Australia warns coronavirus outbreak will take weeks to tame

Victoria's government has told residents around Melbourne to cover their faces if they have to leave their homes. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - A surge in Covid-19 cases in Australia's second-biggest city could take weeks to subside despite a lockdown and orders to wear masks, Australia's acting chief medical officer said on Monday (July 20) as the country braces for a second wave of infection.

The respiratory disease caused by the novel coronairus flared up in Victoria state in July, mainly in Melbourne, with a daily record of 438 new cases detected on Friday (July 17).

Victoria on Monday recorded one death from the new coronavirus and logged 275 cases of infections compared with 363 cases a day earlier.

A woman in her 80s died from the virus overnight, Premier Daniel Andrews said in a media briefing in Melbourne, taking the national death toll to 123.

Coronavirus cases have spiked in Victoria in July, mostly in the city of Melbourne, prompting authorities to ask residents to wear face masks when they step outside their houses

Victoria's government has ordered about five million people into a partial lockdown for six weeks and told residents around Melbourne to cover their faces if they have to leave their homes, or risk fines of A$200 (S$194) for not complying.

Australia's Acting Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said it would take "weeks" to slow the outbreak to levels seen as recently as June, when Victoria and the rest of Australia reported single or double-digit daily infections.

"We have learned over time that the time between introducing a measure and seeing its effect is at least two weeks and sometimes longer than that," Kelly told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.

Australia has recorded about 11,800 coronavirus cases, a fraction of what has been seen in other countries, and the disease has been effectively eliminated from most states.

But the Victorian outbreak and rising daily cases in neighbouring New South Wales, the country's most-populous state, are stoking fears of a national second wave.

NSW reported 18 new infections on Sunday (July 19), its highest in three months. The transmission rate in the state is higher than in Victoria, despite social distancing restrictions being tightened.

NSW authorities have been unable to trace some of the clusters and state authorities have urged people to avoid unnecessary travel and public transport.

Should NSW be forced to implement new restrictions, it would be a hammer blow to Australia's hopes for a quick economic recovery. Already, Australia is facing its first recession in nearly three decades, with unemployment at a 22-year high.

Separately, Australia will extend its coronavirus loan guarantee scheme for small businesses and increase the credit limit to up to A$1 million from A$250,000, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Monday.

The expanded scheme, which will begin in October this year and run till June 2021, will also allow businesses with a turnover of under A$50 million to apply for loans to fund their investment plans.

Current rules allow businesses to use the loan only for working capital purposes.

"The next phase of the coronavirus small and medium enterprises guarantee scheme will help businesses move out of hibernation, successfully adapt to the new Covid-safe economy and invest for the future," Frydenberg said in a statement.

The government will continue to guarantee 50 per cent of the loan and the repayment period has been increased to five years from three years. Under the plan, banks also have the discretion to offer a repayment holiday period.

More than 15,600 businesses so far have applied for loans worth A$1.5 billion in the first phase of the plan, which is due to end on Sept. 30, 2020, according to government estimates.

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