Jeremy Rockliff

Premier of Tasmania

17 March 2020

Peter Gutwein, Premier

Ministerial Statement

COVID-19 Response Measures

***Check against delivery***

Madam Speaker, today I wish to provide members with an overview of the important work the Government is undertaking to both contain and respond to the impact of the novel coronavirus pandemic – COVID-19 – on the Tasmanian community.

The health, wellbeing and safety of Tasmanians is our highest priority, and we will continue to manage the risk of the virus based on the best and latest evidence and medical advice.

In addition to the health impacts, this pandemic will have very real and significant economic and social consequences, many of which are just beginning to emerge.

Our Government will also do everything it can to manage and mitigate the economic and social impacts and we will work to ensure that our businesses, our workforce and our communities are well positioned for a successful recovery.

As soon as information about the virulence and potential global spread of COVID-19 became available, in January we immediately stood up a whole-of-government approach to prepare for the emergence of the virus in Tasmania.

On Monday 2 March, Tasmania’s first case of COVID-19 was confirmed, leading to a rapid and comprehensive Government response, led by our Department of Health. At the same time, the Government’s State Emergency Management Committee with Health as the lead agency assumed responsibility for overseeing our emergency response activities and for monitoring the progressive impact and consequences of the situation.

As with any emergency incident, these activities are being conducted in accordance with our long-standing and well-tested emergency management plans, guidelines and operational protocols.

As members would be fully aware, there are now seven confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Tasmania. The 3 most recent cases were all close contacts of each other and were travelling in a group after arriving from overseas. To date we have had no local, person-to-person transmissions detected within Tasmania.

Covid 19 symptoms range from mild illness to pneumonia and whilst some people recover easily, others may get very sick very quickly, which is why the Government is being advised daily by health professionals and is acting on that advice.

In addition along with other Premiers, First Ministers and the Prime Minister we have established a new National Cabinet to work together to address Australia’s response to COVID-19. This role is to coordinate a national response to COVID-19 and whilst it will not override any state and Territory authority it will ensure that as a country we respond and utilise our resources together, however decisions will remain the authority of the states and territories.

Public health – preparedness, response and impact

Tasmania is well-prepared to manage the impact and consequences of all eventualities associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. As with all other Australian states and territories, we are taking a highly precautionary approach that is being informed by the most up-to-date medical information and advice.

The Plan allows for a stepped increase in the Governments response. Last night the Director of Public Health Dr Mark Veitch who has been leading our public health response advised that we should take the next precautionary step and increase our readiness and declare a Public Health Emergency.

Tasmanians should understand that there has been no specific elevation of transmission of the virus in our community nor any particular event or risk that has demanded this, it is just the next step in our preparedness as we ready for the months ahead.

Under our plan the final elevation will be to declare a State of Emergency which Tasmanians unfortunately have been accustomed to in the past as this has occurred with bushfires and is the way that we ensure that our response is managed across agencies. We will take this next step when advised to do so.

We have a State Special Emergency Management Plan for COVID-19 and the Plan clearly outlines the roles, responsibilities, resources, responses and actions that will be taken should widespread transmission of the disease occur in Tasmania.

Our Director of Public Health has a direct role in the development and implementation of national policy and health responses through active participation as a member of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee. The Government is also engaging closely and collaborating with all other Australian jurisdictions on high-level preparedness, risks, issues and priorities through the COVID-19 National Coordination Mechanism.

Our Department of Health is working with Australia’s National Incident Room to facilitate contact tracing of any individuals identified as being at risk of exposure to COVID-19. That includes contacting people who have been in close contact with any confirmed cases and providing advice on what to do if they begin feeling unwell.

As well as having access to the National Coronavirus Health Information Line and updated health information published online through both Australian and Tasmanian Government Health websites, I encourage anyone who may be concerned about COVID-19 because of recent travel or contact with a confirmed case to refer to the Self-Assessment Tools on the Department of Health’s website, call the hotline or discuss their circumstance with their GP.

Madam Speaker, as part of our public health response, supported by funding from the Australian Government, we moved quickly to establish respiratory clinics in four major population centres: Hobart, Launceston, Burnie and Latrobe.

To ensure a safe clinical environment and minimise possible transmission, people who require testing are referred to the clinics through the Public Health Hotline or their local GP. Once referred, those tested are instructed to self-isolate until test results are known, usually within 24 hours.  To date there has been a total of seven positive cases.

Additional resources have also been assigned to support preparedness and response activities across the Department of Health, Public Health Services, hospitals and Ambulance Tasmania.

I want to make the point very clearly that we will not limit our response nor our financial effort. The Government will make available whatever resources are required to combat this virus, to keep people safe and to support our economy and Tasmanian’s jobs.

A COVID-19 Emergency Coordination Centre is now operational within the Department of Health, led by an Incident Controller reporting directly to the Secretary of the Department.

The Centre is responsible for the direction, coordination and management of our system-wide health services’ response and consequence management. To support this work, we have also established Emergency Operations Centres in Public Health Services, across the Tasmanian Health Service at regional and state levels, and within Ambulance Tasmania.

Madam Speaker, one of the most effective ways to “flatten the curve” and to slow the transmission of the virus is social distancing. This aims, through a variety of means, to minimise contact between individuals and thereby to reduce the possibility for new infections.

I urge all Tasmanians to practice social distancing in their day to day activities, in particular:

  • Don’t go out in public when you’re sick
  • Avoid medical settings unless necessary
  • Give people 1.5 metres of space
  • Wave instead of shaking hands, hugging or kissing
  • Practice excellent personal hygiene – clean your hands often and thoroughly

If you are at work:

  • Work in ways that minimize close contact
  • Give people 1.5 metres of space
  • Minimize groups over 10
  • Encourage the use of technology for meetings
  • Clean your workspace frequently

We all need to be responsible and will need to practice these things frequently and for an extended period of time. This virus will be a marathon not a sprint and throughout this period we need to continue to support those around us and, in particular, our most vulnerable.

Madam Speaker, on Sunday following the National Cabinet meeting, the Prime Minister announced that all visitors to Australia including Australians returning from overseas will have to self-isolate for 14 days. My Government strongly supports this decision.

To enable the Tasmanian Government to understand who those people are when required to self-isolate, as from today the new Tasmania Arrivals Card (TAC) has been introduced which people will be required to fill out when they enter Tasmania from an international destination.

It will be available on line or in hard copy at each of our arrival ports and  will provide us with the necessary information to support and assist these people whilst in self isolation.

They will be sent a daily text to check on how they are doing and offer support if they require it and to importantly remind them to remain in self- isolation for the full 14 days.

It will be an offence to not comply and penalties will be imposed for those that don’t.

It is also important that we protect our State Service workers and ensure continuity of Government particularly in our health and community services.

Last week, I made the decision to restrict international travel to protect the health of public sector staff, the broader community, and to help safeguard the continuity of Government business.

Today I am further strengthening these measures for our public sector workforce with all international travel banned until further notice unless approved under exceptional circumstances. Official domestic travel will only be undertaken if it is absolutely essential.

Madam Speaker, on the weekend I announced that the Tasmanian Government would suspend all cruise ship visits to our ports until 30 June, at which point we will undertake a review of the current situation. Following my decision, the National Cabinet adopted this principle and all cruise ships visits across the country are now restricted to any other port in Australia for 30 days pending a review as well.

While I know this places challenges on our tourism industry and visitor economy, I strongly believe we needed to do this to manage the COVID-19 risks to our State.

Large public gatherings and major events pose increased risks. We have already seen the cancellation of this year’s Dark Mofo Festival. Given, the growing evidence of greater community transmission of the coronavirus throughout the rest of Australia, the National Cabinet agreed to restrict non-essential organised public gatherings with static crowds of more than 500 people.

This is a precaution to ensure we can manage the transmission of this virus in the most effective way possible. There are a number of exceptions to this restriction.

This means, our schools can still function, our transport system can still function and fairs, festivals and markets that have people moving through them and attend at different times during the day can still be held. However the principle of social distancing should still apply in these settings.

Tasmanian schools are currently adopting social distancing measures, requiring the cancellation of assemblies, excursions, travel, some events and conferences and I thank all staff at schools for helping to convey this to our children and young people. We are keeping our schools open at the moment based on expert medical advice whilst at the same time putting in place distance education and other support services should this change. And as I have said, that should the advice change, I will act swiftly and decisively.

Madam Speaker, we are all very aware of the escalating impact of the global and national situation on world and interstate markets, tourism, travel and visitation, our seafood industry and the broader local economy.

However Tasmania goes into this crisis from a position of strength. Our economy has been the strongest in the country and our states balance sheet is strong and this means we are well positioned to respond to the economic impacts of the virus.

However, the flow-on effect of the virus on Tasmanian businesses and their workers and the overall economy will be significant.

Madam Speaker, we expect to see increasing economic impacts on a wide range of Tasmanian industry sectors, from tourism and hospitality businesses, seafood exporters and wild fisheries, through to retailers and manufacturers reliant on international supply chains. Already many small businesses across the State are feeling these impacts.

My Government’s aim is to protect the Tasmanian community, respond quickly and effectively, and support Tasmanian people, businesses and industries and ensure that Tasmania comes out of this event strong, healthy and returns to being the economic powerhouse of the nation.

The Australian Government’s $2.4 billion health package will help protect all Australians and all Tasmanians. The package provides critical support across primary care, aged care, hospitals, research and the national medical stockpile. It includes a new Medicare service for people in home isolation or quarantine to receive health consultations over the phone or through video applications such as Skype or FaceTime. It also supports home delivery of medicines, and online or remote filling of PBS prescriptions.

The package includes funding to train our aged care workers in infection control and enables aged care providers to hire extra nurses and aged care workers for both residential and home care services.

In addition to the health package, the Australian Government’s economic response of $17.6 billion will support Tasmanian households and underpin jobs whether they are in a large or a small business.

The Prime Minister has confirmed that these measures will provide additional support for our fisheries and tourism industries through the $1 billion fund to support regions and sectors most significantly affected by the COVID-19 outbreak.

This economic response will also support our casual and relief employees who contract COVID-19, or who are instructed by Health authorities to self-isolate, through access to the Commonwealth sickness payment.

Madam Speaker, the Australian Government’s stimulus package has been designed to provide an immediate stimulus to the Australian economy as well as ensuring the beneficiaries of the package include those who are most vulnerable in our community as well.

The Tasmanian Government will also respond immediately with the first stage of our package today and this will then be built upon in coming months with further measures to be included in the State Budget.

We understand that this will be a difficult time for communities across Tasmania and we have been working hard to ensure that we are prepared and can provide support where it’s needed.

This Government has worked hard to build business confidence and economic growth in Tasmania and it’s important that we continue to work closely with all industry sectors to strengthen resilience and to respond effectively and proportionately to this challenge.

Last week, we met with the Tasmanian business community to encourage a coordinated approach to the potential challenges that lie before us.

After hearing from the business community, it is clear that any Tasmanian Government economic stimulus measures need to be

  • proportionate to the developing impact on the economy;
  • scaleable and timely, so they can be adjusted appropriately as the situation changes;
  • delivered quickly providing immediate economic benefit; and
  • will also position Tasmania well for a strong economic recovery

It is important that we get in early and support businesses and individuals who are suffering as a result of COVID-19.

Today, I am announcing as an initial response to this pandemic, that the Government will provide further support and economic stimulus to help businesses and Tasmanian’s affected by the virus.

The package will include further support for our community:

  • One-off emergency relief payments of $250 for individuals and up to $1000 for families who are required to self-isolate by public health as a result of coronavirus. This will be available to casual workers and those on low incomes. Funding for this measure will be uncapped.
  • To further help those who are self-isolating, the Government will provide $1million through Communities Tasmania to organisations such as the Salvation Army, The Red Cross and Rural Business Tas. These organisations will support vulnerable people through provision of food hampers, medical supplies or counselling.
  • $2 million will be made available to our primary health care sector to ensure that GP’s, pharmacists and other health care providers are supported for example by enabling minor capital works and the purchase of equipment including PPE so they can continue providing primary health services.
  • $1 million will be available to support front line workers with accommodation, such as in circumstances where their family members are ill so they can continue to contribute to our response. The accommodation will be provided for the period required to effectively manage the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The Government will provide an additional $1 million in grants to mental health organisations to support individuals experiencing mental health difficulties as a result of the challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • We will also establish an emergency accommodation support fund of $1 million to be administered through the Department of Communities Tasmania.   This will be available for individuals and families who have been placed on home quarantine but who are unable to return to their regular place of residence due to self-isolation measures being in place.  This will provide additional support members for our community at this difficult time.

Whilst ensuring that Tasmanian’s health wellbeing and safety is our most important aim we must also ensure that we support Tasmanian jobs and those businesses most affected by the economic impacts we are facing.

The Government will take strong action and in the first stage of our economic stimulus plan I can announce there will be:

  • $20 million for the provision of interest free loans to businesses in the hospitality, tourism, seafood and exports sectors. The loans will be available to small businesses with a turnover of less than $5 million for the purpose of purchasing equipment or restructuring business operations and will be interest free for a period of up to three years.
  • To support Tasmanian jobs, the Government will waive payroll tax for the last four months of this financial year for hospitality, tourism and seafood industry businesses during 2020. This will save businesses around $7 million enabling them to keep more Tasmanians employed.
  • Other small to medium businesses with an annual payroll of up to $5 million in Australian wages will be able to apply based on the immediate impact of the virus on their businesses to waive their payroll tax payments for the remaining three months from March to June 2020.  This initiative is costed at up to $9 million.
  • The Government knows that cash flow for small to medium businesses is critical and will assist the cash flow of small business by requiring agencies to pay quicker.  Unless otherwise required by contractual arrangements, the normal terms of trade for payments by government agencies will be reduced from 30 days to 14 days.
  • Furthermore we know our tourism industry has had spectacular growth but the world is now closed for the foreseeable future and visitor numbers will suffer as a result. However, our world class natural assets and beautiful scenery will remain and this industry will bounce back once this is over so we will take this opportunity to make our offering even better when it does.
  • Local Government own many of the local tourist facilities around the state, many in regional areas including rest areas, rest and change rooms, toilets and visitor centres and now is the time to make those many small but important facilities that serve our visitors and locals alike the best in the country for when we bounce back.
  • $50 million in interest free loans over 3 years will be made available to encourage local governments to invest and employ more Tasmanians to upgrade, renovate and to do necessary maintenance to improve our tourism assets so that when the visitors come back we are ready.
  • We know that the construction sector employs more than 20,000 Tasmanians and that if the construction sector remains strong it will underpin spending in our community.
  • As a sector it won’t be immediately impacted as sectors like hospitality are by the number of visitors who come to this state nor by world markets, but its businesses and workers can support those sectors by spending money in our shops, by purchasing accommodation in our regions, and by buying lunches at our local takeaways and shops. We need jobs for people who are in the most affected industry sectors and we need construction businesses to gear up and hire.
  • We can’t wait for shovel ready projects to go through planning, we need screwdriver and paintbrush ready projects that can start straight away.
  • So today I am announcing an immediate bring forward of $50 million for the maintenance of public buildings over the next 12 months such as affordable housing, schools, police houses, parks assets and health centres over the next 12 months. This will create jobs and underpin small construction businesses many of them who will be in regional and rural areas of the State.
  • This measure will complement the recently announced two year extension of the First Home Owners Grant which provides $20,000 for Tasmanians building their first home and increases activity in the building and construction sector.
  • The Government will also provide $2.1 million for one-off $5,000 grants for businesses that hire an apprenticeship or trainee, complementing the Federal Government’s apprenticeship package.
  • To encourage businesses to employ young people the Government will introduce a youth employment payroll tax rebate scheme for young people from 1 April 2020.  At a cost of around $280,000, the Scheme provides a payroll tax rebate for one year, to businesses that employ a young person aged 24 and under.
  • Tasmania has over 300 businesses that rely on visitation to our national Parks and wilderness areas. For the fourth quarter of 2019-20, the Government will waive tourism operator lease, license and entry fees for our important parks industry.
  • At a cost of approximately $630,000, this initiative will support around 300 of our hard-working tourism businesses, right around Tasmania.
  • The Government will also provide a 50 per cent discount on liquor licencing fees and waiver all application fees for the calendar year 2020, back dated to 1 January 2020. At a cost of around $500,000, this initiative will reduce the costs of the hospitality sector at a time when they need the relief most.
  • In the State of the State Address, I announced an additional $1 million for Tourism Tasmania.  This funding will be directed towards the development of a local holiday campaign to encourage Tasmanians to holiday locally this year.
  • The Government will provide $100,000 to the Tourism Industry Council of Tasmania and the Tasmanian Hospitality Association for training and support of workers in the tourism and hospitality sectors over the winter months, to improve productivity and to be ready when tourism returns to normal busy levels across the state.
  • To assist businesses navigate the industrial relations issues associated with the virus, the Government will provide $80,000 to the Tasmania Chamber of Commerce and Industry to provide advice to businesses on the implications of these workplace issues.  This will ensure that both employers and employees are better informed.
  • The Government is working with the Australian Government to provide greater support to the rock lobster and abalone industry and has already extended rock lobster quotas for industry. We have also assisted with rock lobsters being sold into local markets.
  • We have already provided for annual fees and levies to be paid by installment in, rock lobster, giant crab and fin fisheries, and for abalone divers.  These fees will now be waived for 12 months at a cost of $670,000.
  • Staff in Government agencies are working very hard to deliver efficient and effective services to the Tasmanian community and the impact of the pandemic has placed significant additional requirements on our staff.  Accordingly, now is not the time to place further efficiency requirements on agencies and the Government will not be applying the efficiency dividend to State Government agencies over the forward estimates. Agencies will not be required to achieve the 0.75% efficiency dividend over the forward estimates which will ensure agencies can focus fully on supporting Tasmanians through this crisis and will also provide a further stimulus measure for the Tasmanian economy of an additional $268 million in Government expenditure.
  • This comprehensive, support and economic stimulus package of $420 million is designed to help us fight the economic impact of COVID-19 and also prepare the foundation to set Tasmania up for a rapid recovery when the pandemic eases.

It will impact our budget, however at this time we need to take decisive action, we need to use the budget to support the health and wellbeing of Tasmanians and now is the time to use the budget as an economic stabiliser to support our economy and keep Tasmanians in jobs and that is exactly what we will do.

Madam Speaker, in closing I want to wholeheartedly thank all our staff who are managing the pandemic at the moment. Our health professionals are doing an incredible job, as are our public servants and all of those working with the most vulnerable members of our community.

Tasmanians are incredibly resilient. When we face challenges, we rise to the occasion. We have seen this when facing bushfires and floods here in Tasmania and unfortunately only recently as well with our volunteer firefighters and the assistance they provided to the mainland states over summer.

Together, we will get through this because we are Tasmanian, we have faced challenges before and we have overcome them.

This will be no different. It will impact on all of us so importantly all of us need to work together and make our number one priority to protect and care for all Tasmanians.