Australia takes stimulus to 10% of GDP and orders closures to combat coronavirus

By Lidia Kelly and Jonathan Barrett
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Australia takes stimulus to 10% of GDP and orders closures to combat coronavirus

The mostly deserted steps of the Sydney Opera House are seen on a quiet morning in Sydney

By Lidia Kelly and Jonathan Barrett

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia ordered pubs, cinemas, churches and casinos to close and two more states said on Sunday they would shut their borders, while the government pledged an extra A$66.4 billion ($38.50 billion) to combat the impact of the coronavirus.

Along with neighbouring New Zealand, Australia has brought in widespread measures to limit the spread of the virus, but they have been less stringent than the lockdowns in parts of Europe and North America where infection rates are higher.

Australia's new fiscal stimulus, the second in a week, will go to individuals in need and small and medium-sized businesses which account for about a third of output and employ more than 40% of the workforce, according to government statistics.

"We will be focusing on those in the front line, those who will be feeling the first blows of the economic impact of the coronavirus," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in Canberra early on Sunday. "There will be more packages and more support." The package dwarfs the A$17.6 billion ($10.20 billion) in initial measures announced last week.

Morrison said later on Sunday that the country would close most public gathering venues from midday on Monday to enforce social distancing rules.

Many Australians appeared to disregard health warnings and flocked to pubs and beaches at the weekend amid a warm autumn spell.

The number of coronavirus infections has risen quickly in recent days, climbing to 1,098 confirmed cases as of Sunday morning with seven recorded deaths linked to COVID-19.

Almost all sectors will be affected by the forced closures, although restaurants, cafes and catering businesses will still be able to offer delivery and take-away services.

"That is a very, very regretful decision. But a necessary one," Morrison said at a conference late on Sunday.

Schools in Australia are set to remain open, Morrison said, although Victoria, the country's second most populous state, will end its first term on Tuesday, a few days early.

South Australia and Western Australia on Sunday said they would close their borders as of Tuesday to restrict the movement of people, following similar actions in the Northern Territory and Tasmania announced last week.

The other three states and one territory, home to much larger populations, remained open.

The Australian Football League (AFL), which has been reluctant to suspend its games, said on Sunday the 2020 top flight Australian rules season would pause until the end of May.


ECONOMIC HIT

Together with emergency banking measures and the initial stimulus package, Australia has now announced financial measures equalling about 10% of the country's annual gross domestic product, the government said.

Morrison said the government would help underwrite loans to small and medium-sized businesses and boost unemployment benefits as companies are forced to lay off staff.

Jobseekers will get extra money and people in financial stress will also be able access some of their pension funds, while some not-for-profits and small businesses will have access to cash grants to keep staff employed.

One of Australia's largest employers, Qantas Airways <QAN.AX>, said last week it would put 20,000 employees on leave as the virus has devastated the airline industry with scores of countries closing their borders.

"Some industries have effectively suffered instant downturns, with some already in recession," economists at the National Australia Bank said in a note.

While mineral-rich Australia has enjoyed a near 30-year stellar economic run and passed through the global financial crisis without falling into recession, economists are now forecasting a sharp pull-back in consumer spending.

"It is impossible to stop a recession because people are staying at home and are not spending, but this minimises the collateral damage where lots of companies go bust and the recession ends up being a lot deeper," AMP Chief Economist Shane Oliver told Reuters.


(Reporting by Lidia Kelly and Jonathan Barrett; Additional reporting by Colin Packham, Swati Pandey and Paulina Duran; Editing by Christopher Cushing and Philippa Fletcher)