Some household bills and fees could be delayed or waived for people facing financial hardship during the COVID-19 crisis after state and territory leaders reached an agreement on consistent rules to protect struggling households.
- State and territory leaders have agreed on consistent rules for people experiencing financial hardship during the coronavirus pandemic
- Essential services, such as energy and water, should not be cut off to customers struggling to pay their bills
- Childcare centres worried about their ongoing viability will have access to more support
The new measures, agreed to by the National Cabinet on Thursday night, will also apply to small businesses.
New relief on council and utility rates
The new national guidelines will affect bills and charges that state and territory governments have direct control over, including some water company bills and council rates.
A statement from the Prime Minister’s Office said the hardship support would be available to households and small businesses experiencing “financial stress”.
“Those who can continue to pay their bills need to keep doing so,” the statement said.
“This is critical to ensuring the ongoing viability of essential services providers.
“But we need to ensure an appropriate safety net is in place for those experiencing financial stress.”
The measures include:
- Flexible payment options: if customers can’t afford to pay their bills during the pandemic, they will be able to enter a payment plan.
- No disconnection of services: households and small businesses under financial stress will not have their service disconnected for failure to pay bills.
- Late fees and interest waived: Struggling households and small businesses will not be charged late fees if they can’t pay bills on time, and there will be no interest charged on debt.
- Minimising any planned outages: States and territories have agreed to minimise any outages they have for critical works, to reduce the impact on businesses and households, and have promised to provide the maximum notice possible if planned outages need to happen.
The way households will be assessed for eligibility for this assistance remains unclear but any business eligible for the JobKeeper payment will automatically be considered as being under financial stress and will be eligible for the new support.
States and territories will each have to consult with utilities providers and councils before the new hardship measures can begin.
Some jurisdictions, including the ACT, have already discussed how to ease the financial burden through rate relief while others, such as WA, have frozen household fees and charges.
Electricity, internet and phone bills should be open to some negotiation
Energy companies, phone and internet providers had already been told by the Federal Government to be more flexible by waiving late fees, not disconnecting services, and offering customers the ability to enter into repayment plans if they could not afford their bills during the pandemic.
Australians who are struggling have been urged to contact their service providers and negotiate a solution if they are unable to pay their bills.
Gym memberships, health insurance and travel
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has warned a number of businesses affected by COVID-19 to do the right thing by consumers and provide refunds or freezes of payment where appropriate.
If you are freezing your gym membership because it has been forced to close due to COVID-19, the ACCC has said you should not be charged a “freeze fee” under most circumstances.
“The Australian Consumer Law prohibits businesses from taking payments for goods or services when there are reasonable grounds to believe the services won’t be supplied,” the ACCC said.
On healthcare, if some services usually covered by private health insurance are unavailable because of government restrictions, the ACCC has told insurers to work with consumers.
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“The ACCC recommends that private health insurers provide remedies for consumers for services that can no longer be provided or only provided to a limited extent due to COVID-19 restrictions, such as dental, optical, physio,” it said.
The ACCC has announced it will allow private health insurers to work together to provide financial relief to consumers and try to deliver services like telehealth and COVID-19 treatment to Australians.
Meanwhile, companies like airlines and travel agents have been told that in most circumstances they should be providing refunds if government restrictions have led to cancelled services.
ACCC Chair Rod Simms said this should be done without charging consumers “change fees”.
Extra support to childcare centres open
Childcare centres worried about their viability during the coronavirus pandemic will be able to apply for extra funding from the Federal Government to keep them afloat.
Some operators had voiced concerns they would not be able to continue operating under the Coalition’s plan to allow for free child care during the outbreak.
The Commonwealth was promising to pay 50 per cent of fees and open up access to the JobKeeper program for eligible centres.
Education Minister Dan Tehan has announced centres caring for more children than usual, including those from vulnerable or disadvantaged families, can apply for a supplementary payment to maintain their businesses.
JobKeeper payment has been legislated
The $130 billion support package, the largest single piece of government expenditure in Australian history, was rushed through Parliament on Wednesday.
Under the scheme, the Federal Government will pay registered businesses $1,500 per fortnight for each staff member they keep on their payroll during the COVD-19 economic crisis.
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