The peak Aboriginal medical service of the Northern Territory says it wrote to the federal minister Ken Wyatt six days ago asking for work-for-the-dole activities to be suspended “on public health grounds” to reduce the risk of Covid-19 transmission in vulnerable remote communities, but did not receive a response.
“We are disappointed that the minister has not responded to our letter,” said the Aboriginal Medical Services Alliance Northern Territory chief executive, John Paterson.
But on Monday Wyatt’s department, the National Indigenous Australians Agency wrote to providers to say “mutual obligations remain in place at this stage”, meaning that Aboriginal people will still be expected to turn up for group activities or risk losing their welfare payments.
“Any changes for particular areas affected by coronavirus or other extenuating circumstances will be considered on a case-by-case basis in line with existing procedures,” the NIAA chief executive, Ray Griggs, wrote in a letter obtained by Guardian Australia.
The letter said any community development program participant who was unwell and may have been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with Covid-19 should call Centrelink to discuss obtaining a “major personal crisis exemption”, valid for 14 days, to “avoid any suspension of payment”.
But Amsant said that advice “raises public health concerns” and increases unnecessary risks.
“Preventing and slowing the spread of the virus must be our overwhelming priority,” Paterson said. “The stakes could not be higher.
“We have a narrow window of opportunity to prevent the spread of the virus into our communities. As the funder and contract managers of these non-essential programs, the Australian government must exercise its duty of care.”
Labor and the Greens have also called for a suspension of work for the dole and mutual obligation commitments.
“It’s time for the government to put the health of remote communities first and suspend mutual obligation requirements,” said Labor’s Indigenous Australians spokesperson, Linda Burney.
“At a time when travel to remote communities in the NT is being restricted it is completely inconsistent to force people to participate in group activities.”
“This isn’t just about people who are ill or required to self-isolate,” she said. “It’s about limiting risk for the whole community, including those who are sick and older.”
On Tuesday the minister for Indigenous Australians, Ken Wyatt, said “CDP activities play an important role in community life” and mutual obligations would stay in place for the time being.
“Any changes for particular areas affected by coronavirus or other extenuating circumstances will be considered on a case-by-case basis,” a spokesman for the minister said.
This applied to all Australians who have mutual obligation requirements and was in line with health department advice, the minister’s office said.
But the Central Land Council said exemptions on a case-by-case basis would not work.
“Health services will be stretched to the limit and should not be burdened with having to issue medical certificates for individual CDP participants,” said its chief executive Joe Martin-Jard.
“The sensible and responsible thing to do is to cancel all participation requirements for the duration of the pandemic and allow our people to put their health and safety first.”
The Greens senator Rachel Siewert echoed calls for suspension, and said people might make decisions that endanger their health or others out of fear of losing their payments.
“Our first priority should be looking after people’s health and, as we surely move towards more people needing to isolate and socially distance, will this government still expect those on income support to be attending meetings and appointments?” Siewert asked.
Amsant said the risk factors for Covid-19 were greater than the H1N1 virus in 2009, which resulted in death rates among the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population six times higher than the non-Indigenous community.
“We need a clear, consistent and appropriate response that will best support individuals and communities and contribute to the efforts of government and community organisations to deal with this crisis.”
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