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COVID-19 in Australia

Impacts still going on Australia’s economic recovery

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Economists are warning the rate of wage growth this year may end up below expectations as the Omicron variant of COVID-19 pushes up case numbers and threatens to disrupt Australia’s economic recovery.

After years of stagnant wage growth, economists had been predicting wages would rise by more than 2 per cent during 2022. But those forecasts may be under review, or pushed back to 2023, as economic activity takes a turn for the worse amid supply chain woes and staffing problems sparked by the rapid spread of the virus.

The slowdown in wage growth has been driven by a combination of post-global financial crisis macroeconomic factors such as lower inflation; falls in productivity and job-switching; stubbornly high levels of underemployment; and a drop in trade since the end of the mining boom.

The coming year is set to bring a new era of economic prosperity for the land Down Under, with economists and politicians all spruiking booming growth and further drops in unemployment to historic lows.

But a surge of COVID-19 cases now exceeding 30,000 per day nationally drastically shows uncertainty remains about the pathway to normality.

Test times in excess of four hours and a shortage in supply of rapid antigen test signal the health system is already under strain from a boom in virus numbers. Retails and restaurants are reinforced to close for business due to shortage of staffing.

The World Health Organisation has also flagged hospitals globally would feel additional pressure from the growing Omicron surge. 

However, the majority of economic predictions remain upbeat.

The Mid-Year Economic Fiscal Outlook outlined in December by Treasury, anticipated greater economic activity – free from lockdowns – would see the financial years of 2021-2022 and 2022-23 grow 3.75 per cent and 3.5 per cent, respectively.

Treasury’s most up-to-date forecasts also include further tightening of the labour market and by the end of next year expected to see an unemployment rate in the low per cent range.

That would be the first time since the 1970s where the sustained unemployment rate sat below 5 per cent.

This has significant benefits for governments. More people in the workforce means greater tax receipts and upward pressure on wages, a force the Reserve Bank is keeping a close eye on.

RBA governor Philip Lowe has signalled the central bank’s monetary policy decisions, which includes lifting interest rates, would be influenced stronger than current wages growth and an uptick in inflation.

/ RBA governor Philip Lowe

 

The RBA is likely to consider a cash rate hike when inflation is within its target range of 2 to 3 per cent.

The current consumer price index, which is the main measure of inflation, sits at 3 per cent for the September quarter. However, the central bank remains cautious the lockdowns are manipulating the numbers.

NAB Economics in December flagged the rise of Omicron was a front and centre threat to destabilising the recovery.

“While we are optimistic (as is the RBA) on growth over the next year or so, a number of uncertainties remain, including the risk from the Omicron variant,” the economics department of the major bank said in a preview.

Rising cases will stress both the health and economic frameworks and a looming federal election fight could see Omicron cash splash promises as the dangling carrot to win votes.

 

 

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COVID-19 in Australia

Outbreak fuels shortage of disability carers

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Matt McCracken relies on experienced support workers just to get out of bed in the morning, but sourcing carers has become a dire problem for many people with disabilities as COVID-19 spreads through the community.

The 59-year-old tetraplegic, who requires a machine to help him breathe and has no use of his arms or legs after breaking his neck more than two decades ago, is left extremely vulnerable if his disability carer fails to arrive.

His wife Wendy, who is a nurse, has had to take time off work during the Omicron wave of COVID-19 to care for him after a support worker contracted COVID-19.

Omicron peak still to come

A shortage of disability carers and nursing home workers is already an issue, with the Omicron peak still to come.

Cases where asymptomatic disability support workers have gone to work in personal protective equipment (PPE) after testing positive to COVID-19 on a rapid antigen test (RAT) rather than leaving a client without care. Workforce shortages in the disability care sector are particularly acute in regional areas.

The McCrackens live at Morayfield, north of Brisbane. “We’re so under-supported with support workers,” Mr McCracken said.

“We have one of the largest geographics of people with disability in this local region in Queensland, but we don’t have the workers here to do it — COVID has made it even worse.

‘Left with very few other options’

Disability advocate Dr Dinesh Palipana said some people with disabilities were at risk of having to be cared for in over-stretched hospitals, even if they were not infected with the virus themselves, if too many of their carers caught COVID-19 and had to isolate.

“If a small care team is taken out of circulation, and they’re unable to access any other emergency care, they would be left with very few other options,” Dr Palipana said, Queensland’s first quadriplegic medical graduate.

“There’s a really diverse group of people within the community of people with disabilities that will face some really unique challenges and significant risk through this coming time.

“Worldwide, disasters and emergencies often disproportionately impact the disability community, and this pandemic is no exception.

“Gandhi said that the true measure of a society is seen by how it treats its most vulnerable and now is the time for us to demonstrate who we are as a nation.”

‘Time for action is now

Queenslanders with Disability Network chair Des Ryan, who is based in Rockhampton in central Queensland, said challenges such as accessing COVID-19 testing, booster vaccines and support workers had become a chorus across the sector.

He called on the federal government to prioritise rapid antigen tests for people with disabilities and their support workers.

More RATs for disability sector needed

Queensland Disability Services Minister Craig Crawford has written to his federal counterpart Linda Reynolds with concerns about the shortage of RATs in the sector.

“I have heard from many Queenslanders with disability who have health conditions which make them much more vulnerable to serious illness or death if they have COVID-19,” Mr Crawford said.

He said some National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) participants had cancelled essential support services due to worries about contracting the virus from carers. Mr Crawford said guaranteeing a supply of RATs to the disability care sector would help protect Queenslanders with disabilities.

‘I had to be alone overnight’

Karin Swift, who has cerebral palsy, lives alone at Eight Mile Plains, an outer southern suburb of Brisbane, with help from a support team funded by the NDIS.

The 49-year-old has had four of her workers test positive to COVID-19 during the pandemic.

“I had a bit of a time of it when COVID started getting out of control here in Queensland,” Ms Swift said. “Last week, I had to actually miss a support worker shift. My team did the very best they could do, but unfortunately it meant I had to be alone overnight — it’s not the ideal scenario.

“It’s important the federal government has a strategy for people with disabilities. “If there is a strategy, people with disabilities don’t know what it is and feel like no-one is really looking out for them.”

Ms Swift said sourcing RATs was vital to keeping those with disabilities — and their workers — protected. “I can’t run the risk of a person coming into my environment with COVID-19,” she said.

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COVID-19 in Australia

Twice a week RATs planned for students

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The Victorian government is committing to having all of its schools return to face-to-face learning for the first day of term one. With fears the Omicron variant will seriously impact staffing levels and student health early in the school term, the Andrews government has unveiled a four-week approach to managing COVID.

The plan is near-identical to the one being introduced in New South Wales, with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews working closely with NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet on the new COVID settings. Here’s how school will look for Victorian students and staff this term.

Students and staff to use self-testing surveillance regime

The government has secured 14 million rapid tests to be delivered to schools and early childhood centres in the coming weeks. More than 6.6 million tests will be delivered in the first week of school, with delivery trucks rolling out from Sunday morning.

The RATs will form the backbone of a self-testing regime designed to stop widespread outbreaks at schools. Primary and secondary students and staff will be recommended to test themselves twice weekly, while students and staff at specialist schools will be recommended to test five times a week.

The testing will be voluntary, with the responsibility of reporting results to the Department of Health and to schools falling on parents and guardians. Schools will distribute RATs to parents and families, with the first deliveries being made today.

Amid continued RAT shortages, the government made assurances that it had all the rapid antigen tests needed to deliver on its back-to-school plan. Supply numbers will be reviewed by the government at the end of the four-week plan.

 

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COVID-19 in Australia

Shortages plague concessional RAT rollout

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More than 6 million Australians will have access to free rapid antigen tests from today, but pharmacists fear widespread supply shortages mean they will struggle to meet the demand.

Earlier this month, and under sustained demands to make rapid antigen tests (RATs) free for all Australians, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced concession card holders would be able to pick up tests from their local pharmacies.

Pensioners, veterans and low-income earners are among those allowed up to 10 free tests in a three-month period, with a maximum of five tests in a month.

Demand for COVID-19 testing surged over summer and the shift by state and territory governments to allow the use of rapid tests put incredible pressure on already limited supplies.

The situation is yet to improve, with RAT stocks selling out almost as soon as fresh deliveries arrive. Pharmacists have warned supply shortages will impact the rollout of the federal government’s COVID-19 rapid antigen test concession scheme.

The government has again defended their rollout of the concessional scheme, with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg saying every country is suffering from supply chain issues with regards to the tests.

RAT rollout to schools

The nation’s two largest states laid out plans for the upcoming first week of school with rapid antigen tests playing a major role in their similar schemes.

As part of NSW’s long-awaited back-to-school plan, teachers and pupils will get two rapid antigen tests per week when they return to classrooms. The scheme will run for four weeks, covering the states 3,000 primary and secondary schools. Early education and childcare centres will also be included.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews announced a similar strategy, saying 6.6 million RATs will be delivered to schools and early childhood centres across the state before primary and secondary students resume classes on 31 January. In all, 14 million RAT kits will be distributed during the state’s surveillance testing regime, which will be reviewed after four weeks.

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