July 18, 2020 / 1:54 AM / 22 days ago

Australia PM delays parliament as coronavirus spreads

MELBOURNE (Reuters) - Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Saturday delayed the opening of parliament for several weeks as the new coronavirus continued spreading through the country’s two most populous states.

Morrison asked the speaker of the parliament to cancel a two-week session due to start on Aug. 4, out of concern about the COVID-19 pandemic. The request was seen as a formality as the speaker is a member of Morrison’s Liberal Party and the opposition Labor Party accepted the call.

Lawmakers are to meet at the next planned session on Aug. 24.

“The government cannot ignore the risk to parliamentarians, their staff, the staff within the parliament and the broader community,” Morrison said in a written statement, adding he acted based on the advice of medical authorities.

Victoria state reported 217 new infections after a record 428 cases on Friday. Neighbouring New South Wales, the most populous state, which has also been struggling to contain a new wave of infections, saw 15 new cases.

Victoria forced nearly five million people into a partial lockdown for six weeks on July 9, as expectations of harsher social-distancing restrictions were growing with the virus continuing to spread.

Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews left open the possibility of further curbs, urging people not to leave their houses except for work, exercise or essential shopping.

“The likelihood of a longer lockdown, the likelihood of even more restrictions - that really does rest with individuals and families and members of the Victorian community embracing the spirit of the rules and erring on the side of caution,” Andrews said at a televised briefing.

Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the government will issue further income support to tackle deteriorating confidence across the country, in addition to an existing A$70 billion ($49 billion) in wage subsidies.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty in the economic environment, and the Victorian situation is a significant setback,” Frydenberg told The Age newspaper in an interview published on Saturday.

FILE PHOTO: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a joint press conference held with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Admiralty House in Sydney, Australia, February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

“It’s diminished confidence beyond the Victorian border, and the recovery is a confidence game. So, maintaining business and household confidence is going to be critical.”

The government is expected to announce details of the support measures on Thursday, before sending them for a vote to the parliament.

In March, all parliamentary sittings were cancelled until August. But as Australia appeared to be succeeding in controlling its outbreak in the following months, some sittings took place, including a one-day special session to vote on the initial wage subsidy scheme.

Reporting by Lidia Kelly; Editing by William Mallard

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