Australia expects surge in jobless rate but restrictions remain

Australian officials are planning to maintain strict rules on social distancing for six months due to the coronavirus.

Australia coronavirus
A worker is seen disinfecting an area near the Sydney Harbour Bridge in New South Wales, Australia, which has shut down non-essential businesses due to the spread of the coronavirus [File: Loren Elliott/Reuters]

Australia’s unemployment rate is forecast to spike to the highest level in 25 years because of the coronavirus pandemic, but officials said on Tuesday it was still too soon to let up on social restrictions that are curbing economic growth.

Australia has reported a sustained decrease in the rate of new daily coronavirus cases in recent weeks, effectively “flattening the curve” on infections and spurring hope that some of the restrictions on public movement might be lifted.

However, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said officials were still looking at a six-month timeframe, ending around September, to maintain rules that have closed businesses across a wide spectrum.

Public meetings of more than two people have been banned and most Australians are required to stay at home unless they have a medical appointment, are going grocery shopping or taking exercise.

“This is not a sprint,” Kelly said in a televised briefing. “This is a marathon.”

Kelly added there could be some opportunity to roll back some of the restrictions before September, “but at the moment we have to stay at course … through the usual flu season and then maybe a time to reassess”.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed the government expects unemployment to double from the current 5.1 percent to 10 percent by the end of June, which would mark the first time it has hit double digits since 1994. That rate is equivalent to approximately 1.4 million people without jobs, according to Treasury figures.

Unemployment would have peaked at about 15 percent without government support measures such as a package of 130 billion Australian dollars ($83bn) to keep people in work, aid for universities, and free child care, Morrison said.

“We came into this crisis – which is a dual one, a health crisis and an economic crisis – in pretty strong shape,” Morrison said on Channel Nine’s Today show. “But it is still a big blow. I don’t want to lessen that in terms of how we speak of it. It’s a serious impact on our economy, it’s impacting people’s livelihoods and it’s heartbreaking.”

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said more than 800,000 companies have registered their interest in the government aid.

New Zealand on Tuesday forecast its unemployment rate to reach 26 percent if tough lockdown measures are extended beyond the planned initial month.

Australia’s national statistics office is due to report March jobless figures this week.

Australia has reported 6,366 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 61 deaths at a rate that has continued to slow, although officials cautioned that recent numbers may have been thinned out by lower testing over the four-day Easter holiday weekend.

Morrison said the government was making plans to help businesses restart when restrictions are lifting, looking first at supporting the construction, manufacturing and agriculture industries.

Source: Reuters