Coronavirus: Australia PM says social distancing helping to slow spread of infections

People practising social distancing at Cronulla Mall in Sydney, Australia, on March 28, 2020.
People practising social distancing at Cronulla Mall in Sydney, Australia, on March 28, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MELBOURNE (REUTERS) - Australia's rate of the spread of the novel coronavirus has halved in recent days, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Sunday (March 29) as he announced an additional A$1.1 billion (S$965 million) to expand telemedicine care and other health services.

Morrison said that the daily increase in cases in recent days was at about 13 per cent to 15 per cent, down from 25 per cent to 30 per cent seen a week ago, showing social distancing measures were working.

"These are still strong rates of increase, no doubt about that," Morrison said in televised remarks.

Australia's Health Minister Greg Hunt said at the same briefing that there are some "positive, early signs of flattening of the curve" of the spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.

According to the latest official data from the health ministry there were 3,809 confirmed cases of coronavirus in Australia early on Sunday, 431 more than in the previous day.

Sixteen deaths were attributable to the virus, health officials said. 

Later on Sunda. Morrison said public gatherings should not exceed two people and Australians should go out only when necessary, while those over 70 should self-isolate to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus. 

Morrison said that people “must stay home” unless going out to do essential shopping, exercises, for medical appointments or to work and education if they cannot work or learn remotely.  He also said that there would be a six-month moratorium on evicting people who find themselves in financial distress.

Neighbouring New Zealand saw its first death related to the coronavirus on Sunday, with cases rising to 514 confirmed infections.

Two-thirds of the cases in Australia have been traced to contact with people returning from overseas, government officials said. 

State leaders, however, are worried about the recent rise in community transmission, especially in the most populous New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, where more than half of Australia’s 25.5 million people live.

Australia has introduced a series of measures to combat the spread of Covid-19, but state and federal governments have sent some mixed messages about social distancing and other containment measures, leading to widespread confusion.

Morrison said on Sunday that all of Australia’s six states and two territories were working to keep actions consistent, but rising case numbers may require individual states to take additional actions “sooner than other states”. 

Australian media reported on Sunday a number of fines were given to people for breaching quarantines after states moved last week to implement ad hoc fines and even jail terms for individuals and businesses not complying with the rules.

Morrison also said that additional money will be spent on telemedicine care options, domestic violence support and mental health services aimed at supporting “the most vulnerable” Australians.

The spending comes atop earlier announced measures, which equalled to about 10 per cent of Australia’s annual gross domestic product, to help the economy weather the turmoil caused by the pandemic, which started in China and has spread to over 200 countries.

A recession in Australia would be the country’s first in nearly three decades. Morrison said more financial aid will be considered at the government’s meeting later on Sunday.  “This is part of the hibernation strategy of ensuring we keep people connected with their businesses and with their jobs, so on the other side of this, Australia can bounce back stronger,” he said.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Sunday that Australians who lose their jobs will be given a wage subsidy to guarantee a share of their income as the pandemic wipes out hundreds of thousands of jobs. The relief plan could be announced within days.

The Morrison government is planning to pay workers as much as 80 per cent of their wages and is examining ways to get employers to transfer the money to their staff, as an alternative to using the welfare system.

The scheme is expected to have a cap on the total income to be paid, while the percentage of income covered is yet to be decided, the Herald reported. 

Mr Morrison confirmed the plan on Sunday morning, saying the proposal would cover people laid off in recent weeks, but he said it was not simple and needed time to be finalised, the Herald said.