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March 29, 2021

Australia ends pandemic wage subsidy


March 29, 2021

SYDNEY: Australia on Sunday ended a pandemic wage subsidy scheme despite official warnings that up to 150,000 people could lose their jobs as a result.

The so-called JobKeeper scheme, which initially saw Aus$1,500 a fortnight paid to staff via their employers, was announced last March after Australia imposed a nationwide shutdown that left thousands queueing outside unemployment offices.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the programme had been an "economic lifeline" that has achieved the aim "of saving lives and saving livelihoods" over the past year. He told reporters in Melbourne there was "no doubt that there will be some businesses that will continue to do it tough" but the subsidies were always designed to be "temporary". Australia’s unemployment rate fell to 5.8 percent in February -- down from 7.5 percent in July -- but the Treasury estimates between 100,000 and 150,000 jobs could be lost as a result of the change. Australian Council of Trade Unions president Michele O’Neil said many more workers were likely to see their hours and pay slashed.

"1.1 million workers face an uncertain future without the JobKeeper wage subsidy, which has prevented catastrophic job losses during the pandemic and is now being ripped away," she said.

"Cutting off JobKeeper while so many workers are still reliant on it is both cruel and counter-productive to our economic recovery." At the height of the crisis, the scheme was supporting almost four million jobs.

Officials twice extended the programme over the past 12 months, albeit at lower rates as the spread of Covid-19 was brought under control and the economy began to recover. Australia has been relatively successful in managing the coronavirus -- recording roughly 29,000 cases and less than 1,000 deaths to date -- with recent outbreaks linked to border quarantine facilities generally being quashed quickly.

Its economy tipped into recession in the first half of 2020 but grew 3.1 percent in the September-December quarter.Meanwhile, France will have caught up with Britain on the number of people vaccinated against Covid-19 "in a few weeks", President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview on Sunday amid a row with Britain over vaccine access.

France’s inoculation drive has been criticized as slow, with 11.45 percent of French people having received one or more jabs, compared with 43.79 percent of Britons. But Macron told Le Journal du Dimanche (JDD) newspaper France had significantly ramped up the pace of inoculation and suggested Britain’s campaign could face headwinds.

"In a few weeks we will have completely caught up with the British, who will meanwhile be increasingly dependent on us to vaccinate their population," he said. His remark appeared to refer to stocks of the Anglo-Swedish vaccine AstraZeneca that are produced in EU member states.

The EU has threatened to ban pharma firms from exporting coronavirus vaccines to Britain and other well-supplied countries until they make good on their promised deliveries to the bloc -- a threat directed mainly at British-based AstraZeneca.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian on Friday suggested Britain, which has prioritized getting first vaccine doses to as many people as possible, would struggle to obtain the second doses they needed for full protection.

"The United Kingdom has taken great pride in vaccinating well with the first dose except they have a problem with the second dose," he told France Info radio. The row with Britain comes as doctors at Paris hospitals swamped by Covid-19 cases warned they would soon have to start choosing which lives to save.

Meanwhile, growing numbers of schools are temporarily closing classrooms over infections among staff and pupils. Meantime, a recent plateau in new Covid infections in the United States was likely linked to the "premature" easing of anti-virus efforts in some places, top pandemic advisor Anthony Fauci said on Sunday. While the emergence of coronavirus variants is part of the problem, so are states that are "pulling back on the mitigation" too soon, he told CBS’s "Face the Nation."

When case numbers begin to plateau, he said, "you’re really in danger of a surge coming up." "We’ve seen that in our own country, and that’s exactly what’s happened in Europe in several of the countries in the European Union, where they plateaued and then started to come back."

After a spike over the fall and winter in the United States that reached into the hundreds of thousands of new cases daily, infections have come to levels near 50,000 reported per day. The United States has suffered the highest reported absolute toll at just over 549,000 deaths since the pandemic started, but has now made an aggressive push to roll out vaccines.

In a related development, Slovenia, which had eased some of its coronavirus restrictions in February, said Sunday that they would be re-imposed until mid-April in view of the deteriorating situation in some neighbouring countries.

"We’re in a race against time," Prime Minister Janez Jansa told a news conference, announcing the closure of shops selling non-essential items, as well as cultural and religious venues, a ban on public gatherings and limits on travel between April 1 and 12.

People would be asked to work from home where possible and schools would resume distance learning, the premier said. "We hope to see a positive effect from the lockdown after April 12," Jansa said.

People would only be allowed to leave the country on presentation of proof of vaccination or post-infection immunity, he said. "We’ll only reach a sufficient level of vaccination to curb the epidemic in June," Jansa continued.

"Until then, we will have to take all the necessary measures to contain the spread of the British variant" of Covid-19, which is much more easily transmissible. So far, around 200,000 people -- or two percent of the population -- have received at least one vaccine jab, according to official data.

Slovenia has reported just over 4,000 deaths since the start of the pandemic, making it one of the hardest-hit countries in the European Union relative to the size of the population, with 193 deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants.