‘This is a crucial sector’: Morrison government unveils another airline lifeline as Queensland’s Covid outbreak worsens

The Morrison government has unveiled a $100m program to help domestic airlines retain their staff through lockdowns and border closures – and the Coalition will also retain its half-price flight scheme in an effort to boost tourism.

Unveiling another aviation lifeline on Monday, the deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce told reporters domestic airlines would be able to access a $750-a-week payment for 50% of their workforce if they could show a 30% downturn in their business since Sydney was declared a Covid-19 hotspot.

While many businesses are doing it tough during the current Delta variant outbreak which has locked down millions of Australians, Joyce argued aviation was a special case. He said the government had chosen to top up existing support for the sector to avert significant layoffs.

Joyce said it was important to ensure that airlines could rebound quickly once the lockdowns ended.

“This is a crucial sector of the economy, and it is crucial to keep a sovereign airline capacity,” Joyce said. He argued if the sector became dormant, it would not “start up again overnight”.

The deputy prime minister confirmed the Coalition’s half-price flights initiative would be extended to 30 November for both sales and travel, “to ensure travellers impacted by lockdowns or border closures can access these tickets and benefit key tourism regions as soon as possible”.

The aviation announcement came after New South Wales confirmed an additional 207 coronavirus cases on Monday and Queensland extended its lockdown after confirming another 13 cases. Queensland, battling its worst outbreak in a year, is bracing for more cases over the coming days.

Federal parliament resumes on Tuesday for a two-week sitting, with many MPs absent because of the restrictions. The Queensland outbreak means Peter Dutton, who manages government business in the House of Representatives, is unable to travel to Canberra.

Christian Porter, who managed government business before the role was allocated to Dutton, will step back into the role, even though National David Gillespie is currently the deputy leader of the house.

Dutton, who battled a Covid infection last year, issued a statement explaining his absence. “My sons attend a school subject to the current Queensland health directive and as a household member I am subject to the 14 day direction.”

The defence minister said he would quarantine at home with his family, although he would continue to participate in cabinet and cabinet sub-committee meetings virtually, as well as attending to matters in his portfolio.

Ahead of the resumption of parliament, the health minister Greg Hunt confirmed the government intended to release modelling from the Doherty Institute that informed a national cabinet deliberation last Friday about Australia’s national pandemic exit plan. That material is likely to be released on Tuesday.

With young people at the centre of the latest outbreak, Hunt also announced that Pfizer jabs would be available for immunocompromised children aged 12 to 15 from next week. The extension also applies to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, and children aged 12–15 in remote communities.

The acting chief medical officer, Michael Kidd, noted the current Delta outbreak in Queensland was linked to schools. “What we’re also seeing, and particularly in Sydney, is a larger number of young adults who’ve been infected with Covid-19 being hospitalised, and increased numbers ending up in the intensive care units,” he said.

“We’re very concerned about the severity of this Delta outbreak,” he added. “It’s why it’s so important that we bring these outbreaks under control”.

Kidd said the children who would be offered jabs when the program starts “are the children who are at the greatest risk – so there’s been a prioritisation with those 220,000 children”.

Hunt also said on Monday that trials of rapid antigen testing at aged care facilities would be expanded to help manage risk in the current outbreak.

The shadow health minister, Mark Butler, said it was important to shift gears with vaccinations. “The Delta variant is posing new challenges,” he told the ABC.

“We’re seeing out of the National Health Service of the UK some reports that as many as one in 12 children who do develop Covid also then go on to develop long Covid – symptoms as long as 12 weeks after having had the initial virus.

“These are new dynamics which we all need to take account of.”

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