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You Can Get Centrelink's Sickness Allowance For Coronavirus... But Only For The Next Nine Days

In just nine days, Centrelink's sickness allowance payment will stop accepting new applicants, with concerns of "mass confusion" in the welfare system during the coronavirus outbreak.

The payment was designed to help those already on welfare who fall ill or those in casual employment who don't qualify for sick leave and are unable to work due to illness.

But from March 20, the Centrelink payments currently known as Sickness Allowance, Newstart Allowance, Wife Pension, Bereavement Allowance, and Widow B Pension will wrap up.

The majority of recipients will be transferred to Jobseeker, Age Pension or Carer payments -- almost all to be paid the same amount as before, but some will have to fulfill more obligations to get the money.

Advocates and politicians are calling for more support for those unable to work because of coronavirus diagnosis or quarantine. Image: AAP

Minister for Social Services, Anne Ruston, told 10 daily people who were under quarantine for coronavirus, or who had been diagnosed with COVID-19, could qualify for the Sickness Allowance if they had no access to paid or sick leave from their employer -- but in just nine days, new applications for that payment will close.

"You can’t submit new claims for Sickness Allowance from 20 March 2020," reads a notice on Services Australia's website, which suggests people apply for Jobseeker.

10 daily asked if the government had plans to delay the changes to Sickness Allowance in light of the coronavirus outbreak. Ruston said no, but confirmed those in isolation could apply for an exemption to obligations that came with the new payments.

Minister for Social Services, Anne Ruston, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Image: AAP

"From 20 March 2020, seven existing payments will progressively cease and the JobSeeker Payment will be created making Australia’s working-age welfare payments easier and simpler to navigate. More than 99 per cent of people will have the same payment rates under JobSeeker Payment as they had on their previous payments," Ruston said in a statement.

"These changes will better accommodate a recipient’s circumstances as they will not need to claim a new payment should they enter or exit a period of sickness or bereavement."

She said welfare recipients who are forced into isolation for coronavirus should contact Services Australia and ask for a Major Personal Crisis Exemption, which would grant them 14 days free of obligations, without the need for a medical certificate.

Ruston said the changes to the payments do not mean "that people who previously may have been eligible for Sickness Allowance are now unable to access income support".

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Ruston added that sick people applying for Jobseeker will be assessed against the same eligibility as the current Sickness Allowance.

"People who are unable to work due to COVID-19, who would have qualified for Sickness Allowance will be able to qualify for JobSeeker Payment under the same rules and at the same rate of payment," she said.

In a Facebook video posted on Wednesday afternoon, just hours after the publication of this article, Prime Minister Scott Morrison flagged that there may be changes to the system around Sickness Allowance and Newstart. He said the updates would be announced on Thursday as part of a stimulus package expected to provide extra payments to those on welfare or pensions.

Labor, the Greens and social advocates have all blasted the government's new plan, and its timing.

Jeremy Poxon of the Australian Unemployed Workers Union, labelled the slashing of Sickness Allowance amidst the coronavirus outbreak "deeply farcical", claiming it would cause "unnecessary stress, uncertainty and confusion" to payment recipients.

Image: Getty

He said information on exemptions to obligations for those in isolation was not available online, and confusion around the changes was rife.

"It’s staggering that they haven’t made this advice public, put it on their website, sent messages to income support recipients. It shows a real lack of regard and care for some of the most vulnerable people in our community," Poxon said.

"Right now, the system is creating mass confusion: many people facing this crisis, going into quarantine, don’t know how to secure income support."

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Both Labor and the Greens have called on the federal government to better support those on welfare through the coronavirus crisis, and ensure those under quarantine will be able to pay their bills while not working.

Labor shadow ministers Tony Burke and Linda Burney called on the government to provide "urgent reassurance" to casual workers who may not be able to work because of coronavirus.

It comes after a hotel employee in Hobart went to work despite being told to self-isolate, starting a national discussion about how to cater to those who can't afford to miss shifts.

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"People should not fear their payment will be cut off if they follow medical advice and stay home," Burke and Burney said.

The pair also called on the government to suspend the mutual obligation requirements -- activities, such as carrying out work for the dole positions or career workshops, which are mandatory to receive payments -- for welfare recipients in quarantine.

Greens Senator Rachel Siewert. (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)

Greens senator Rachel Siewert said she feared people would "fall through the cracks" in the welfare system, as the changes occurred amidst the coronavirus panic.

"Particularly older Australians who have been on a Wife Pension and are not familiar with the mutual obligation requirements of a working-age payment as well as those casual workers who will have to apply for Newstart or a sickness payment because they can’t go to work," she said.

"I am very worried about sick people being subject to a complicated exemption process at this particular time."

The government has been under pressure from social advocates to deliver further relief and assistance to those on welfare, or in casual employment, who may have their finances interrupted by coronavirus.

CEO of the Australian Council of Social Services, Dr Cassandra Goldie, urged the government to increase the base rate of welfare payments, and also welcomed talk of a one-off bonus as part of a federal economic stimulus package.

Contact the author: jobutler@networkten.com.au