Schools to stay open, new crowd limits, travel bans


PRIME Minister Scott Morrison has ordered Australians not to travel overseas after declaring a biosecurity emergency for the nation.

The travel ban for every Australian is being upgraded to level four - do not travel - for the entire world.

"That is the first time that has ever happened in Australia's history," Mr Morrison said.

"For those who are thinking of going overseas in the school holidays, don't. Don't go overseas.

"The biggest risk we have had and the biggest incidents of cases we have had has been from Australians returning from overseas, from many countries that you wouldn't have expected that to be a source."

Mr Morrison said a "human biosecurity emergency was declared under the Biosecurity Act by the Governor-General".

"I don't want people to be alarmed about this. This is what these measures in the Biosecurity Act are for."

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However, Mr Morrison has ruled out school closures for now, saying it would cost lives because health workers would not be available.

"Please know this - whatever we do we have to do for at least six months. That means the disruption that would occur from the closure of schools around this country, make no mistake, would be severe.

"Tens of thousands of jobs could be lost, if not more. The impact on the availability of health workers a 30% impact on the availability of health workers is our advice.

"That will put peoples' lives at risk. Let's keep our heads as parents when it comes to this. Let's do the right thing by the country and by each other and follow the proper advice."

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He has also announced a ban on non-essential gatherings in indoor areas of more than 100 areas.

"Outdoor areas it is 500 and indoor areas it is 100. That is effective now, as of today and those arrangements, in terms of the legal enforcement of those measures are being put in place by the Statesand Territories.

"A fair question is "What is an essential gathering?" To define what is a non-essential gathering. There is a baseline that has been established amongst the national cabinet which reflected in a lot of the legislation that was put in in relation to the outdoor ban and that is an airport, public transportation, which includes public transportation facilities, such as stations, platforms, stops, trains, trams, buses, these are essential.

"Medical and health service facilities, emergency service facilities, disability or aged care facilities, or I will come to aged care and the constraints we are putting on that shortly.

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"Correctional facilities, youth justice centres or other places of custody, courts or tribunals. Parliaments, food market, supermarket, grocery store, retail store, shopping centre that is necessary for the normal business of those promises.

"Office buildings, factories, construction sites, mining sites, necessary for their normal operation.

"Particularly when we are talking about work places, I want to commend the employers of Australia, whether they are in the offices of our capital cities or elsewhere, who are already putting in place quite sensible rostering arrangements in their work places, as indeed public service employers are doing that as well.

"I am quite sure that amongst the media, you are doing similar things which is sensible.

"That does two things. It ensures social distancing practices are being followed in the work place but equally, it is changing the strain and providing for greater social distancing on essential travel, particularly in public transport and things of that nature.

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"There is also - it relates to schools, universities, education facilities and child care facilities, hotels and motels and
other accommodation facilities which includes things like mining camps and other places where purposes are - where people are transiting.

The Bourke Street Mall, Federation Square, Martin Place, those types of places. They are essential places of where there are essential gatherings. Non-essential is everything else."


"Stop hoarding. I can't be more blunt about it. Stop it.

"It is not sensible, it is not helpful and it has been one of the most disappointing things I have seen in Australian behaviour in response to this crisis. That is not who we are as a people.

"It is not necessary. It is not something that people should be doing. What it does is it is distracting attention and efforts that need to be going into other measures, to be focusing on how we maintain supply chains into these shopping centres.

"There is no reason for people to be hoarding supplies in fear of a lock down or anything like this. As I have said, we're putting in place scalable and sustainable measures."


Visits to aged care facilities are being severely restricted.

"I know this could be very difficult for families," Mr Morrison said.

Staff and visitors who have returned from overseas in the last 14 days will be banned, as will those who have been in contact with a confirmed coronavirus case in the last two weeks.

Also banned will be anyone with fever or symptoms of acute respiratory infection, and those who haven't had a flu vaccination after May 1.

No school groups of any size will be allowed, and children under the age of 16 should be visiting "only by exception".

Visits will be limited to a maximum of two people at one time.

"These may be immediate social supports, family members, close friends or professional service or advocacy workers," Mr Morrison said.

"Visits should be conducted in a resident's room, outdoors or in a specific area designated by the facility, rather than communal areas where the risk of transmission to other residents is greater. There should be no large group visits or gatherings."


"Life is changing in Australia, as it is changing all around the world. Life is going to continue to change, as we deal with the global coronavirus.

"This is a once in 100 year type event. We haven't seen this sort of thing in Australia since the end of the first World War. But together, we are up to this challenge. All Australians, Governments, health workers, teachers, nurses, journalists, broadcasters, mums, dads, kids, grandparents, aged care workers, we're all up to this. We're all able to deal with this.

"But we just need to continue to keep our heads focusing on the right information, making good decisions, helping and supporting each other each and every day to make the changes that are very necessary, as we deal with this very real situation. We are going to keep Australia running.

"We are going to keep Australia functioning. It won't look like it normally does but it is very important that we continue to put in place measures that are scalable and sustainable. There is no two-week answer to what we're confronting.

"There is no short-term, quick fix to how this is dealt with in Australia. The idea that you can just turn everything off for two weeks and then turn it all back on again and it all goes away, that is not the evidence, that is not the facts, that is not the information and it is not our way through this.

"It is not what you see in the measures that we have already announced and the measures that we will continue to announce. They need to be scalable and they need to be sustainable."


PM expected to announce new crowd ban

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is expected to announce tough new restrictions on indoor gatherings today, as the number of coronavirus cases in Australia continues to rise.

It comes after Mr Morrison yesterday met with the national cabinet to review the latest medical advice on public crowds and discuss how to best protect residents in aged care homes.

More than 450 cases of coronavirus have now been confirmed across Australia, with 210 in New South Wales, 94 in Victoria, 78 in Queensland, 32 in South Australia,  28 in Western Australia, seven in Tasmania, two in the ACT and one in the Northern Territory.

Five people have died, with one death in Western Australia, three deaths in New South Wales, and one death in Queensland.


Virgin suspends international flights

Frank Chung

More breaking airline news.

Virgin Australia is suspending all international flights from March 30 to June 14.

The airline is cutting domestic capacity by 50 per cent and grounding the equivalent of 53 planes.

Virgin Australia boss Paul Scurrah said in a statement to the ASX that "significant action" to manage the business was required during this "unprecedented time".

"We have responded by making tough decisions which include reducing our domestic capacity and phasing in the temporary suspension of international flying for a period of two-and-a-half months," he said.

"We are committed to supporting our guests during this period and have set up a dedicated customer care hub to manage the surge of customer queries and travel changes."



Customers with new or existing domestic or international bookings through to June 30 can change their flight to a later date or destination without a fee.

Bookings can be cancelled in exchange for a travel credit.

The statement acknowledges the changes "will affect our people and we are having constructive discussions with team members and relevant unions".

"Wherever possible, we will aim to avoid redundancies by fast-tracking measures such as the use of accrued leave, leave without pay and redeployment," Mr Scurrah said.

Qantas earlier this week said it was cutting international capacity by 90 per cent and domestic capacity by 60 per cent, grounding 150 planes.

The federal government this morning announced a $715 million airline virus assistance package.

  16m agoMarch 18, 2020HIGHLIGHT

Shoppers urged to 'be considerate'

Frank Chung

Australia's major supermarket chains have banded together to plead with customers to be considerate of each other and stop abusing staff, in the wake of mass panic buying and hoarding sparked by the spread of the coronavirus.

The call made in newspaper advertisements across the country on Wednesday comes after more footage emerged online of customers verbally attacking retail staff because they couldn't find the goods they wanted in-store.

Aldi, Coles, IGA and Woolworths said they were doing everything they could to get as much produce on the shelves as possible, often under difficult circumstances. "So we ask you to please be considerate in the way you shop," the ad says.

"We understand your concerns, but if you buy only what you need and stick to the product limits it helps everyone, especially the elderly and people with disability. No one working or shopping in any of our stores should experience abusive or aggressive behaviour."

Coles will on Wednesday hold its first "community hour" for seniors and pension card holders from 7am at its stores nationwide, before opening to everyone else.

"We believe all Australians deserve the right to access their share of grocery items, particularly the elderly and the vulnerable," Coles CEO Steven Cain said.

Coles is trying to employ more than 5000 casual workers to help restock its supermarkets quicker under a fast-tracked induction process and will hire more Coles Online delivery van drivers.

Panic buying sparked by the spread of coronavirus in Australia has seen supermarkets stripped of toilet paper, pasta, rice and frozen food, as well as tinned and other dried goods.

The issue has caused stress and frustration amongst elderly shoppers, many of whom find it difficult to make frequent visits to supermarkets for essential goods.

In many cases, particularly for toilet paper, the shelves are often bare.

People with government-issued concession cards on Tuesday flocked to Woolworths, which held the country's first dedicated shopping hour for the vulnerable from 7am.

But not everyone was happy. At Woolworths Marrickville in Sydney's inner west shoppers were complaining that some stock wasn't available.

Woolworths fresh food director Paul Harker said the initiative had proved very popular but agreed there were still shortages of toilet paper and pasta. "Our supply chains are working 24/7 to make sure they get product to our stores," he said.

More broadly, Mr Harker said there was no shortage of goods in Australia. "It is a logistics exercise of moving the product to get it back into stores with the pace and demand we're seeing," he added.

The Woolworths shopping-hour program will be reviewed later this week to see if it can be improved.

Meanwhile, IGA is considering whether to roll out a similar pensioners-and- seniors-only shopping hour across its 1300 Australian stores.

The idea is being trialled at an IGA in Melbourne's Altona, with a shopping hour between 6am to 7am, which could be extended across its network if successful. A decision is expected soon.


  21m agoMarch 18, 2020HIGHLIGHT

WA confirms three more cases

Frank Chung

Actually, the national total is now 456.

Western Australia reported another three cases yesterday, bringing the state total to 31. We've updated our numbers.

All three new cases are adult males and are now recovering in self-isolation at home in the Perth metro area, WA's Director of Communicable Disease Control Dr Paul Armstrong said in a statement.

One had travelled to Perth from the UK, one from Thailand and the other from Ireland via Doha.

State health authorities are now working with the airlines to contact passengers who were sitting near two of the men. Flight details will be uploaded to the HealthyWA website as contact tracing is completed.

Dr Armstrong said all cases notified so far had been associated with overseas travel.

  34m agoMarch 18, 2020HIGHLIGHT

Vaccine 'still a year away'

Frank Chung

Australian researchers are still at least a year away from a vaccine for the novel coronavirus, federal Health Minister Greg Hunt says.

"I spoke yesterday with both the University of Queensland and the Doherty Institute. Progress is being made. We still think that a vaccine is in the 12-to-18 months range but it may be earlier," he told Nine's Today show.

But Mr Hunt said there had been an "exceptionally important" breakthrough by the two research teams with regards to treatment.

"This is the thing which is extremely prospective, being able to minimise the effects, particularly on the elderly, particularly on the vulnerable, and that is something which gives me real and enormous hope."

On Tuesday, researchers at Melbourne's Peter Doherty Institute for Infection announced the immune responses from one of Australia's first coronavirus patients has been mapped, which could lead to a vaccine.

Research fellow Oanh Nguyen said it was the first time broad immune responses to COVID-19 had been reported.

"Three days after the patient was admitted, we saw large populations of several immune cells, which are often a tell-tale sign of recovery during seasonal influenza infection, so we predicted that the patient would recover in three days, which is what happened," Dr Nguyen said.

By dissecting the immune response, the researchers might now be able to find an effective vaccine.

Meanwhile, Mr Hunt defended the testing procedure, saying authorities were focused on making sure people at risk and matching the criteria were tested, rather than broader testing.

He said 81,000 tests - one of the highest rates in the world - had been conducted with about a 0.5 per cent positive rate.

A further 97,000 test kits have been ordered. Half of those tests arrived in Australia overnight and will be distributed on Wednesday.

"What we are doing is making sure that we actually have one of the highest testing rates in the world," he said, adding they want to make sure testing is focused on those people who are most likely to be at risk.

He said that included people who had travelled overseas, been in contact with somebody who has been diagnosed, and if the person has symptoms.


  42m agoMarch 18, 2020HIGHLIGHT

ACT confirms third case

Frank Chung

The ACT now has three confirmed cases of coronavirus.

The patient is a woman in her 70s and has been admitted to Canberra Hospital. A positive test result was confirmed last night.

The first two cases in the national capital were men in their 30s.

"ACT Health is undertaking appropriate public health action to understand further details of the individual's possible source of exposure and to follow up with close contacts as a priority," ACT Health said in a statement.

"This work is being conducted in line with national guidelines. ACT Health will provide further information later today, as this detail becomes known by the Health Protection Service."

This brings the national tally to 453.

  1h agoMarch 18, 2020HIGHLIGHT

Airlines to get $715 million

Frank Chung

Australia's ailing airlines will be handed a $715 million federal government lifeline to help the sector through the coronavirus pandemic.

A range of government charges will be refunded and waived to help airlines under immense pressure as domestic and global travel plummets.

The government will forgo fuel excise, air service charges and regional security fees.

The move is expected to create an upfront benefit of $159 million, with the government refunding charges paid since February 1.

Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said the package was designed to put Australia in the best position to deal with the coronavirus outbreak. "Our airlines run on tight budgets at the best of times and these past few weeks have been particularly tough," he said on Wednesday.

"I've been speaking with Australian airline executives every day and will continue to work with them to make sure they receive the support they need."

The package comes one day after Qantas announced it would slash its international capacity by 90 per cent and domestic flights by 60 per cent. Regional carrier Rex has urged government action, warning it could go under unless given help during the tumultuous period.

Shares in Regional Express entered a trading halt on Tuesday pending an announcement to the market.

Singapore-based Jetstar Asia, which is owned by Qantas, has suspended all flights for three weeks from March 23 to April 15.

The Airlines for Australia and New Zealand group applauded the government package for a "critical pillar" of the Australian economy and the tourism industry.

"In Australia, when the impact of the GFC spread beyond the financial sector to other industries, none were hit harder than the aviation sector," A4ANZ CEO Alison Roberts said.

"The impact of this economic crisis caused by COVID-19 is expected to be far worse."

- Matt Coughlan, AAP

  1h agoMarch 18, 2020HIGHLIGHT

When will schools be shut?

Frank Chung

The federal government is still considering whether to close the nation's schools as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases continues to rise.

"We are continuing to take the very best medical advice on that. That advice is very clear at the moment that the best thing as a nation that we can do is keep our schools open," Education Minister Dan Tehan told Nine's Today show on Wednesday.

But some public and private schools have already opted to shut their gates. "That is up to them," Mr Tehan said.

The government has been hesitant about closing schools for two reasons. "One is we have to look after our workforce and especially our medical workforce," he said.

"Up to 30 per cent of our medical workforce could be impacted if schools close. The second reason is a health reason. If you have kids at home often elderly grandparents have to come in to look after them and that puts them at danger."

Recent cases in schools, including Epping Boys' High School and Willoughby Girls High School in Sydney, have resulted in them closing down for cleaning, but reopening within days.


  1h agoMarch 18, 2020HIGHLIGHT

Ban announcement coming

Frank Chung

Health Minister Greg Hunt says the Prime Minister will make a statement early this morning about new restrictions on indoor gatherings.

"There will be new restrictions on indoor gatherings but the final details are being settled now," he told Sky News.

"The national cabinet of the PM and premiers met late into the night to consider the advice of all the chief health officers. I understand those details are being finalised as we speak."

Mr Hunt said restaurants, pubs, clubs and bars and other venues would likely not be shut down but would face restrictions.

"The advice of the chief medical officers is those operations can and should be able to continue but with increased limits on the number of peoples in indoor gatherings and the distancing between people," he said.


  1h agoMarch 18, 2020HIGHLIGHT

Overseas ANZAC services cut

Frank Chung

All Australian-led international ANZAC Day commemorations are being cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

That includes services at Gallipoli and on the Western Front in France and Belgium. It follows the cancellation of ANZAC Day services across Australia.

Veterans' Affairs Minister Darren Chester said it was a "difficult decision" taken with "great regret" but it was the right thing to do to protect elderly veterans.

"We simply couldn't be having large gatherings of 500 or 100 people on ANZAC Day on foreign soil this year," he told ABC News. "A lot of our veterans are approaching 95 or 100 years of age, we didn't want to expose them to those conditions."

Read more here.


$10m for virus-hit businesses in Melbourne

Alle McMahon

Melbourne's inner-city businesses will benefit from a $10 million local economic stimulus package from the local government to help them deal with the effects of the coronavirus.

A council meeting on Tuesday night endorsed the support package, which will include suspending fees for Food Act registrations and street trading permits for three months.

Rents will also be halved for eligible tenants in council-owned buildings and a business support summit will be held at Melbourne Town Hall and screened online.

A rates hardship policy will be also developed by the end of March and opportunities will be given to redeploy 200 casual and part-time staff to "work on improving city cleanliness and presentation".

The stimulus package is designed to help businesses deal with the fallout from the ongoing coronavirus outbreak. Picture: David Caird

Lord Mayor Sally Capp said the package will support businesses affected by the statewide emergency measures announced on Monday, which include social distancing to prioritise health and safety.

"Fees for some permits will be waived and businesses can apply for direct grants to help keep them trading," she said in a statement.

"The economic impacts from this virus will be significant and we're encouraging everybody to support local businesses wherever they can."

More than 90 cases of coronavirus have now been confirmed across Victoria, but Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton has warned that figure will continue to rise.

"We are focused on doing whatever is necessary to minimise the spread of infection and keep Victorians safe," he said.


  2h agoMarch 18, 2020HIGHLIGHT

Traveller describes 'surreal' experience in UK

Alle McMahon

A woman has described the "surreal" and stressful experience of hearing borders could close while on holiday in the UK.

Rachel Hippolyte, from Perth in Western Australia, said she'd been in the UK for about five days visiting her elderly parents and family before she heard countries were starting to close their borders.

"I've just come to the UK. I wasn't supposed to come back for week but we've heard this morning that they're starting to close borders," she said in a video on Facebook.

"For the last two days I've been trying to get through to change

my flight back. I've been on hold with Qantas for about seven

hours and in the end just had to make the decision to just buy another flight, which cost more than my return flight before."

Ms Hippolyte said it had been an incredibly stressful experience, but she made the right decision Picture: Facebook

Fearing that she wouldn't be able to get home, Ms Hippolyte said she booked the last seat available on a flight that was leaving in just two hours

"It's quite surreal," she said.

"I've been incredibly stressed, purely because the not knowing - not being able to get hold of anyone to be able to change the flight.

"In the end I just had to make a decision, a financial decision that at the end of the day it's just money. And if it means that I'm home and I'm safe with my family, then that's what I needed to do. And once I'd made a decision, it was actually quite easy."

On Tuesday night, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT)urged Australians abroad to return home as soon as possible due to the coronavirus.

"We now advise all Australians to reconsider your need for overseas travel at this time," it said in a statement.

"If you're already overseas and wish to return to Australia, we recommend you do so as soon as possible by commercial means."

All returning Australians are now required to self-isolate for 14 days.

  3h agoMarch 18, 2020HIGHLIGHT

New ban could hit pubs, cinemas and weddings

Alle McMahon

The Prime Minister is expected to announce tough new limits on indoor gatherings today, which could impact restaurants, clubs, pubs, parties and weddings.

It comes after Scott Morrison met with the national cabinet late last night to review the latest medical advice on public crowds and discuss how to protect residents in aged care homes.

Mass gatherings of 500 people or more have already been banned, and other world leaders have also advised their citizens against eating out and going to bars, cinemas and theatres.

Most schools are already taking precautions, including cancelling excursions and assemblies. But a number of private schools have independently taken the decision to move to online classes.

Chief medical officers haven't ruled out school closures, but they're being cautious about the idea.

Health Minister Greg Hunt yesterday said the government's focus was on protecting vulnerable Australians.

"This is our fundamental national task," he said in Melbourne.

"Because they are the ones who are most likely to have an impact from the coronavirus which could either be serious or could, of course, lead to a fatality."

- With wires

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