Labor backbenchers call for pandemic supports to continue as PM announces snap national cabinet meeting

by Sarah Martin
Exclusive: Federal Labor MPs join NSW Labor leader Chris Minns in calling for Albanese government to rethink decision on Covid policies

Labor backbenchers are calling on the government to restore Covid pandemic leave payments, saying the measure is needed for people struggling with the cost of living to help slow the spread of the virus.

It comes as the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has agreed to hold a snap national cabinet meeting on Monday morning with state and territory leaders, after Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk requested an update on the health advice and Covid situation from the chief medical officer.

Mike Freelander, a doctor and MP for the Sydney seat of Macarthur, and Michelle Ananda-Rajah, who worked as an infectious disease physician in Melbourne before winning the seat of Higgins, have both called for the payments to be maintained as the country’s Covid wave worsens.

Freelander is also calling on the government to extend the provision of free rapid tests for concession card holders.

It comes after the New South Wales Labor leader, Chris Minns, urged the prime minister to have an “urgent rethink” on the axed pandemic leave payment, which gave casual workers $750 to isolate at home while infected with Covid, but ended on 1 July.

Freelander, who still practices as a paediatrician, said the issue was of particular concern to his constituents given the high levels of mortgage and rental stress and the number of people in insecure work.

He said he had contacted the prime minister, the health minister, Mark Butler, and the treasurer, Jim Chalmers, to raise his concerns, and said he was hopeful there may be a change of heart.

“I think we have to be careful with the budgetary situation and obviously we do need to weigh up very carefully the costs and benefits, but I do believe that the government should reconsider the decision to end free RATs for pensioners and healthcare card holders, and also the leave situation,” he told Guardian Australia.

“That is really important for my electorate, where a lot of people are struggling with the cost of living and they have to work to pay the mortgage and pay the rent, and we don’t want to put a disincentive to either test or to isolate if they do get Covid.”

Ananda-Rajah agreed, saying she had been contacted by constituents “on the edge of precarity” who were concerned that they would be left without financial support while isolating.

“If we are expecting people to isolate, then really for casual workers and contractors we have to give them some sort of payment, or it is not going to happen,” Ananda-Rajah told Guardian Australia.

“We need to give people some kind of buffer that allows them to isolate otherwise we are going to be back to square one where infections are rampant.”

Freelander said his electorate had some of the highest levels of mortgage and rental stress in the country, and he was already aware of people who had tested positive to Covid not isolating.

“We have a lot of people who can’t work from home … we have a lot of people who are in the gig economy and if they don’t work, they don’t get paid.

“I know already that there are people with Covid who are not isolating because they just can’t afford it.”

He said he had been receiving feedback from his constituents, but also medical colleagues and epidemiologists who wanted to see the government prioritise the concerns of the health sector.

“I think he (Albanese) has made the point that it is an inherited decision, and I am hopeful when he gets back and particularly when parliament returns … that we will be able to get some traction.

The independent MP for the seat of Fowler, Dai Le, also urged the government to reconsider, saying western Sydney residents were mostly employed in the health sector, hospitality or grocery sectors and were vulnerable to infection.

“What on earth are they thinking? We are in the middle of winter, and it is going to trigger fear in the community, especially for the elderly,” she said.

“I think for the people of Fowler and western Sydney this payment can make the difference between putting food on the table and not.”

Minns also argued for the leave payment to be reinstated, saying the payment was “the price that we need to pay” in order to deal with Covid over the next 12 months.

“I don’t want people having to choose between declaring whether they’ve got Covid-19, testing whether they’ve got Covid-19 and returning to work and putting their co-workers, the community and their family at risk,” Minns said.

Speaking on the Today show on Thursday morning, Albanese said he understood people were going through a “difficult period”, but emphasised the difficult budgetary situation facing the country.

“We’ll continue to address these issues based upon the health advice.”

He also said he would continue to discuss the issue when he returned to Australia from the Pacific Islands Forum in Fiji.

Referencing Albanese’s media interviews, the aged care minister, Anika Wells, said the decision was still under consideration, and appeared to indicate that the federal chief medical officer had recommended changes to government spending.

Speaking on ABC’s 7.30 on Thursday, Butler said it had been a “tough decision”.

“All of us are getting feedback from our community, this is a tough decision. I’m getting those calls into my electorate office as well. At some point, though, emergency payments need to come to an end.

“It was intended those come to an end at the end of June and we’re following up that decision that was made many months ago”.

Earlier, he stressed that free Covid tests were still available for people with symptoms or close contacts, and criticised what he claimed was “misinformation” around the changes. He said the only change on testing was the end to 10 free rapid tests generally available to pensioners and concession card holders every three months, but that free tests were still available as needed.

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Butler also conceded that the end of the pandemic leave payment would have an impact on people, and “we do regret that, obviously”.

“At some point we need to recognise that there is not the financial capacity to continue emergency payments forever,” he said.