Coalition rebuffs request by NSW treasurer to bring back jobkeeper to curb Sydney Covid outbreak

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

The federal government is resisting calls to redirect existing vaccine supply to south-west Sydney and reintroduce wage subsidies to combat the Covid-19 outbreak, but has ordered 85m doses of Pfizer to arrive from 2022.

On Sunday the federal treasurer, Josh Frydenberg, pointed to increased take-up of AstraZeneca as a means to boost vaccination rates and described existing disaster payments as “effective” and “flexible”, rebuffing calls from his NSW counterpart for jobkeeper payments.

But the prime minister, Scott Morrison, has left the door ajar to further support in future, telling reporters in Canberra the federal government is “very open to consider how we deal with the situation as it further evolves”.

On Sunday, as NSW recorded 141 new cases, the state’s treasurer, Dominic Perrottet, made a public appeal for more federal financial support to support the lockdown.

Related: Sydney Covid crisis could take months to recede if other outbreaks are anything to go by

“As case numbers escalate or remain stubborn, there will need to be extra financial support from the federal government,” he told the Sydney Morning Herald.

“We believe that jobkeeper was instrumental in keeping the nexus between workers and businesses. This won’t be forever, but we do need it now because when NSW goes well, the country goes well.”

Labor frontbencher Bill Shorten joined calls from Australian unions for jobkeeper, and went further than leader Anthony Albanese in calling for states with low or no Covid cases to send spare Pfizer to Sydney.

On Friday NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, publicly requested other states give their Pfizer doses to combat the greater Sydney outbreak, then took an alternate proposal to national cabinet to cancel GP appointments in her state to free up Pfizer doses that way for a short-term vaccination blitz.

Both calls were rebuffed, first by state leaders and then at national cabinet by Scott Morrison, who warned he would not “disrupt the vaccination program around the rest of the country”.

On Saturday, the federal government gave New South Wales an extra 50,000 Pfizer doses and the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation urged all adults in greater Sydney to “strongly consider” getting vaccinated, even with AstraZeneca, which until now it has said is not “preferred” for those aged under 60.

The Morrison government announced on Sunday it had bought 60m Pfizer doses to arrive in 2022 and 25m in 2023, enough to provide every Australian with a booster vaccine if required.

“This will ensure individuals, families and communities have certainty about their continued protection against the evolving threat of Covid-19 over the next two years,” Morrison said in a statement.

Asked whether current Pfizer doses should be redirected to south-west Sydney, Frydenberg told Sky News Pfizer had brought forward 3m of the doses it had expected to deliver in the fourth quarter of the year to the third quarter, allowing the federal government to deliver 150,000 extra doses to NSW earlier in July.

“The key here is: what was recommended yesterday by Atagi – that new medical advice – is extremely significant,” he said.

“We now have an alignment between the reality on the ground with the outbreak in greater Sydney and the medical advice – that’s very, very significant.

“Because what Atagi has said is that for any adult in the greater Sydney area they are strongly recommending that people receive the vaccine regardless of which one they’re eligible for.”

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“That’s important because we know we have AstraZeneca available, but we haven’t seen the huge take-up.”

Frydenberg insisted the brand damage to AstraZeneca from rare but potentially deadly blood clots had not been too great, and noted the benefits of vaccination – preventing deaths from Covid which kills one in 100 people who contract it – outweigh the one in 1 million chances of death from clots.

In New South Wales, case numbers continued to climb with 163 new locally acquired cases reported on Saturday, leading to warnings it will take months to bring the current outbreak under control.

Related: ‘Trust the science’ is the mantra of the Covid crisis – but what about human fallibility?

Frydenberg responded to the call for jobkeeper to return by saying that state governments including NSW had agreed to the current arrangements, describing the disaster payments of up to $600 for households as “fast and flexible”.

“We have effective payments going out to households,” he said, noting the payments are set at the level of jobkeeper in December 2020.

Frydenberg also described them as “more flexible”, warning that a return to jobkeeper could see employees of national companies in Sydney locked out of wage subsidies due to their employers’ financial performance in states with smaller outbreaks.

Scott Morrison said that NSW is receiving $250m a week in business support and $220m per week in disaster payments to households from the federal government.

Shorten told the ABC’s Insiders that he was “sick” of Australia having become “the United Nations of Australia” or “eight mini countries”.

“I think in Victoria and the rest of Australia, if there are unsubscribed, unscheduled vaccines, Sydney is where the trouble is, so we’re Australians first,” he said.

When it was noted very few Pfizer doses are unsubscribed – Shorten suggested there may be doses in “Western Australia or Queensland”, two states with no or low cases.

Shorten accused the NSW government of having “sneered” at Victorian premier Daniel Andrews in 2020 during the second wave lockdown, but said that “two wrongs don’t make a right”.

“There is just also not that much Pfizer in Australia … if the feds had done their day job, we wouldn’t be having this Balkanisation of the federation of Australia.”

Shorten called on the government to set a target of the population that must be vaccinated to ease Covid restrictions, suggesting that a level of 80% of people aged 12 and over was consistent with expert advice.

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