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The Morrison government is inching towards an agreement with Victoria to build a dedicated quarantine facility at Avalon, but there remains a dispute about how the centre will be used.
The Victorian government wants the facility to house high-risk travellers currently in hotel quarantine, while the commonwealth wants to expand capacity for Australians returning from overseas.
With the national cabinet due to meet on Friday, and with the prime minister keen to unveil the quarantine agreement, Guardian Australia understands Canberra has agreed to contribute $200m for a 500 bed facility, likely at Avalon, but there is not yet complete unanimity between the two jurisdictions.
As well as the down-to-the-wire wrangling over the quarantine facility, the Victorian government is also unhappy with the emergency support the Morrison government unveiled on Thursday to help workers stranded without income during the current lockdown, which will extend into a second week.
After days of public criticism from the acting Victorian premier James Merlino about a lack of support from Canberra, Scott Morrison on Thursday announced a disaster payment that would be made available to workers in areas declared a commonwealth hotspot when any lockdown lasted longer than seven days.
Morrison said a payment of $500 a week would be available for employees working more than 20 hours in a week, and a $325 payment for people working less than 20 hours.
But the Victorian government thinks that income support, which is less than the minimum wage, is inadequate, and there was also confusion about Morrison’s presentation of the post jobkeeper income support arrangements.
Morrison flagged two options before further discussion at Friday’s national cabinet meeting. The first was the states pay for support to businesses and Canberra cover workers, and the second was cost sharing for both businesses and employees.
The disaster payment announced on Thursday will only go to people older than 17, who were working before the lockdown and who can no longer work. They will need to have less than $10,000 in savings.
There are also further restrictions including whether other leave – beyond annual and sick leave – is available to cover the lockdown period.
People already receiving income or business support, or the pandemic leave disaster payment, will not be eligible either. The support will be available for Australian citizens, permanent residents and eligible working visa holders.
The prime minister has been under significant political pressure this week about the slow pace of the national vaccination rollout and about a lack of standalone quarantine facilities to house travellers returning from high risk zones.
With concerns persisting about the adequacy of hotel quarantine, the Morrison government has been in discussions with Merlino about a quarantine facility in Victoria for some weeks.
Guardian Australia understands that officials arrived at an agreement about the principles that would underpin a joint agreement on a facility on Wednesday night, and a memorandum of understanding was sent to Melbourne on Thursday with a view to a formal announcement coinciding with national cabinet.
There have been two sites in contention, one at Avalon airport and an alternative in Mickleham which is currently a site for animal quarantine.
The MOU does not nominate a particular site, but both governments are understood to favour Avalon. While agreement seems close, with both governments keen to proceed with the proposal, a deal had not been struck on Thursday night.
Morrison has been clear he does not want dedicated quarantine facilities to replace hotel quarantine, and he wants any standalone facilities to be close to capital cities and close to major hospitals to deal with travellers who present with Covid infections.
Government sources confirmed while an agreement on Friday was likely, the two governments were still resolving differences on Thursday night.
Three new coronavirus cases were recorded in Victoria overnight. While the lockdown in the state has been extended, restrictions in regional Victoria were lifted.
Trade unions and welfare advocates welcomed the government’s decision to provide income support for workers facing lockdowns without the jobseeker wage subsidy, which wound up in March, but said the payments were not enough.
Labor and the Greens in Canberra were lukewarm about Morrison’s proposal for income support. The shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers said the fact that federal assistance only flows from the second week of any lockdown was not done for policy reasons but for “political considerations”.
The Greens leader, Adam Bandt, argued the support would leave people in poverty. “For a casual working 20 hours a week $325 is not enough – that is less than the minimum wage, and below the rent on an average one-bedroom apartment”.
Source: The Guardian
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