launches $100 million small business grant program

Small businesses in Queensland can now apply for grants worth up to $10,000 to help soften the blow from COVID-19.

The $100 million program comes as Queensland announces a raft of stimulus initiatives that will go toward community developments, the tourism industry, community legal services and roadworks.

This new grant follows the lead of New South Wales and Victoria, which announced similar $10,000 schemes in April and May respectively.

Queensland's grants have been developed to assist those small businesses forced into hibernation to restructure or to significantly change their operations, including assistance with moving online.

"Small businesses represent 97 per cent of all businesses and employ over 970,000 people or 45 per cent of the State's private sector workforce," says Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.

"We know small businesses have been doing it really tough due to the pandemic.

"With the first stage of our recovery roadmap in place, we want to make sure our thousands of small businesses have the support they need to recover and keep Queenslanders in jobs."

Queensland Minister for Employment and Small Business Shannon Fentiman says the new grants can be used to help pay for financial, legal or other professional advice, marketing and communications activities and digital or technology strategy development.

The grants can also be used to buy specialised digital equipment or business-specific software to move businesses online.

"Many events, workplaces, classes and sales have moved online and small businesses need to make sure they have the tools and resources to be competitive in these challenging times," says Fentiman.

"We also realise that businesses may not currently have the financial resources to co-fund, so we won't require matched funding which will better support our local businesses."

The Chamber of Commerce and Industry Queensland (CCIQ) has welcomed the grant scheme, saying it will provide some much-needed immediate cash support to Queensland's small businesses.

"We have been calling on the Government to provide grants and are very pleased to see their support given to businesses through these funds," CQIC general manager of advocacy and policy Amanda Rohan said.

"There is no denying how hard it is for business at the moment, and these cash grants will be a provide an opportunity for them to invest and look at ways to keep operating.

"Our small business sector is vital to Queensland's economy."

For information on how to apply and eligibility, visit www.business.qld.gov.au

Queensland economic recovery plan revealed

The new small business grants form the Queensland Government's economic recovery strategy called Unite and Recover for Queensland Jobs.

In addition to the $100 million small business grants, the Queensland Government will deliver assistance to a range of industries including:

  • $50 million for the tourism industry
  • $200 million for local community projects (including new, upgraded or refurbished public amenities)
  • $119 million for community legal services
  • $400 million for roadwork projects
  • $50 million for essential medical supplies manufacturing

"The way we have united in the face of an immense and unprecedented challenge has been extraordinary, and all Queenslanders have done a mighty job in beating what just 11 weeks ago were daunting odds," the Premier said.

"The patient has been stabilised, so now it's time to start down the road to recovery and recuperation.

"The package of measures I am announcing today focuses on building the infrastructure we need for the future and accelerating construction projects to protect jobs now."

Updated at 11:37am AEST on 19 May 2020.


Queensland border could be closed until September

Queensland border could be closed until September

As COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease nationally many Australians are wondering when they might be able to book a holiday interstate.

If you ask the Prime Minister it seems he is looking for interstate travel to be back on the cards by July, according to the Federal Government's national framework.

But Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk (pictured) is a bit more reluctant to move that fast, suggesting her state's border may not reopen until September.

Speaking to ABC News Breakfast this morning, Palaszczuk said Queensland is taking a cautious approach when it comes to its borders.

"Look, I have to get the advice of the chief health officer," Palaszczuk said.

"I would say that things would look more positive towards September. Having said that, I don't want to rule anything out. I will give you that advice at the end of May as quickly as possible."

Palaszczuk's stance comes days after NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian encouraged states to reopen borders.

"I'd probably feel offended if they told me how to do my job," Berejiklian said.

"But I often joke with the Queensland Premier that I'll end up going to Auckland before I go to Brisbane if we continue the way we are going."

Updated at 10:49am AEST on 18 May 2020.


Victoria announces $2.7 billion construction program

Victoria announces $2.7 billion construction program

Victoria will embark on a large-scale construction program worth $2.7 billion to enable businesses and workers to bounce back from the COVID-19 economic crisis.

The investment will fund hundreds of projects across several sectors and result in thousands of jobs for Victorians, according to Premier Daniel Andrews.

None of these projects are anticipated to be major projects, but rather ones that can get off the ground in the next three to six months.

These include maintenance and upgrades of public housing, road maintenance, train stations and education facilities.

"It's very, very important that we underpin demand that we give to tradies and so many other across the economy that sense of absolute certainty and confidence that this work is here, and it is here right now," Andrews said.

"There's never been a better time for us to invest in these jobs."

The State's Working for Victoria program will be a key element of this investment and will attempt to connect those who have recently lost work with the small construction firms that require labourers to undertake these projects.

"This is about jobs and building infrastructure that we need: small projects, projects that can be delivered quickly that are not going to sit around being designed and planned for years," says Andrews.

"We're ready to go with this and it'll be great."

Of the $2.7 billion investment, $1.18 billion will be specifically targeted at education projects.

This will result in 1,600 new jobs and the creation of 21,000 student places at schools around the State.

The education arm of the investment will result in the biggest school building project Victoria has undertaken.

Ultimately, 10 new schools will be constructed in addition to 57 school upgrades and 250 relocatable buildings.

The announcement comes as Victoria reports 1,567 cases of COVID-19, including six new cases.

Two of those new cases are from the McDonald's cluster, while three are currently in hotel isolation.

As of this morning there are two new cases in Queensland and one in New South Wales bringing the total number of new cases nationally to 11.

There are 7,054 cases of COVID-19 in Australia, 99 total deaths and 6,395 recoveries.

Updated at 10:14am AEST on 18 May 2020.


McDonald's shuts 12 stores after truck driver tests positive

McDonald's shuts 12 stores after truck driver tests positive

McDonald's Australia has temporarily shut 12 stores in Victoria after a delivery truck driver tested positive to COVID-19.

The Department of Health has identified the truck driver as a workplace close contact of the previously announced case at a McDonald's in Craigieburn.

The Age reports the Craigieburn employee was an extended family member of a worker at the McDonald's in Fawkner, where a cluster has extended to 12 reported cases.

"The truck driver made deliveries to 12 restaurants and interacted with a small number of restaurant employees on each occasion while asymptomatic and unaware they had contracted COVID-19," says a McDonald's spokesperson.

"Potential close contacts and employees who have worked specific shifts during and after the truck drivers' [sic] delivery have been instructed not to return to work for 14 days and advised to be tested."

McDonald's Australia has confirmed no other employees have tested positive for COVID-19 at this time.

"However, out of an abundance of caution, we have made the decision to close and conduct a deep clean of 12 restaurants in Victoria, following confirmation a truck driver for an external service provider has tested positive for COVID-19.

"McDonald's Australia has taken this significant action in the best interests of the health and safety of our employees and our customers.

"We will open each of the restaurants following completion of the deep clean and pending the availability of replacement crew."

The restaurant chain advises the following restaurants have been closed:

1.      Melton East

2.      Laverton North

3.      Yallambie

4.      Taylors Lakes

5.      Campbellfield

6.      Sunbury

7.      Hoppers Crossing

8.      Riverdale Village

9.      Sandown

10.   Calder Highway Northbound/Outbound

11.   Calder Highway Southbound/Inbound

12.   BP Rockbank Service Centre Outbound

With regards to the other main cluster in the state, Victorian health authorities yesterday reported 99 cases related to the Cedar Meats outbreak.

The department is also working with Domino's in Fairfield and The Comfort Group in Deer Park, where an infectious case has attended, or a case may have acquired coronavirus.

Updated at 10:12am AEST on 18 May 2020.


Victoria's cafes, restaurants and pubs to reopen with 20-customer limit from 1 June

Victoria's cafes, restaurants and pubs to reopen with 20-customer limit from 1 June

Six days ago when Australians in many states and territories were frothing to soon go back to the pub, have dinner out of home or celebrate being allowed to sit down with a morning coffee, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (pictured) had a more sobering message.

He explained the feedback from hospitality venues had been overwhelming - 10 patrons at a time, which is the benchmark for Step 1 of reopening guidelines, just doesn't work.  

"If we wait those three weeks when we move to go beyond just takeaway for cafés and restaurants, we might not have to stick with a number of 10. We might be able to go higher than that," Premier Andrews said at the time.

Today, even as the state tries to keep two COVID-19 clusters under control with 89 new cases recorded over the past seven days, the Premier has delivered on his word.

"After smashing through our goal of 50,000 tests in the last week, the results of this data has given us the confidence we need to plan to slowly start lifting some more restrictions," he said in a statement this morning.

"Today, and informed by the advice of the Chief Health Officer, I can announce our cautious and careful next steps.

"The continuing low numbers of community transmission and the high rates of testing give us confidence that cafes, restaurants, pubs and other hospitality businesses can begin planning for a phased re-opening from the beginning of June."

From 1 June cafés, restaurants and pubs will be able to reopen their doors to serve meals to up to 20 customers at a time per enclosed space.

Andrews said from 22 June it is possible the number could increase to up to 50 patrons, and even up to 100 during the second half of July.

"The timelines we're announcing today are reliant on Victorians continuing to get tested when they show even mild symptoms and on those tests continuing to show low numbers of positive cases around the state," he said.

"Before each of these dates, the Chief Health Officer will review the rates of community transmission in Victoria, confirm our ability to test, trace and respond to possible outbreaks and make sure we have an adequate safety net in the health system before we take the steps outlined.

"This industry has told us they need time to plan and prepare to protect the safety of their staff and customers. Making these announcements now will be giving them that time."

Only one person per four square metres will be allowed and tables will need to be spaced at least 1.5 metres apart.

Venues will also be required to take the contact details of every customer to assist in rapid contact tracing.

"And there'll be other safety requirements too, including extra cleaning, staff health screening and temperature checks," Andrews said.

"Once in place, these changes will apply to standalone restaurants and cafes, as well as restaurants and bistros within a pub, hotel, bar, registered and licensed club, RSL or community club.

"Restrictions on other spaces within these kinds of venues - including public bars and gaming areas - will remain in place throughout June, as will restrictions on food courts."

He described hospitality as one of the pillars of the Victorian economy and has been one of the hardest hit by this pandemic.

"Reopening the venues we all love is a critical piece of the puzzle in saving jobs and restoring our local communities," he said.

"If, in the coming weeks, we see a sudden upswing in community exposures from an unknown source - we may have to make the call to delay.

"Similarly, if an initial opening led to a whole series of uncontrolled crowds or breaches - we'd look at that pretty seriously too."

Updated at 11:13am AEST on 17 May 2020.


"Good on you for reopening," PM tells Australian businesses

"Good on you for reopening," PM tells Australian businesses

With $220 billion in loans now deferred, banks reportedly going easy on debt covenants and insolvencies well below average, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has offered words of encouragement to the business community today.

As restrictions start to be eased between now and Monday for the majority of the population, the PM acknowledges limits of up to 10 people at a time in hospitality venues "won't necessarily be a profitable patronage" for many businesses.

But in reopening, these cafés and restaurants are "backing their staff".

"They're backing their communities and they're backing their country, and I want to commend them for that brave step that they're taking this weekend," he told a press conference today after the National Cabinet meeting, noting it has now been two months since its first meeting to address the crisis. 

"Good on you for reopening, and I'm sure your patrons will come in and support you strongly as well."

He emphasises the banking sector has held up well, and the oversubscribed take-up of bonds show that markets are treating Australia as a country to be relied upon - "a good bet".

"It's essential that as we move forward that we continue to enable the credit to flow through our banking system to support those businesses who are taking decisions to reopen, to rehire, and to move ahead," he says.

"Some $220 billion in loan deferrals have already been put in place in our banking system - about two-thirds of that in mortgages and one-third for small and medium sized enterprises.

"The banks have also not been enforcing, broadly speaking, covenants, and they've been holding off on revaluations and not pursuing recovery actions other than for pre-existing cases."

He notes insolvencies are currently running below average, and that's been backed by significant protections put in place early on in the crisis in relation to preventing creditors from forcing companies into liquidation.

"In addition, the super (superannuation) system - we are advised - is responding very well with some $11.7 billion in claims. It was noted that this was consistent with the Treasury estimate, and this was not presenting liquidity issues, the head of APRA (Australian Prudential Regulation Authority) has advised us," he says.

"Industry estimates of what the claims would be have not been realised."

Could net import gap favour domestic tourism?

While the tourism industry has been one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and related lockdowns. Morrison has pointed out a potential silver lining.

"As the borders fall internally and Australians can hopefully soon return to domestic holidays and to move around the country more widely - and particularly with school holidays coming up again in July - we were reminded that the net tourism imports to Australia is [sic] just over $20 billion a year," he says.

"That means that after you take account of international tourists coming here and Australians going overseas, that there is a net import factor of just over $20 billion.

"Now that's up for grabs for Australian domestic tourism operators - Australians who might otherwise go elsewhere, that is a very large market and that will be targeted."

The Federal Government has been working with state and territory agencies responsible for tourism, and Tourism Australia is set to launch its 'Live from AUS' domestic campaign this evening.

On the topic of travellers, Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy says "you can't test your way out of quarantine", noting there had been misinformation circulating that a negative test meant people could avoid these measures.

"We also had a discussion about quarantine periods for returning travellers. I want to make it very clear that there is no no amount of PCR testing or swab testing that can that can obviate the need for quarantine," he says. 

"If you are a return traveler from a risk area and a quarantine requirement is in place, having a test done - a swab and a PCR done - just means whether you are positive on that day; it doesn't mean that you're not incubating the virus and it doesn't mean you can get out of quarantine earlier."

With the total number of COVID-19 cases now at 7,017, there are only 50 COVID-19-related patients in hospitals now of whom only 12 people are on ventilators.

"Hospital capacity is around 50 to 60 per cent. We are starting see some increase with the elective surgery relaxations announced a few weeks ago, but there is now pretty good room for further expansion and clearly in those states that are having essentially no cases they want to go fairly quickly back to full elective activity," he says.

"Those states that still have some transmission are probably going to take it a bit more gently, but everybody is now heading towards full elective surgery, which is a really important thing."

An extra $48 million pledged to fill gaps in mental health services

The Federal Government will invest an extra $48 million into mental health services to combat the psychological damage wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic on Australians.

According to Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt the extra funding will seek to plug holes identified by the Government in Australia's mental health system.

The funding will cover three areas:

  1. $7.3 million will go toward research and data so the Government can identify problems in real time.
  2. $29.5 million will go toward outreach programs for vulnerable communities like non-English speaking communities, Indigenous Australians and those with pre-existing mental health conditions.
  3. $11.3 million will form a broader communication campaign, of which $10.4 million will form a national campaign that will tell Australians "It is okay to not be okay".

The program comes as over 957,000 mental health services have been delivered in the last four weeks, bringing the rate back up to pre-COVID-19 levels, with half of these consultations being conducted via telehealth.     

Despite the good work done so far, National Mental Health Commission CEO Christine Morgan says the Government can do more.

"We understand the social context in which we exist, and we're also seeing another really encouraging thing, and that is moving into delivering mental health care in community. But there are gaps," says Morgan.

"And the gaps are what we seek to address with this plan. The first gapis data. We absolutely must come together as a country and see what we can actually do to improve that data collection, so that we know not only what is happening, but we can better understand what to expect, and we can better move to services where they are needed. That is critical.

"The second is we have had people disconnect from services. You've heard me say that before. And we have had people really challenged with accessing services. So, the plan says, 'We must reach into community'. That means we need to be where people can access services."

The funds for the program are being invested by both the Federal and state governments. Victoria has already pledged to contribute $19.5 million and other states are also expected to contribute.

The extra $48 million is on top of the $4.2 billion investment already made by the Federal Government made more broadly into the health sector.

Updated at 2:08pm AEST on 15 May 2020.


COVID-19 to hit Victorian GSP by 14 per cent in June quarter

COVID-19 to hit Victorian GSP by 14 per cent in June quarter

According to Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas the state was on track to record its sixth-straight budget surplus this financial year.

But the one-two punch of the bushfires followed by the COVID-19 economic crisis has left the State looking worse for wear.

Pallas says while the bushfires were devastating both economically and socially, the impact of COVID-19 costs is far worse than what the State spent on post-bushfire recovery.

The anticipated cost for the bushfires was expected to be 0.1 per cent of the State's annual Gross State Product (GSP), equating to around $500 million.

In comparison COVID-19 is anticipated to hit GSP for the June Quarter by 14 per cent, relative to previous forecasts.

"Let's be clear that we're operating with anything but normal circumstances," says Pallas.

"I want to be very clear that this is not the time for any government to be chasing surpluses. This is a time for governments to prioritise the welfare, the wellbeing of the community, the workforce and business. And that's exactly what we will be doing."

Today's economic update for the March quarter saw the Treasurer announce that Victoria was on track to recording a surplus of $618 million in FY20, but the unprecedented effect of both the bushfires and COVID-19 means the state's economic forecast now looks very different.

The March financial report shows a deficit for the year to March of $773 million, and that is before the full effects of the coronavirus really make a mark.

If not for these events Pallas says total expenditure for the financial year would have aligned with the Government's strategy of constrained expenditure growth, forecast at 3.1 per cent.

Yesterday's Australian Bureau of Statistics announcement regarding the national employment figures showed Victoria recorded 6 per cent unemployment in April, with 127,000 more Victorians out of work.

"But of course, hidden in that figure of 6 per cent is the fact that we're seeing worsening of participation in the labour market," says Pallas.

"So all of that means that there is not only a rise in unemployment but there is also a profound impact hidden within the community because people cannot get the hours and are giving up on looking for work in the labour market."

Since the COVID-19 pandemic started to hit Australia Victoria has invested more than $5 billion toward health services, students, businesses, tenants and landlords.

The Treasurer says more than 50,000 businesses and up to 1 million workers have benefitted from its support measures.

The State will also defer scheduled capital payments and dividends from the Transport Accident Commission, Worksafe, and the Victorian Managed Insurance Agency because of the uncertainty of the financial environment.

"Right now we're focussed on giving Victorian families, businesses and communities the support they need to get through to the other side of this crisis," says Pallas.

Updated at 10:33am AEST on 15 May 2020.


Qatar Airways restarts Brisbane flights

Qatar Airways restarts Brisbane flights

One of the few airlines still connecting Australia with the Middle East and Europe is about to expand its offering of routes to Brisbane on 20 May.

Qatar Airways will be recommencing three weekly flights from Doha to Brisbane, adding to existing daily services with Sydney and Melbourne as well as four-weekly flights to Perth.

The first flight is set to land at Brisbane Airport (BNE) on 21 May, with services operating under existing bilateral rights until 30 June with the airline carrying both commercial passengers and freight.

Brisbane Airport Corporation (BAC) expects this will provide a critical cargo channel for Australian businesses and producers.

"This announcement is most welcome and the first major sign the industry has commenced recovery phase following COVID-19 restrictions," says BAC CEO Gert-Jan de Graaff.

"Until now, Brisbane was the only major capital city without a Qatar Airways service and Queensland the only major state.

"The demand for Qatar Airways services has always been clear, with Queensland generating more than 19,000 passengers to Doha alone in 2019."

De Graaff says as the world begins to heal, one-stop services into Queensland from key British and European travel markets also offer a real opportunity for Queensland, with visitors arriving in Australia via Brisbane more likely to stay longer in the state.

"While the direct service will bring more choice for passengers, the air access and export opportunities created by the commencement of Qatar services direct to and from Brisbane for the city and state are significant," the executive says.

"These services will provide much needed support Queensland and northern NSW exporters in exporting around 4,000 tonnes of beef and other perishables per annum to Qatar.

"Freight exports that none of the existing airline partners carry, and of course there is significant opportunity for additional exports across Qatar Airway's global network."

The airline is resuming services after previously receiving short-term approval to operate to Brisbane from late-March to early April - a period during which helped reunite over 5,000 stranded travellers with their loved ones and transported over 270 tonnes of cargo, including Australian agriculture exports.

"In these difficult times, customers are looking for an airline they can trust, our commitment and willingness to get people home continues to provide assurance," says Qatar Airways Group chief executive Akbar Al Baker.

"We have built a strong level of confidence with passengers, governments, trade partners, and airports as a reliable partner during this crisis and we intend to continue delivering on this mission.

"Qatar Airways received exceptional approval to operate short term services to Brisbane to repatriate the many tourists, students and diplomats who wanted to go back to their home countries."

The airline continues to operate flights to 16 destinations in Europe, including London, Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam, with plans to add an additional seven European destinations by the end of June.

Updated at 9:50am AEST on 15 May 2020.


Michael Hill to gradually reopen stores from Saturday

Michael Hill to gradually reopen stores from Saturday

Jewellery retailer Michael Hill (ASX: MHJ) will open nearly 100 of its stores in Australia this weekend with an aim to progressively open the remainder during May.

But not all Michael Hill employees will be going back to work; the company has decided to permanently close five stores in Australia, three in New Zealand and one in Canada.

The rollout of store openings in Australia is based on how individual states have decided to relax COVID-19 restrictions, but Michael Hill says it expects every store in the country will be reopened by early June.

25 stores in New Zealand will open on Saturday, with the balance planned to follow across the coming two weeks.

The group's Canadian portfolio currently remains closed, but there are plans to commence the progressive reopening of stores in late May.

Michael Hill says during the shutdown it has seen a "significant boost" in online sales, with digital sales in the last three weeks outperforming the prior record digital sales week from Christmas 2019.

This is primarily the result of the company deploying a range of digital initiatives such as virtual appointments, a new online video hub, a fresh online storefront, chat functionality on the website, an improved Instagram feed and a WeChat store.

The group's loyalty program has also seen memberships increase to over 100,000 members. Michael Hill's loyalty revenue now represents 42 per cent of total e-commerce revenue.

"The surge in our digital sales signals a notable shift in consumer behaviour in the jewellery category," says Michael Hill CEO Daniel Bracken.

"We have been quick to respond and harness this opportunity, with the implementation of a number of digital initiatives to continue to attract new customers and maintain the momentum.

"As we reopen stores, we are placing the utmost importance on the safety of our employees and customers. We look forward to enabling our customers to celebrate their love, style their wardrobe and find their memorable gift in a safe store environment as we all navigate through these unprecedented times."

Updated at 9:18am AEST on 15 May 2020.


One in four Australians now on JobKeeper

One in four Australians now on JobKeeper

Update (22 May 2020): It has since come to light that the Treasury and Australian Tax Office (ATO) have drastically reduced their projected number of JobKeeper recipients by three million. Read more here.

Approximately one in three Australians is being supported by Government assistance programs like JobKeeper, JobSeeker and Youth Allowance as the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 economic crisis take their toll.

These numbers were announced today by a grim Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg alongside the release of April's unemployment figures, which saw women and young Australians hit disproportionately.

The Treasurer says there are 6 million Australians - or approximately one in four people - receiving the stimulus package from the approximately 850,000 businesses that have formally enrolled in the program.

There are also 1.6 million Australians on JobSeeker and Youth Allowance.

The JobKeeper program is set to be reviewed in June, when the Government will determine how to move forward with the $130 billion package.

The Government's ultimate plan is to reinvigorate the economy by easing restrictions gradually across the nation.

The Treasurer says some 850,000 people will be back in work as a result of Stage One, Two and Three restrictions being lifted. This should also deliver a $9.4 billion boost to the national economy.

"There is still a long way to go, and the economic numbers will get worse before they get better," Frydenberg said.

Youth unemployment spikes

Youth unemployment has risen during April as a result of the COVID-19 financial crisis, described by Prime Minister Scott Morrison as "terribly shocking".

As part of the release of unemployment figures for April 2020, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has revealed that youth unemployment (those aged 15 to 25) rose to 13.8 per cent, up from 11.5 per cent in March.

The figure is more than double that of the national unemployment rate of 6.2 per cent, but both figures in fact do not take into consideration the hundreds of thousands of people who have actually given up on looking for work, and therefore are not included in the unemployment figures. 

Speaking to the press today Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the scale of the crisis is unlike anything seen in recent Australian history.

"When I left University, and soon after, we went into the last recession," Morrison said.

"It was hard. This is harder. We haven't seen this before.

"And for many young people who have never experienced that, this is beyond anything they could imagine."

The figures demonstrate how young people have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 restrictions, with many working in sectors like hospitality and tourism that have been completely shut down by the coronavirus.

Women also represent more than half of the newly unemployed 603,300 Australian workers, with 325,000 women joining the 1.8 million unemployed in the country.

Updated at 1:00PM AEST on 14 May 2020.


Almost three million Australian jobs hit somehow by COVID-19 crisis

Almost three million Australian jobs hit somehow by COVID-19 crisis

The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) has today revealed the unemployment rate rose by one percentage point to 6.2 per cent between March and April.

On face value the number of unemployed people increased by 104,500 for the period, but seasonaly adjusted employment fell by a much larger figure of 594,300.

The reason for this discrepancy is that almost half a million people in Australia simply left the labour force, meaning they weren't actively looking or available for work.

"The large drop in employment did not translate into a similar sized rise in the number of unemployed people because around 489,800 people left the labour force", says ABS head of labour statistics Bjorn Jarvis.

As a result Australia's participation rate, meaning the proportion of people either working or actively looking for work, has dropped by a whopping 2.4 percentage points to 63.5 per cent.

But the situation is worse when you consider cuts to people's hours, which the ABS has described as "extensive" in the wake of COVID-19 shutdowns. Total hours worked fell 9.2 per cent between March and April.

The bureau explains 2.7 million people - or one in five who were employed before the crisis hit - either left employment or had their hours reduced between March and April.

As a result, the number of underemployed people also rose sharply (up 603,300 people, to a total of 1.8 million people), and the underemployment rate rose to a record high 13.7 per cent (up 4.9 percentage points).

The underutilisation rate, which combines the unemployment and underemployment rates, also rose to a record high of 19.9 per cent.

The falls in employment and hours in April were consistent with the fall in payroll jobs for employers reporting through the Single Touch Payroll system published in the recent releases of Weekly Payroll Jobs and Wages in Australia.

That data showed a fall of around 607,000 paid jobs in Single Touch Payroll enabled employers over the same period.

Updated at Noon AEST on 14 May 2020

 


Myer to reopen eight more stores

Myer to reopen eight more stores

Department store Myer (ASX: MYR) will soon more than double the amount of reopened stores across Australia with bricks-and-mortar operations set to begin in WA and SA, along with further openings in NSW.

After bringing seven outlets on-stream in QLD and NSW in time for Mother's Day, Myer will trial the opening of the following eight stores this Saturday:

  • NSW: Albury, Dubbo, Wagga, Erina, Miranda
  • WA: Morley, Garden City
  • SA: Tea Tree Plaza

"Given the success and positive response from opening seven trial stores this past weekend, Myer has made the decision to open eight additional stores," a Myer spokesperson said.

"We look forward to welcoming more team members back to work, and more customers back to their favourite department store, where we have taken extra precautions to ensure Myer has a safe and hygienic shopping environment for all."

This now means that a quarter of the company's 60-strong store network is back in business, but the online side of the company that has thrived in this climate will continue with Click and Collect services now available at selected stores nationally.

The reopening comes after scenes of busy crowds at shopping centres ignoring social distancing etiquette last weekend, Myer has emphasised its focus on providing a safe working and shopping environment for its team members and customers.

Cleaning services will be increased across the trial stores, sneeze guards at registers will be progressively rolled out, and protective items such as hand sanitiser stations, face masks and gloves will be made available for team members.

Customers will be monitored to ensure social distancing is kept, while hand sanitiser will also be provided to shoppers

Some services at stores will however remain suspended to reduce close contact, such as beauty appointments, intimate apparel fittings, suit fittings and shoe fittings.

The new openings will come hot on the heels of Premier Investments opening doors for all of its remaining stores tomorrow, including Smiggle, Portmans, Just Jeans, Peter Alexander, Jay Jays, Jacqui E, and Dotti.

As of Myer's last Annual Report, Premier Investments held a 10.77 per cent stake in the company, and its chairman Solomon Lew had a fairly antagonistic relationship with the Myer board in 2017 and 2018 over management issues. 

Updated at 9:52am AEST on 14 May 2020.


Victoria's sport, tourism and creative industries to receive $150m boost

Victoria's sport, tourism and creative industries to receive $150m boost

The Victorian Government has thrown its support behind some of the sectors hardest hit by COVID-19 restrictions with a $150 million 'Experience Economy Survival Package'.

The fund will assist sporting clubs and competitions across the state, major tourist attractions, galleries and museums, and the racing industry.

Cumulatively these industries contribute nearly $70 billion to the economy according to the Victorian Government.

They were also some of the worst hit sectors when COVID-19 restrictions were put in place; Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg restrictions resulted in 33.4 per cent of jobs in the accommodation and food services sector and 27 per cent of jobs in the arts and recreation sector being lost.

The $150 million package includes $40 million for community sport and recreation bodies, including the state sporting associations, leagues and clubs.

National sporting organisations will receive $16 million, $5.3 million will go toward the State Sport Centres Trust and the Kardinia Park Stadium Trust and Victoria's racing industry will receive $44 million.

Under the package $32 million will go toward creative agencies and initiatives, and $6 million will support live music industry workers and other workers in the creative industries.

The package also includes $11 million for Victoria's tourism industry, with funding to be targeted at the Emerald Tourist Railway Board and other not-for-profit and privately-owned visitor attractions.

"Victorians love turning out for big events and while they can't do that currently, this support will go a long way to making sure our tourism, sport and racing bodies can rebound quickly as restrictions are lifted," Victorian Minister for Tourism, Sport and Major Events Martin Pakula said.

Support for the creative industry comes on top of a $16.8 million survival package already announced, bringing the total being delivered into the arts sector to more than $49 million.

"Victoria has the best galleries, museums and performance venues in the country and one of the best live music scenes anywhere in the world," Minister for Creative Industries Martin Foley said.

"They are central to life in this state and this funding is vital to safeguarding jobs in the $31 billion creative industries economy."

The Western Australian Government has also announced a support package for the tourism industry today worth $14.4 million.

The Survival Grants will target businesses located in parts of the State with more restrictive travel bans in place, or whose circumstances otherwise mean they will face a more difficult road to recovery.

Updated at 3:13pm AEST on 13 May 2020.


WA launches $14.4m package for small tourism operators

WA launches $14.4m package for small tourism operators

The Western Australian Government has today announced a multi-million dollar survival and recovery package to help small tourism businesses adapt to the COVID-19 landscape.

As the state looks set to cautiously ease some regional travel and other restrictions from Monday 18 May, the $14.4 million Tourism Recovery Program will support a staged return to business.

The initiative will start with $10.4 million in one-off cash grants for up to 1,600 individual small businesses around the state.

Worth $6,500 each, these grants will go to eligible sole traders and businesses with four or less employees and annual taxable wages of less than $1 million, covering sub-sectors such as accommodation, attraction, tour and transport.

The second, $4 million Tourism Business Survival Grants package will be available for tourism operators dealing with exceptionally difficult circumstances, with grants of $25,000-$100,000 available.

The Survival Grants will target businesses located in parts of the State with more restrictive travel bans in place, or whose circumstances otherwise mean they will face a more difficult road to recovery.

As of next Monday the number of borders within the state is set to drop from 13 to only four, allowing:

  • Travel between the South-West, Great Southern, Wheatbelt, Perth and Peel regions;
  • Travel between the Mid-West, Gascoyne and Pilbara regions (excluding Biosecurity zone);
  • Travel within the Goldfields-Esperance region (excluding the Biosecurity zone); and
  • Travel permitted within the Kimberley local government areas (the Commonwealth's Biosecurity zone remains in place).

Businesses that deliver iconic experiences are also eligible to apply for the survival payments. A probity auditor would review the robust and transparent criteria-led application and panel assessment.

As part of the application process, businesses are required to submit a recovery and marketing plan to outline how the funding will be used and indicate how their product, service or experience could be adapted. 

Businesses must have a valid Australian Business Number and be an active part of the WA tourism industry through membership of one of the State's eligible tourism organisations, or tourism accreditation programs.

"COVID-19 has been devastating for WA tourism - with thousands of small businesses impacted all around the State," says Premier Mark McGowan.

"Our hearts go out to everyone that has been impacted by this pandemic.

"This new funding package will help small tourism operators adjust and adapt their businesses away from targeting the international and interstate market and towards Western Australians."

The Premier says with the relaxation of restrictions it is expected thousands of Western Australians will be looking to travel around the state this year, and the plan is to have as many local businesses as possible benefit from these opportunities.

"I want to acknowledge every Western Australian for their patience during this COVID-19 pandemic. It's been trying and nothing like any of us have ever experienced before," he says.

"The broadened boundaries still impact areas including the regions north of our State and the Goldfields-Esperance region along with biosecurity regions and remote communities. The restrictions are in place to protect more vulnerable communities north of our State. Where we can alter these, we will.

"While it's starting to look more encouraging we're not out of the woods yet and every move and adjustment is made based on the best of health advice."

Tourism Minister Paul Papalia says in only a few short months WA tourism has gone from enjoying record international and interstate visitor numbers to a complete industry shutdown.

"The impact on the thousands of Western Australians who make their living in the sector has been severe," he says.

"With international and interstate border restrictions expected to remain for some time, we are now focused on helping tourism operators to adjust their businesses to appeal to the intrastate market.

"The Tourism Recovery Fund will provide cash grants direct to these small businesses to help them reorganise and refocus to the new environment."

Updated at 1:07pm AEST on 13 May 2020.


QLD Premier calls on Federal Government to settle its beef with China

QLD Premier calls on Federal Government to settle its beef with China

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has called upon the Federal Government to resolve escalating tensions with China that have impacted Australian beef exports.

The Premier's concerns arise from a growing trade dispute between China and Australia which has seen the former blacklist three Queensland red meat abattoirs.

The Queensland abattoirs in question are Kilcoy Pastoral Company (owned by Chinese company New Hope Investment), JBS-owned Beef City and Dinmore. JBS is one of the largest meat processing companies in the world and is based in Brazil.

The Australian-owned Northern Cooperative Meat Company in Casino, New South Wales, has also been blacklisted.

Speaking to the press this morning Palaszczuk said she has concerns that a trade war could result in 3,200 workers being impacted.

"China is an incredibly important trading partner to Queensland," Palaszczuk said.

"Most of our trade goes to China.

"What I'm really concerned about is this potential for a trade war to erupt and to damage Queensland's exports, to damage Queensland's reputation and to damage Queensland's jobs and livelihoods."

Palaszczuk says beef is a cornerstone element of the Queensland economy, generating $4.89 billion in exports and generating over 18,000 jobs.

The Queensland Minister for Agricultural Industry Development and Fisheries Mark Furner put it quite simply: "We don't need another beef with China".

"It was only around about this time last year I was in Hong Kong and Chongqing with a trade delegation, delivering the beautiful beef that Queensland is able to provide. In that territory of Chongqing there's an insatiable appetite for our beef, so that's why this issue is so important to Queensland," said Furner.

"I call on the Federal Government to resolve this as soon as possible, because it is such an important trade matter for Queensland and for our Queensland farmers as well."

As reported by the ABC yesterday Federal Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said the emerging trade dispute was a technical issue and not did not relate to the pressure Australia is placing on China to approve an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

Queensland reports just one new case of COVID-19

Just one new confirmed case of COVID-19 has been recorded in Queensland today, bringing the state's total to 1,052 cases including 18 active cases.

Premier Palaszczuk said the one new case was an "old" case.

Elsewhere in Australia New South Wales has reported six new cases today, and Victoria has reported seven.

In total there have been 6,980 confirmed cases of COVID-19 of which 6,273 have recovered.

Updated at 11:27am AEST on 13 May 2020.


Mesoblast raises $138m to bolster manufacturing for potential COVID-19 medicine

Mesoblast raises $138m to bolster manufacturing for potential COVID-19 medicine

Investors are betting big on Mesoblast's (ASX: MSB, NASDAQ: MESO) yet to be proven treatment for critically ill COVID-19 patients, with the announcement today it has successfully raised US$90 million (AUD$138 million).

Following "remarkable results" from a small sample of ventilator-dependent COVID-19 patients in New York, the Melbourne-based company recently embarked on a Phase 2/3 trial across more than 20 medical centres in the US; a target that has since risen to 30.

Based on bone marrow aspirate, Mesoblast's candidate product remestemcel-L is intravenously infused in patients suffering from acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS) - the most common cause of death from COVID-19 infections.

Around 300 patients are expected to participate in the trial over three to four months. 

In an institutional placement led by Bell Potter Securities with 43 million new shares on issue, new funds were raised at AUD$3.20 per share, representing a 7 per cent discount to the last MSB trading price. 

The sum itself is worth around 20 per cent of its market capitalisation before 20 March, but share values have more or less tripled since then.

Interest in Mesoblast started to build from that date when it was announced to the market that director Donal O'Dwyer had bought more than $100,000 worth of shares, just 10 days after the company had announced its pivot to using its stem cell treatment in COVID-19 lung infections.

Now the group plans to spend a significant portion of net proceeds on scaling up manufacturing of remestemcel-L, with the remainder to go towards working capital and general corporate purposes.

The use of remestemcel-L drastically improved survival rates in the initial trial at Mt Sinai Hospital in New York, at a rate of 83 per cent (10) compared to the average rate of 12 per cent for ventilator-dependent COVID-19 patients in the city.

Three in four patients were able to come off ventilator support within a median of 10 days, compared to a 9 per cent rate for patients treated with standard of care during March and April.

Led by founder and chief executive Silviu Itescu (pictured), Mesoblast previously had a predominant focus on applying its proprietary technology mostly to treat a condition called acute graft versus host disease (aGVHD), which many suffer after receiving a bone marrow transplant (BMT).

But on 10 March the company hypothesised Remestemcel-L would be able to treat what is known as a cytokine storm - a kind of hyperinflammatory syndrome - in the lungs that often occurs with serious Covid-19 cases. This prompted plans for trials across four continents.

"We greatly appreciate the support shown by both our existing investors and new institutional investors, with demand for the placement far exceeding the funds raised," says Itescu.

"We look forward to updating the market as this important COVID-19 ARDS trial progresses and to its completion in the coming months."

Updated at 11:31am AEST on 13 May 2020.


Treasurer: Private sector to drive economic rebound, not government

Treasurer: Private sector to drive economic rebound, not government

Speaking in Parliament today for the first time since 8 April, Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg (pictured) made his intentions clear for Australia's economic future.

At the centre of his plan are free market economic principles, small government and temporary assistance for those who are struggling.

The Government's ultimate aim is to reopen Australia to the point that businesses can recommence in a COVIDSafe economy, delivering billions to the national GDP.

"While there'll be a significant increase in government debt, which will take many years to repay, our measures have been designed in a way that protects the structural integrity of the budget," Frydenberg said.

"The proven path for paying back debt is not through higher taxes, which curtails aspiration and investment, but by growing the economy through productivity enhancing reforms.

"The values and the principals that have guided coalition reforms in the past must guide us again in the future... Unleashing the power of dynamic, innovative and open markets must be central to the recovery with the private sector leading job creation; not government."

According to Frydenberg, the national GDP is about to witness the results of a reopened Australia.

Once all restrictions are lifted the Treasury expects to see $9.4 billion returning to the economy.

But Frydenberg has warned that if restrictions need to be reimposed the GDP would be hit by more than $4 billion per week.

Under the three separate stages of the Federal Government's roadmap to recovery more than 850,000 people will be able to return to work.

More than half of these workers will come from three industries: the arts and recreation sector, the transport sector and the construction sector.

"Treasury estimates that as a result of easing the restrictions in line with stages One, Two, and Three, the GDP will increase by $9.4 billion each month," Frydenberg said.

This $9.4 billion will come directly from the reanimation of the retail sector, the opening of hospitality venues, and the opening of schools and local government buildings.

The relaxation of travel restrictions is also expected to contribute around $700 million.

Just lifting restrictions at Stage One will result in more than 250,000 people going back to work, and more than $3 billion additional GDP.

State by state, the Treasury estimates lifting Stage One restrictions will lead to:

  • 83,000 jobs and $1 billion in NSW;
  • 64,000 jobs and more than $715 million in VIC;
  • 51,000 jobs and $610 million in QLD;
  • 25,000 jobs and $435 million in WA;
  • 17,000 jobs and $178 million in SA;
  • 5,000 jobs and $50 million in TAS;
  • 4,000 jobs and $60 million in the ACT;
  • And 3,000 jobs and $40 million in the NT.

"These improvements in the economy depend on us continuing to follow their health advice," says Frydenberg.

"Failing to do so could see restrictions imposed at a loss of more than $4 billion a week to the economy."

His Statement to Parliament today was replete with some sobering figures about the current state of Australia's economy.

Unemployment is set to hit 10 per cent in the June quarter, household consumption is expected to be around 16 per cent lower, and business investment will be down 18 per cent.

The Treasurer will provide another update on Australia's economic situation in June and will detail the Federal Budget in October this year.

Updated at 1:36PM AEST on 12 May 2020.


Tasmanian restaurants, cafes and pubs to reopen next Monday as roadmap revealed

Tasmanian restaurants, cafes and pubs to reopen next Monday as roadmap revealed

Tasmanian's roadmap to recovery will see restaurants and cafes open for up to 10 people from Monday 18 May, putting the state on a path to rejuvenating its economy by mid-July.

A staged approach to lifting restrictions has been announced, guiding Tasmania back to a semblance of normality over the next two months.

Some restrictions on funerals and national parks were lifted yesterday, but the major changes will start next Monday.

"The changes are gradual, with careful monitoring of each stage to ensure our safeguards are working in reducing the risk of outbreaks and enabling health authorities to respond if needed," says the Tasmanian Government.

"The timeframe for the implementation of each stage is based on people following the rules and the ongoing success of the measures in protecting the community.

"For the staged approach to work, it needs your support to reduce the risk of outbreaks, ensuring cases can be identified and managed and keep us on track for the easing of restrictions."

Stage One

Stage One of Tasmania's roadmap commences on 18 May and will include allowing:

  • Gatherings of 10 people (except visitors to households, which is capped at five people) for indoor and outdoor including real estate, small religious gatherings and weddings;
  • Funerals can extend to 30 people outdoor;
  • Restaurants and cafes in all settings to open and seat patrons of up to 10 people at a time;
  • Community and local government facilities to open for up to 10 people;
  • Park exercise equipment and playgrounds, pools and boot camps open for up to 10 people.

Stage One will see changes implemented in tranches. The second tranche of Stage One will commence on 25 May and will allow:

  • Kindergarten to Year 6 students return to learning at school;
  • Year 11 and 12 students at extension schools and colleges return to learning at school;
  • Aged care visits will move to national restrictions of two visitors, once per day.

The third tranche of Stage One will commence on 9 June and will see high school students from years 7 to 10 going back to learning at school.

Racing will resume on 13 June 2020 subject to a review and risk-assessment by Public Health Tasmania.

Stage Two

Stage Two of the roadmap to recovery will commence on 15 June (subject to public health advice) and will allow:

  • Gatherings of 20 people for indoor and outdoor including restaurants/cafes, cinemas, museums, galleries, theatres, performance venues, historic sites, religious gatherings and weddings;
  • Funerals up to 50 people;
  • Accommodation services to recommence;
  • Camping, overnight boating and shacks to open with up to 20 people;
  • Gyms and boot camps for up to 20 people;
  • Beauty services for up to 20 people;
  • Park exercise equipment and playgrounds open for up to 20 people;
  • Outdoor community sport to resume, with up to 20 athletes/personnel;
  • Indoor sport and recreation, including pools with up to 20 people;

Visitors to households will be reviewed at this time and border controls will remain in place.

Stage 3

Stage 3 is expected to commence on 13 July 2020 (subject to public health advice) and will allow:

  • Gatherings of 50 to 100 people;
  • Aged care homes allowed five visitors and multiple visits;
  • Potentially reopening clubs, bars, nightclubs and casinos;
  • Markets to reopen;
  • Food courts and food vans at markets to recommence;
  • Spas and bathhouses to reopen;
  • Day trips and camping for school groups allowed;
  • Outdoor community sport to resume (with numbers to be determined later);
  • Indoor sport and recreation including pools (with numbers to be determined later).

Today's COVID-19 Australian case numbers

There have been 17 confirmed cases of COVID-19 today, all from Victoria, bringing the national total to 6961.

Eight people have recovered today, bringing the total recovered to 6190, with 670 cases still active.

Globally there have been 4.17 million cases of COVID-19 confirmed, with 1.34 million in the USA, and 285,945 confirmed deaths from COVID-19.

Updated at 10:49am AEST on 12 May 2020.


Deloitte Access Economics calls for "JobTweaker"

Deloitte Access Economics calls for "JobTweaker"

Deloitte Access Economics has applauded the Federal Government's $130 billion JobKeeper package, describing it as an economic lifeline that chose speed over elegance but "got the balance right for most people".

After the package was announced the consultancy reduced its forecast FY21 unemployment rate from 12 per cent to a peak of 8.5 per cent, implying the saving of more than half a million jobs.

However, Deloitte does not expect unemployment to return to pre-coronavirus levels of around 5 per cent until 2024. Bringing down the number of jobless while phasing out the wage subsidy will be a key policy challenge for the government.

"While Treasury is no doubt working up options to put on the table, we recommend that the federal government should opt for what we call 'JobTweaker' - tweaking JobKeeper to shore up a strong recovery," the group said.

"The aim is to save more jobs that can be saved, while recognising that there will be some we cannot save. Australians cannot keep a job that won't earn its keep, but we can keep more if we tweak JobKeeper.

"For JobKeeper to stop abruptly, all it would have done is have kicked the unemployment can down the road."

Deloitte notes there is a good chance the original $130 billion cost of JobKeeper won't be fully spent, as its costing was put together at a time when the outlook was at its bleakest.

"The more successful the measure has been the cheaper it has become, and many businesses -  and people -  thought that they qualified for JobKeeper when they didn't," the group said.

"This means a JobTweaker approach could potentially have a minimal impact on the budget bottom line. Every taxpayer dollar is vital. And so, it is vital that we make sure the $130 billion this nation is spending gets maximum bang for buck."

The consultancy proposes making JobKeeper "smaller, but for longer".

"JobKeeper eventually needs to go -  it costs a lot, it may cause competitive problems between firms, and its relationship with JobSeeker with respect to incentives to work is complicated," Deloitte Access Economics said.

In designing the phase-out, the group considers that:

  • The dignity of work will reign: Lots of good things will happen regardless of how JobKeeper is phased out. People want to work, and businesses want to reopen. We all want to get back to 'normal'. So, the incentives generated by JobKeeper and JobSeeker are important, but the dignity and purpose of work and individual aspirations are even more important.
  • Timing is everything: Different types of businesses will be opening in different states at different times, but JobKeeper is due to expire all at once on 27 September 2020. That means a complex problem will be addressed with a one-size-fits-all response. We can do better than that. We need to ensure there isn't a mass shift from JobKeeper to JobSeeker because some businesses simply can't sustain reopening or afford to keep their employees.
  • So, complexity is key: Where a one-size-fits-all approach on the way into hibernation worked, one size will not fit all on the way out. Different businesses and different occupations will open up at different times and at different speeds.
  • No zombies: One pandemic is enough for a lifetime and there is a risk that JobKeeper, as a measure designed to preserve jobs, could eventually create 'zombie firms' that neither fully recover, but don't go bankrupt. This would slow the broader recovery. But so too would a sudden stop to all support.

Deloitte Access Economics proposes the following ideas for considerations in the government's review in mid-June:

  • Phase JobKeeper out in line with a turnover measure over the short-term and in line with reopening steps. As turnover increases with economic activity, the JobKeeper payment steps down from $1,500 per fortnight to $0 until turnover begins to return to the pre-COVID levels. Just like the turnover drop made them eligible for JobKeeper in the first place, a turnover recovery could make them ineligible.
  • Or more simply, the payments could be withdrawn slowly from $1,500 a fortnight to lower amounts on succeeding fortnights: to $1,200, then $900, $600 and finally $300 adding eight weeks and a further $20 billion to its cost or potentially just using up the already 'unsubscribed' amount.
  • Even more narrowly, the government could take a targeted and more sectoral approach. For instance, it replaced JobKeeper with a $600 a fortnight supplement for just over three months (beyond September) for businesses that fit narrower criteria and have been hit the hardest: 20 workers or fewer, and working in industries such as air transport, food and accommodation and arts and recreation. Such a measure is estimated to cost around $1.5 billion a much smaller share of the unsubscribed JobKeeper pie, but equally sustaining a much smaller share of the economy.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has today dismissed any speculation JobKeeper would be wound back before its September end date as "very premature".

"We are six weeks into a six-month program. And the impact of the virus, how it will impact on Australia in the months ahead with a reopening economy is very much a work in progress," he said.

"In early March, I said we had to have programs that were targeted. We had to have programs that used existing distribution mechanisms within the government.

"Now, how that program can be adjusted to better support over that period or if there are sectors that come under greater strain over a longer period of time, these are all things that the government is fully aware of."

Updated at 4:21pm AEST on 11 May 2020.


NZ to ease restrictions further on Thursday

NZ to ease restrictions further on Thursday

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced the country will be moving to Alert Level 2 on Thursday, thus relaxing COVID-19 restrictions further.

Ardern says the NZ Government will approach the easing of restrictions gradually in order to manage the risks of moving too fast.

"At the moment, what we're being guided by is how do we open up the economy but in the safest way possible," says Ardern.

 New Zealanders will then be able gather in groups of up to 10 people, including at home, for weddings, funerals, cultural gatherings, religious ceremonies, and within a restaurant or venue.

Bars will have to wait until 21 May to reopen; a "pragmatic" decision according to the PM based on evidence and data gathered by the government.

"It does give us time to look at that extra data...to make sure we are moving safely," says Ardern.

"We will be looking to provide more support to business and that it something we will be announcing soon. But that of course is reflective of the fact that there will be some businesses who will take a while to gear up even when we start to move into Level 2."

Under this next stage, schools will resume next Monday.

New Zealand will remain in Alert Level 2 for two weeks, after which the Government will conduct a review and determine whether to stay at the same level of restrictions or not.

"The goal has always been as safely as possible to move back to some form of normality as soon as possible," says Ardern.

"We haven't put a final number on Level 2, but if we are able to sustain longer and no cases then that will mean that we are further and further towards our ongoing goal of elimination and we will be able to further open up.

"Regardless...even if we have low and low numbers we'll still be looking at border restrictions and we will still be encouraging everyone to practice those hygiene measures that will keep all of us safe."

Updated at 3:24pm AEST on 11 May 2020.

 


Victoria to take "cautious" approach to relaxing COVID-19 restrictions until June

Victoria to take "cautious" approach to relaxing COVID-19 restrictions until June

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews is cautiously relaxing COVID-19 restrictions, emphasising complacency could result in the virus getting out of control.

The State will relax gathering restrictions from 11:59pm on Tuesday night, enabling five guests to visit a household.

Unlike in other states, cafés, restaurants and bars will remain closed.

"At just 10 patrons the feedback has been pretty overwhelming, that that's not a model that is viable," says Andrews. 

"If we wait those three weeks when we move to go beyond just takeaway for cafés and restaurants, we might not have to stick with a number of 10. We might be able to go higher than that," he says.

For those working arrangements the message is the same: if you can work from home, keep doing so.

Other new rules include:

  • for outdoor activities like hiking, fishing, playing golf etc, groups must be restricted to no more than 10 people;
  • weddings will now be able to have 10 guests;
  • and up to 20 people will be able to attend funerals held indoors and up to 30 if they're outdoors.

These latest measures will remain in place until the end of May at the earliest and demonstrates Victoria's reluctance to follow in the footsteps of other States.

"There is a real need to be cautious," says Andrews.

"There is a need for us to take a small first step and be vigilant in following a new set of rules. This is not over. I wish it was, but it is not over.

"You only get one chance to do this right, unless of course you're prepared to settle for this stop start, rules changing, restrictions on and off, lockdowns, coming out of lockdowns, going back into lockdown. That hasn't worked in other countries and it certainly would not work here."

Andrews says restrictions on cafés, restaurants and pubs need to stay in place for now, to both stop the spread of COVID-19 and to ensure the future viability of businesses in the State.

"There will be a gradual opening up of the economy, a gradual relaxation of these rules, but each step, and particularly the first step, has got to be cautious, safe, and appropriate to the circumstances that we are dealing with," says Andrews.

The Premier cited the recent outbreak in Korea, where a single individual with COVID-19 attended a number of bars resulting in the re-closure of hundreds of bars across the country and the forced quarantine of more than 1,000 Koreans.

"We have to be very careful to not do too much too soon, because the problem then is it gets away from you," says Andrews.

"We've seen just how rapidly it spreads, not just in our state, in our nation."

For those Victorians still working from home today's announcement from the Premier has not changed much; the message to those who can work from home is that they should continue to do so.

"There are many Victorians, their employers and workers, who have, because of the work they do, been able to work from home, and I don't want to see that change," says Andrews.

"The fact that we're going to have literally hundreds of thousands of people visiting family and friends, that's a big step, that's a lot of movement that wasn't happening previously."

The announcement from Andrews comes as the State reports seven new cases of COVID-19, including one from the Cedar Meats processing facility, four from returning overseas travellers, and two under investigation.

The seven new cases take Victoria's total confirmed cases of COVID-19 to 1,494.

To date, 161,000 people have been tested in the largest testing regime ever implemented in Victoria. Of the 141,000 tests that have been processed Andrews says 30 cases were discovered that would've otherwise gone undetected.

This testing program will remain a feature of the rest of 2020 according to Andrews, though likely not at the immense scale the State has been undertaking to date.

Victoria's new rules are extremely cautious in comparison to how other states and territories in Australia have approached relaxing COVID-19 restrictions.

Today in South Australia the State is moving into Stage One of its COVID-19 roadmap to normality, which will allow outdoor dining, regional travel, and auctions.

Queensland will begin relaxing restrictions on 16 May, opening up restaurants, pubs and bars to 10 people indoors and a range of other relaxations including the opening of beauty therapy and nail salons with bookings, retail shopping, personal training, outdoor gyms, open homes and auctions, libraries and more.

Yesterday New South Wales announced it would be rolling back restrictions on 15 May, broadly in line with the policies of South Australia and Queensland, allowing restaurants and cafés to reopen with up to 10 patrons at a time.

And Western Australia, thanks to its hard border, will be more liberal with its easing of restrictions from 18 May, allowing the opening up of hospitality venues, indoor or outdoor fitness classes, and non-work gatherings, all with a maximum limit of 20 people.

Andrews says his cautious approach will ensure Victoria is the "envy" of the rest of the world in terms of how it handled the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The last thing we want to do is follow the example that so many other countries have given us," says Andrews.

"If you relax too many rules too quickly, then we will find ourselves back here and indeed worse. We will find ourselves in a lockdown even harder than the one that we are now coming out of.

"Our performance is the envy of the world. We need to make sure that we jealously guard that."

Updated at 11:51am AEST on 11 May 2020.

 


Scentre Group poised for retail return as COVID-19 restrictions ease

Scentre Group poised for retail return as COVID-19 restrictions ease

Around the country states are planning to ease COVID-19 restrictions, giving Australian retailers the confidence to reopen.

This is good news for the operator of Westfield centres, Scentre Group (ASX: SCG), as it remerges from the slowdown.

All 42 Westfield Living Centres remained open and trading during the quarter, but new life  is set to be injected over the coming weeks.

As of today 57 per cent of retailers in Scentre's portfolio are now open and trading, with "significantly more" expected to reopen over the coming weeks.

Scentre says it has seen an increase in customer visitation as more retailers have reopened.

Significantly, over this last weekend, there was double the visitation of just five weekends ago.

"All Westfield Living Centres have remained open throughout the pandemic. I am proud of the Group's focus on the health and wellbeing of our customers, retail partners and employees whilst maintaining business continuity and economy activity to the extent we possibly can," says Scentre Group CEO Peter Allen.

"Balancing these priorities remains our objective."

During the extended retail shutdown Scentre Group was slammed by retail giant Premier Investments (ASX: PMV) for its handling of the pandemic.

Premier Investments CEO Mark McInnes' was particularly critical of Scentre's hygiene standards.

"This issue is very real for Premier Retail - we have had two incidents in Scentre Group's Carindale mall where our team members were exposed to COVID-19-positive customers, and in both instances, when Scentre was notified, they took no action," McInnes alleged.

"We were made aware of these incidents by the affected customers themselves and the Queensland Health Department.

"We then notified Scentre, who to our knowledge took no steps to notify the other tenants, customers or the community of Carindale that positive COVID-19 cases had been shopping in the mall."

In a response, a Scentre Group spokesperson said its retail partners and centre management followed the correct Queensland Health protocols at Westfield Carindale.

"The Queensland Health advice was these individuals posed no risk to any customers, retailers or employees," the spokesperson said.

"As a precaution, the relevant retailers closed their stores temporarily for deep cleaning. Centre management also conducted additional cleaning."

The company increased its liquidity to $3.1 billion in April in response to the financial crisis. As a result of additional refinancing of bank facilities the amount of debt maturing through to December 20201 has been further reduced to $1.9 billion.

To mitigate the damage of COVID-19 Scentre implemented a range of initiatives targeting more than a 25 per cent reduction in centre operating expenses during the pandemic period.

These initiatives included a 20 per cent reduction in base Board fees, while the Senior Leadership team also agreed to a 20 per cent pay cut.

Across the group more than 80 per cent of employee's roles were adjusted, including moving to reduced remuneration of reduced hours. These arrangements will be reviewed in August 2020.

Scentre still doesn't expect to pay an interim distribution to shareholders for the half year period ending 30 June 2020, and the company's FY20 guidance remains suspended.

"The Group believes that retaining this capital will further strengthen its financial position and ability to continue to deliver long term returns to its securityholders," says Scentre.

Shares in Scentre Group are up 3.64 per cent to $2.28 per share at 10:20am AEST.

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Suncorp reveals COVID-19 hit and up to $70 million in staff underpayments

Suncorp reveals COVID-19 hit and up to $70 million in staff underpayments

Queensland-based financial institution Suncorp (ASX: SUN) has detailed the full impact of COVID-19 on its business, as well as major staff underpayments across the group today.

In a company update Suncorp says it is well capitalised to ride out the COVID-19 pandemic, despite expecting a $133 million impact due to the coronavirus crisis.

The announcement coincides with an update on Suncorp's pay and leave entitlements review, with Suncorp expecting costs to remediate underpaid staff to land in the range of $40 to $70 million.

Unlike other major financial institutions Suncorp will not be embarking on a capital raise to increase its cash buffer, as it claims it entered the pandemic in a sound financial position.

Group Excess Common Equity Tier 1 at 31 March 2020 was $682 million, and the company will rely on its conservative investment portfolio with more than 94 per cent of investments in cash and fixed income securities.

According to Suncorp the impact of COVID-19 will materialise in reduced consumer motor claims volumes, increased landlord loss of rent claims and negative market-to-market movements on its investment portfolio.

Costs during FY20 are now going to be slightly above $2.7 billion including the pay and leave entitlements remediation program.

According to Suncorp Group CEO Steve Johnston the company was quick to respond to the COVID-19 crisis by realigning its business, supporting its customers, and protecting its stakeholders to prepare for the post-COVID-19 environment.

Johnston says the company has already received thousands of requests for financial hardship relief from both Suncorp's bank and insurance customers and has provided discounts and premium waivers to 12,300 insurance customers in Australia and New Zealand and approved $4.05 billion in loan deferrals.

"A key priority for us is to ensure our customers are protected and prioritising those most in need," says Johnston.

"We have launched several support packages and financial hardship options, and we have been working closely with industry bodies, government and regulators to ensure a coordinated response."

The bushfire crisis at the beginning of 2020 forced Suncorp to mobilise on an extraordinary scale; the company set up customer support teams in bushfire affected areas to assist impacted customers with claims lodgements, access to emergency funds and temporary accommodation.

So far Suncorp has delivered a claims response to the 12 declared events with over 72,000 claims lodged across its company.

For bushfire customers, 70 per cent of property claims and 80 per cent of motor claims have been finalised, while for storm, hail & flood customers over 30 per cent of the 35,000 consumer home claims and almost 60 per cent of the 28,000 consumer motor claims have been finalised.

As for the underpayments issue, Johnston says he is disappointed to have let team members down, and the company is implementing processes to ensure a problem of this scale does not occur again.

"As a Suncorp employee of long standing I am incredibly disappointed that we have let our people down there is no excuse and we need to get this right," says Johnston.

"I want to offer my sincere apologies to those who may have been affected."

Suncorp says it is still too early to determine individual impacts, but the group will recognise $40 to $70 million in remediation payments in its FY20 results.

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