SYDNEY - Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has called a snap meeting of federal and state leaders next week as he faces pressure to reinstate compensation pay for casual workers forced to isolate due to COVID-19 amid a fresh wave of infections.
A renewed surge in cases fuelled by the BA.4/5 Omicron coronavirus variants have put Australia's health system on alert with the total number of people admitted to hospitals from COVID-19 not far away from record levels seen earlier this year.
"I've said to the (state leaders) that we'll meet from time to time. And it's appropriate that we meet on Monday. We're not meeting today because I'm here," Albanese told reporters in Fiji on Friday after a meeting of the Pacific leaders.
Albanese, in power for just under two months, said an end date of June 30 for quarantine pay of up to A$750 ($500) for casual workers was put in place by the previous Liberal-National coalition government.
"We inherited these decisions, but we also inherited a trillion dollars of debt. And that's something that was not our responsibility," Albanese said. Several state leaders have urged Albanese to bring back the income support.
As of the end of last year, the government had spent almost A$13 billion ($8.8 billion) on 2.4 million employees, according to official data, while total federal support since the pandemic began is estimated to be over A$300 billion.
Australia began living with the virus early this year having wound down tough social distancing restrictions and snap lockdowns after reaching world-beating levels of vaccinations.
But the fast-moving BA.4/5 variants have forced authorities to warn there could be "millions" of new infections in the country over the next few weeks even as they ruled out any tough restrictions to contain the spread.
Since the pandemic began, Australia has reported about 8.7 million cases and 10,549 deaths, far lower than many countries. Just over 4,500 are in hospitals due to COVID-19.
($1 = 1.4817 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Christopher Cushing)