Melburnians under COVID lockdown now eligible for federal support but welfare groups say payments aren't enough

The federal government has announced new financial support measures for regions that are locked-down for more than seven days in a row.

There will be one item on the agenda when Scott Morrison chairs an emergency national cabinet meeting on Monday - the COVID-19 vaccine rollout.

There will be one item on the agenda when Scott Morrison chairs an emergency national cabinet meeting on Monday - the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Source: AAP

Struggling Australians who have endured coronavirus lockdown for more than seven days in a row will be eligible for new support payments of up to $500 per week. 

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the temporary COVID disaster payment will be made on a weekly basis, in response to the extended lockdown affecting metropolitan Melbourne.

"That will be a payment of $500 for those who would ordinarily work more than 20 hours in a week and $325 for those who would work less than 20 hours a week," he told reporters in Canberra on Thursday.

The government says the payment is designed to help tied people over who can’t go to work and will be available to Australian citizens, permanent residents and eligible working visa holders.

This means temporary protection visa holders and international students are eligible if they have the right to work in Australia.

But unions and welfare groups have labelled the payment "tokenistic" support, concerned whether the scope of the scheme will reach vulnerable groups such as underemployed casuals and temporary visa holders.

There are several strings attached in order to qualify for the new payment.

People will need to self-declare they would normally have worked in that period and lost income.

They must also be Australian residents over 17 years old, and must prove they have used up all their “appropriate leave entitlements” including the special pandemic sick leave.

They must also declare they have less than $10,000 in liquid assets and must not be receiving any other income support payment or pandemic payment. 

“We are talking about somebody getting through the next week who would normally be in an economic situation where every dollar counts,” Mr Morrison added.

Melburnians struggling under COVID lockdown now eligible for payments of up to $500 per week

Residents of areas declared a Commonwealth hotspot will only be allowed to apply.

It comes as Melburnians prepare for a second week in hard lockdown, after acting Premier James Merlino announced stay-at-home orders would remain in metropolitan Melbourne for a further seven days.

Victoria has been calling for federal support for days as workers and businesses brace for the financial impact of an extended lockdown.

It's the first extended lockdown without the federal government's JobKeeper wage subsidy, which ended in March. 

'More holes than Swiss cheese'

The federal government's announcement has attracted a mixed response from industry groups, unions and welfare advocates, many who had been calling for a "JobKeeper 2" wage subsidy for more than a week. 

Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said the payment would help "take some of the sting out of the grim situation" facing many Victorian families and businesses.

"It will allow many people to pay their bills and support their families while returning some of the lost spending back into the economy," he said. 

Victorian Council of Social Service (VCOSS) chief executive Emma King welcomed the announcement, but said the payment "isn't perfect" and "has more holes than Swiss cheese". 

"It doesn't help you if you're an underemployed casual, a migrant worker, an asylum seeker or an international student," she said. 

"It doesn't help you if you're currently unemployed. You're still meant to rely on the inadequate JobSeeker payment."

Ms King added the eligibility criteria is "extremely narrow", but conceded it's "better than nothing". 

Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) president Michele O'Neil said the announcement is no replacement for a wage subsidy and will not guarantee affected Victorian workers will have a job to return to once the lockdown is lifted. 

"The payment that has been announced is no replacement for a wage subsidy available fast to everyone affected, which would keep working people attached to their jobs through a lockdown," she said. 

“This payment will leave working people with nothing for a full week before a restricted number are able to access a small support payment, a third below the minimum wage and half the standard disaster relief payment, which will not secure their employment."

The ACTU says the federal government has ignored calls from unions, employers and state governments for "JobKeeper 2" to be put in place. 

"After a week of delay, the Morrison government has been forced to provide tokenistic support for the millions of Victorian workers who have been suffering through a lockdown caused by the failure of the federal government on the vaccine rollout and on quarantine," it says. 

Dr Cassandra Goldie, Australian Council of Social Service chief executive, agreed while the payments announced on Thursday will provide much-needed support for many people, a national plan to protect jobs and incomes is needed.

"We need to also see action on increasing the JobSeeker payment and re-introducing a targeted JobKeeper," she said. 

The prime minister denied the announcement was an admission his government was partially responsible for Victoria's lockdown. 

He acknowledged many Melburnians would be struggling in the next week.

"That is going to be tough on families, tough on people working from home," the prime minister said.

"That is going to be tough on essential workers who still need to go to food processing jobs and health jobs and nursing and aged care and all of those health support (jobs)."

He said the costs of funding the payment should be split 50-50 between the Commonwealth and the state.

People can apply for the payments through Centrelink from Monday 7 June.

The Victorian government on Tuesday announced an extra $209 million towards its support package to help business through the latest shutdown.

This adds to a $250 million package announced on Sunday.

With reporting by Emma Brancatisano and AAP

Published 3 June 2021 at 1:25pm, updated 3 June 2021 at 5:03pm
By Rashida Yosufzai