More than 800,000 jobseeker claims have been processed since COVID-19 hit Australia, and state and territory ministers plan to roll out a pandemic-related mental health plan.
Scott Morrison told a press conference on Wednesday the jobseeker payment would not stay at the current increased rate once Australia has wrapped up its pandemic response.
“This was an emergency response measure. This was not a change in the government’s view about the broader role of the social safety net in Australia,” he said.
“I fear worse statistics coming forward on the economy in the months ahead and we need to prepare ourselves for that. That’s why jobseeker and jobkeeper were put in place, to deal with the heavy blow that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to have on the Australian economy.”
The PM said social restrictions would soon be eased across the country, noting 2.8 million people have downloaded the recently released coronavirus contact tracing app. Despite a potential lift on domestic travel restrictions in the coming weeks, he confirmed international travel would not be resuming anytime soon, with the possible exception of New Zealand.
Head of the National Mental Health Commission Christine Morgan also gave an update on mental health statistics during the pandemic. Beyond Blue has seen a 40% increase in people contacting it compared to this time last year, with more people showing higher distress levels and increased anxiety. Roughly 1m telehealth mental health consultations have taken place since mid-March.
Despite these statistics, there has actually been an overall decrease in the use of mental health services across Australia during the pandemic, according to Morgan.
“For those who would normally be using mental health services to support their mental health and wellbeing, or their mental health challenges, they are not actually going out and doing those visits,” she said.
“We are also hearing – and this is anecdotal … that people aren’t feeling as safe as they once did. That is a concern.”
Morgan said she would address the national cabinet at its next meeting on Friday. She has been working with state and territory mental health ministers to develop a plan to tackle mental health issues, which is scheduled to be rolled out soon.
“We are looking at significantly ramping up our ability to coordinate service delivery, to ensure that the accessibility that we have opened up with telehealth, the accessibility that we have opened up with increased digital and online services, is able to be accessed by Australians in a way that passes across our jurisdictional and commonwealth systems,” she said.
“We need to make that work better. We need to ensure that anybody who actually needs a service is reached … We know when we look at those we lose to suicide that 50% of those we lose have not come in touch with our mental health services. We are looking at what we can do by way of outreach.
“So the commonwealth is working in conjunction with the states and the territories on a plan, on a mental health response plan, which will look at what we are doing on the current scenario … Then we will look at what is the appropriate response as we ease those restrictions, and we must ease those restrictions.”
Morgan noted that the pandemic has left many people feeling, understandably, like they have lost control over their lives. To help alleviate the mental health impacts of the pandemic, she suggested people set and follow a routine within their home.
“You can actually have more freedom to do that than perhaps we can when we’re going to work and doing other things,” she said.
“I think psychologically it’s really important, it’s also really good for our health that we have a routine. Doing things like the right amount of exercise, sleeping, not too much alcohol, those kinds of things I think are really important and reaching out to others.”
She said it was also important to stay social online and reach out to others, as being physically distant shouldn’t mean also being socially distant.
On the increasing backlash from China, Morrison reiterated that Australia would continue to push for an independent investigation into the global response to and origins of the coronavirus.
“This is a virus that has taken more than 200,000 lives across the world. It has shut down the global economy. The implications and impacts of this are extraordinary. Now, it would seem entirely reasonable and sensible that the world would want to have an independent assessment of how this all occurred, so we can learn the lessons and prevent it from happening again,” he said.