Coronavirus Government Global Briefing: May 13

By Chris Woods

Wednesday May 13, 2020

Welcome to Coronavirus Government Global Briefing, Mandarin Premium’s morning update on everything in local and global government responses to the COVID-19 outbreak.

Boris Johnson sparks confusion with new lockdown plans

On Sunday night, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered an excellent example of how not to announce plans to ease restrictions.

As CNN reported at the time, Johnson announced in a television address that the “Stay at home” directive to save lives would move to “Stay alert” under the 51-page ‘Our plan to rebuild: The UK Government’s COVID-19 recovery strategy‘. The government also announced a new 1-5 alert system based on combining the transmission rate (R) with active cases.

Specifically, Johnson attracted criticism for urging people to avoid public transport and stay at home if possible, while also claiming those unable to work from home — specifically people in manufacturing, construction, and food production — should be “actively encouraged” to return to work.

Reuters reports that Johnson’s deputy, Dominic Raab, also presented multiple, conflicting versions of whether or not people could visit close family members.

On top of the direction to return to work, people in England will today be allowed to take unlimited outdoor exercise, sit in parks, drive to other destinations and play sports with family members. Johnson also announced a 14-day quarantine for most international arrivals — excluding visitors from Ireland and France — that, from an Australian perspective, appears roughly two months after the fact.

Source: ‘Our plan to rebuild’.

Moving forward, primary schools will be able to reopen no earlier than 1 June, while a third stage in July will involve reopening non-essential businesses, hospitality and indoor events.

Epidemiologists have criticised the R + cases alert system, while Labour leader Keir Starmer has hit out at the lack of clarity around business reopening:

“What the country needs at this time is clarity and reassurance and at the moment both are in pretty short supply. At the heart of the problem it seems that the prime minister made a statement last night before the plan was written, or at least finalised.

“…Many of us have questions that need answering. How can we be sure our workplaces are now safe to return to? How do our police enforce these rules? And why our some parts of the United Kingdom now on a different path to others?”

Meanwhile, Leaders in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales will also stick to “stay at home” policies for now; contrary to Johnson’s directive, they will also not allow unlimited travel.

It’s not just the botched announcement

Delivery issues aside, Johnson’s plan to reopen parts of the economy at this stage of the outbreak has attracted criticism from, amongst others, former government chief scientific adviser Sir David King.

For context, seven-day average for new cases in the UK currently sit at 4,655, only a slight improvement from a peak of 5,519 on 14 April.

In a more damning Guardian op-ed, Oxford epidemiologist David Hunter took issue with an apparent lack of testing and tracing preparations, alleging the government’s plan for “a large-scale return to work without the ability to test, trace and isolate risks creating super-spreader events:”

“The key words in Boris Johnson’s speech on Sunday were ‘you should go to work if you can’t work from home’. He made no mention of preparations for tracing and testing contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19. In the plan published today, a newly appointed test and trace taskforce will begin to develop such a system.”

Additionally, the BBC has published a workers’ guide suggesting employees have not have the right to decline requests to return to work. However, as The New Daily reports, the government has extended the wage subsidy scheme for four months, until the end of October.

Johnson’s directive also created an immediate spike in public transport use, while Raab has refused to answer whether employees would be able to reject work if they felt insecure, saying “it’s very difficult to answer that hypothetically.”

Finally, while even larger businesses have cited confusion over the back-to-work plans, a coalition of Labour MPs have slammed the focus on those who cannot work from home as disproportionately affecting lower-waged workers.

Geopolitical wrap

  • A Visiting Fellow with ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, Dr Su-Ann Oh, has unpacked why the Myanmar military has — unlike counterparts in Cameroon, the Philippines, Yemen and Syria — unequivocally rejected calls for an unconditional nationwide ceasefire to enable non-state armed ethnic groups to fight against outbreak.
  • As CNN reports, Canada has announced a $3 billion wage hike for essential workers, “in a blunt admission that many who are now risking their health to work during the pandemic are in some cases making the least.”
    • Canada has also joined Denmark and Poland in denying bailout funding to firms that operate through offshore tax havens (The Star).
  • New Zealand, like Australian governments, has come under fire for excluding non-residents from welfare payments; as Newsroom reports, one non-resident family of seven was provided a Civil Defence Emergency Management package, meant to last the entire lockdown, consisting of two cans of baked beans, two spaghetti tins, along with onions, potatoes, canned chickpeas, rice, flour, and sugar.
  • The New York Times has investigated claims of racial bias in America’s medical community, after an African-American man died after being sent home from a Chicago medical clinic that did not test him.
  • Cesar Augusto Mba Abogo, Minister of Finance, Economy and Planning in Equatorial Guinea, has argued in a new World Economic Forum piece that Africa’s pandemic has forced nations to confront failing health systems, deliver social support, and, with regards to supply challenges, debate the necessary industrialisation of the continent.
  • Finally, the ABC reports that South Korean authorities have tracked and tested thousands of people linked to nightclub clusters, but fear some could be put off coming forward as some cases have been linked to gay bars.

On the home front: NSW, South Australia introduce next stage legislation

Yesterday, the New South Wales and South Australian governments introduced legislation covering multiple facets of both current and future lockdown periods.

In NSW, Attorney General Mark Speakman introduced three bills — the main bill, COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures—Attorney General) Bill 2020, as well as amendments relating to Treasurer and Miscellaneous reformsthat propose “extraordinary regulation-making powers to enhance social distancing by”:

  • the modification or suspension of laws requiring people to hold meetings in person, for example a board meeting or physical examination by a medical practitioner for a particular purpose;
  • the facilitation of wholly electronic signing of documents (the government continues to consult on what classes of documents will be affected); and
  • the extension of limitation periods to take into account delays caused by the pandemic.

Other amendments cover the following areas:

  • Health: The proposed health amendments will expand the ability of individual public health orders to require people to undergo testing or a medical examination and streamline COVID-19 medical research and data collection for a public health register. They will allow for COVID-19-related conditions to be placed on the licences of private health facilities and also for audio-visual link mental health examinations.
  • Justice: Where a judicial officer decides it is in the interests of justice, accused persons will be required to appear in court via video link. Sheriff’s Officers will be given authority to protect court users from the risk of COVID-19 by being able to ask people who display signs of illness, including fever, to leave the court. They may also take the temperature of anyone attending court. When assisting agencies like the NSW Police Force in enforcing Public Health Orders, Sheriff’s Officers will have powers of arrest.
  • Employee relations: Changes to annual leave and long service leave laws will provide welcome, flexible alternatives to standing down workers. Long service leave will be available in single day periods to shorten working weeks, but maintain income. Local government sector workers will be able to agree to cash out annual leave, or take it at half or double pay. The employee must have at least four weeks’ leave entitlement remaining after it is cashed out.
  • Treasury: The government will provide a payroll tax exemption for JobKeeper payments made to workers who have been stood down, and for any extra wages paid to workers that earn less than the JobKeeper payment. This additional payroll tax relief will help keep people in jobs and support businesses who sign up to the commonwealth’s JobKeeper scheme.
  • Planning: Amendments to the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979 will extend the timeframe for when a development consent lapses and when appeals can be lodged in the Land and Environment Court. The amount of time a business can remain empty before it loses its existing use rights will be extended from one to three years. These changes will provide more certainty for the community, business owners and the development industry and support NSW’s economic recovery.
  • Energy and environment: Amendments to the Waste Avoidance and Resource Recovery Act will allow the EPA to temporarily exempt businesses struggling because of COVID-19 from certain requirements of the container deposit scheme, such as fees, charges and other regulatory requirements. The bill will also support businesses, tradies and workers in the energy industry by creating a regulation-making power to establish the Energy Security Safeguard. The safeguard will drive the rollout of technologies such as energy efficient and smart appliances in a way that improves grid reliability and lowers power prices.
  • Better regulation: A series of amendments to the Strata Schemes Management Act, Community Land Management Act and Retirement Villages Act will remove the need for face-to-face meetings by allowing retirement village committees, owners’ corporations and associations in community schemes to operate electronically. Changes to the Contract Cleaning Industry Act 2010 will temporarily eradicate the 20-week waiting period, to fast track long service payments for those who have permanently left the industry after 5 years.
  • Local government: Changes will allow councils to apply the rate peg more flexibly and respond to changing economic conditions such as COVID-19, bushfires and drought. The minister will have the power to limit a council’s general income as an added safeguard against it disproportionately burdening one sector of the community (such as residential, business, agricultural or mining). Subject to certain conditions, the government is also placing a two-year moratorium on council chambers and offices building works to ensure investment in infrastructure projects (such as roads, bridges, parks and sports grounds), which directly benefit the community and contribute to local economic recovery. The changes will also prevent councils taking legal action for outstanding rates for six months for ratepayers experiencing financial hardship, and provide local government workers with flexibility around leave entitlements to help councils minimise job losses and manage and retain staff.
  • Families and communities: Amendments to the Children’s Guardian Act 2019 will maintain continuity of current child protection regulations relevant to the Children’s Guardian’s functions until 1 March 2021, so that there is no gap in coverage while consultation on new regulations is undertaken. Extending the timeframe for consultation gives stakeholders greater flexibility to provide meaningful input in light of COVID-19 restrictions.

In South Australia, Attorney-General, Vickie Chapman introduced the COVID-19 Emergency Response (Further Measures) Amendment, which includes:

  • Reducing red tape to ensure major infrastructure projects can get started sooner, creating more jobs and economic activity across the state. Measures include removing the requirement for the State Commission Assessment Panel to consult with councils on crown developments.
  • Ensuring that community visitors and the chief psychiatrist can visit and inspect mental health and disability services remotely, through audio-visual or other electronic means.
  • Confirming that standing committees of state parliament can meet and hold hearings by audio-visual or teleconferencing
  • Legislative measures to ensure continued electricity supply to South Australians.
  • Regulations that, following $50 million in land tax relief, ensure landlords will negotiate with affected* tenants rent relief, on a case by case basis, having regard to factors including:
    • the reduction in the turnover of the tenant;
    • the tenant’s ability to pay rent; and
    • the ability of the landlord to provide rent relief, with a condition that at least 50% of the rent relief must be in the form of a waiver and the remainder able to be deferred for up to two years.
  • Further, a landlord must not increase a commercial tenant’s rent during this period, unless otherwise agreed to by the parties, and must pass on any benefit under the land tax relief scheme. The magistrates court has broad powers to resolve a dispute, including making an order granting rent relief to the affected tenant, extending a tenant’s lease for the period which rent is deferred; as well as modifying the terms and conditions of a lease.

Victorian schools will slowly reopen by the end of Term 2

After holding out longer than any other state, the Victorian government has announced a plan to slowly ease remote learning for young children, and potentially older cohorts, before the end of Term 2:

Tuesday, 26 May

All prep, grade 1 and grade 2 students, specialist school students, VCE and VCAL students will return to on-site learning at government schools. Vulnerable students in years 3 to 10, and children in those years whose parents or carers cannot work from home, can continue to attend school on-site as needed during this period.

The next fortnight, and a pupil free day at all schools on 25 May, will give staff, schools and families time to prepare for the change.

Tuesday, 9 June

Students in the broader year 3 to 10 cohort will continue to learn remotely until Tuesday 9 June, to give the government and the chief health officer time to monitor and evaluate the effects that the return to school by other year levels has on the increased movement of people and transmission within the community.

Hygiene and testing measures

The government will invest up to $45 million for enhanced cleaning that will occur every day at every school across the state for all of Term 2 and Term 3. Additionally, all Victorian school staff will be prioritised for voluntary coronavirus testing for a two-week period from both mobile and fixed testing sites, starting today.

Schools will be encouraged to implement a staggered drop-off system to reduce the number of adults congregating outside the school at any one time, as well as staggered break times to manage the number of students mixing across year levels. Schools will also implement social distancing measures for all adults.

State wrap

In other state and territory announcements:

For health department updates: Federal, NSW, Victoria, QueenslandACTSouth AustraliaTasmaniaNorthern Territory and Western Australia.

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