The government is under pressure to restart JobKeeper and prop up the economy as estimates put a six-month delay on the vaccine rollout, further threatening ailing sectors such as tourism and higher education.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison conceded the government will miss its targeted timeline for vaccinating Australia on Friday, confirming 20 million additional Pfizer doses won’t arrive until at least October, and possibly not until December.
External health experts now fear it could take until April 2022 for every Australian to receive their first coronavirus vaccine dose.
Those startling admissions leave the economy more vulnerable to coronavirus outbreaks and will extend the pain for businesses dealing with longer international border closures, economists warn.
Unions are now calling on the government to revive JobKeeper for exposed businesses, warning workers will feel the brunt of the delays.
But Treasurer Josh Frydenberg ruled out bringing back the $90 billion wage-subsidy scheme in a radio interview on Friday morning.
“[JobKeeper] was always meant to be an emergency measure … we have now moved to the next stage of the economic recovery plan with more targeted support,” Mr Frydenberg told 3AW.
‘Strong argument’ for wage subsidy return
The stakes are high, with the end of JobKeeper this month expected to cost more than 100,000 people their jobs, catapulting many into a jobs market with just one vacancy for every three job seekers.
For hard-hit sectors like tourism, news of an extended international border closure is particularly worrying, especially because the government’s cheap air travel ends in September, many months before international borders are likely to reopen.
Angela Jackson, chief economist at Equity Economics, said there’s now a “strong argument” for a sector-specific wage subsidy program, noting higher education is also struggling without international students.
“[The delayed rollout] is bad news for the economy and the government will need to recalibrate the support it provides in the budget,” Ms Jackson told TND.
Ms Jackson said Australians will increasingly travel overseas for work as countries like the UK achieve herd immunity later this year, which will exacerbate already sparse skill shortages here.
“The risk for the economy is that the recovery momentum slows and the recovery stalls,” she explained.
“[The government] may need to consider policies to get migration going again.”
Vaccine debacle drives shifts on international border
As the government was scrambling to secure new vaccine supply on Friday, its position on international border closures was also shifting.
Mr Morrison is now seeking medical advice on whether the government can partially loosen international border rules when the first phase of the vaccination rollout – targeting front-line health workers – is completed.
That should occur later this year, but will also be delayed by new advice cautioning against AstraZeneca vaccinations for people under 50 years old.
“If the vaccination population is lower, then that of course limits the options with borders,” Mr Morrison told reporters on Friday.
“We want to know what the key gateway thresholds are from a medical point of view that could allow those things [a loosing of restrictions] to happen.”
Meanwhile, Tourism Minister Dan Tehan said the government may prioritise international students and business travellers over inbound tourists in a staged reopening of international borders.
“We’ve obviously got to prioritise what’s best for our nation, both economically and, most importantly, on that health front,” Mr Tehan told Sky News on Friday.
The slower vaccine rollout also puts the upcoming federal budget next month into focus, with the government expected to tweak its $4 billion JobMaker program to expand access for businesses hiring workers.
But there’s no word on whether the government will commit to further support for struggling sectors, which are teeming with firms that can’t use JobMaker because they aren’t in a position to hire new staff.
Shadow Treasurer Jim Chalmers said the vaccine delay will threaten livelihoods, accusing the Morrison government of ending JobKeeper too early.
“The government should be considering options to provide targeted support for the workers, small businesses, industries and communities of Australia which are still doing it tough,” he told TND via email.