Coronavirus: Australia edges towards lockdown as infections surge past 1,000

A man wears a face mask at a checkout in a Woolworths supermarket in Melbourne, Australia, on March 19, 2020.
A man wears a face mask at a checkout in a Woolworths supermarket in Melbourne, Australia, on March 19, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (BLOOMBERG) - Australia is edging towards lockdown with authorities preparing to shutter non-essential services and close state borders after the number of coronavirus cases in the nation surged past 1,000.

New South Wales and Victoria, the two most-populous states, said that while supermarkets, petrol stations, pharmacies and freight and logistics will remain open, non-essential activity will be stopped over the coming 48 hours. Victorian schools will close from Tuesday (March 22). 

A National Cabinet meeting of federal and state leaders has been brought forward to Sunday night to discuss more “draconian measures” such as local lockdowns in virus hot spots, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

Authorities have grown exasperated with people ignoring physical-separation advice – not least at Sydney’s Bondi Beach, which was closed by police after thousands flocked to the iconic landmark. 

“What happened at Bondi Beach yesterday was not alright,” Morrison said Sunday. “People cannot be cavalier about these things and must take them extremely seriously because lives and livelihoods are at stake.” 

Australia joins countries worldwide struggling to convince communities to heed health warnings. In the U.K., social-distancing efforts also failed to sufficiently stem infections and Prime Minister Boris Johnson has closed pubs, restaurants and leisure centres.

US President Donald Trump has also urged the younger generation to be more cautious to reduce the risk of infecting more vulnerable elderly.

Behind Australia’s pleas to take the threat seriously lies the fear the country could plunge into a crisis similar to Italy, where coronavirus deaths surpass those even in China. Total infections in Australia reached 1,098, the federal health department said Sunday. That’s a jump of 224 from the previous day. Seven people have died.

Anyone entering South Australia and Western Australia from Tuesday must isolate themselves for 14 days, measures already taken in Tasmania and the Northern Territory. Mark McGowan, Western Australia’s premier, said Sunday his government plans to acquire hotels to isolate people, and may turn Rottnest Island, a tourism hotspot 19km off the coast from Perth, into a quarantine zone. 

Critical mining, and oil and gas operations will continue, with about 2,500 resources sector workers continuing to travel to Western Australia from interstate, the Australian Associated Press reported. 

The Australian Football League suspended the rest of the 2020 season after the government said all non-essential travel should be cancelled. 

The crowds at Bondi Beach, and images of bustling bars and restaurants across Australia, have maddened politicians, who have repeatedly asked citizens to keep 1.5m apart from each other. Outdoor gatherings are capped at 500 people, and indoor gatherings above 100 people are banned. 

“We must remember first and foremost this is a health crisis,” Morrison said as he announced a second stimulus package on Sunday aimed at limiting the economic havoc of the outbreak.

Australia’s government will inject A$66 billion (S$54 billion) into the economy to shelter the country from the financial impact of the coronavirus,  Morrison said on Sunday. 

 
 

 The new stimulus dwarfs the initial A$17.6 billion in measures announced last week. Morrison said the government would help underwrite loans to small and medium-sized businesses and boost unemployment benefits as companies are forced to lay off staff. 

People in financial stress will also be able access up to A$10,000 tax-free of their pension funds for this and next year, while some not-for-profits and small businesses will have access to cash grants to keep staff employed.

“The health battle is the battle all Australians are enlisted in while we fight this crisis," he said. 

 
 

 Authorities are also scrambling to cope with outbreaks of the Covid-19 virus on cruise ships. The health department in New South Wales named three other cruise ships that have had confirmed cases, the Australian Broadcasting Corp reported.

That comes after thousands of passengers were allowed to disembark a ship on Thursday in Sydney, even as four people on board tested positive for the virus.