Aussies are being warned to prepare for the "long haul", with the possibility that extreme measures could last for up to 18 months until a coronavirus vaccine is developed.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday announced unprecedented restrictions on public gatherings, access to aged care facilities and issued blanket "do not travel" advice.
But federal and state governments have so far stopped short of closing schools and universities. "People who say we can lockdown the country for four weeks and send everyone home, close the schools, are not being realistic," Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said last night.
Five hundred and sixty-eight cases of coronavirus have now been confirmed across Australia, with 267 in New South Wales, 121 in Victoria, 94 in Queensland, 37 in South Australia, 35 in Western Australia, 10 in Tasmania, three in the Australian Capital Territory and one in the Northern Territory.
Six people have died - one in Western Australia and five in New South Wales - and 43 have recovered.
New laws for Queensland
Queensland parliament is considering a bill which would give the state's chief health officer and emergency officers more powers to contain the outbreak of coronavirus.
Under the proposed laws, the chief health officer would be able to issue directions to ban non-essential gatherings in outdoor areas of more than 500 people, and non-essential gatherings of 100 people indoors.
Health and Ambulance Services Minister Steven Miles said the bill was expected to pass on Wednesday night.
"These laws give us greater powers to enforce measures that will assist in slowing down the outbreak of COVID-19," Mr Miles said in a statement.
"Queensland has been quick to act throughout this unprecedented global event and subsequently has managed to stay ahead of the virus so far but we know that will change. We must continue to throw everything we have at this and support our frontline medical staff to do their vital work."
The chief health officer's directions would affect entertainment venues, function centres, pubs and clubs and large restaurants, the state government says.
They wouldn't affect airports, public transport, medical facilities, emergency services, aged care, prisons, courts, our parliament, supermarkets, offices, schools, universities or construction sites.
Under the proposed legislation, the chief health officer could also recommend that businesses and facilities open or close, or limit access for the health and safety of customers.
Emergency officers, including public health officers, would get extra powers to help contain or respond to COVID-19 within the community.
"People may be directed to stay in their home, or another place decided by the emergency officer, for example, a hospital or other isolation area," Mr Miles said.
"An emergency officer may also direct an owner or operator of any business or facility to open, close or limit visitor access to the facility for a specified period."
Another bill is expected to be introduced allowing supermarkets to accept deliveries around the clock, helping them cope with shoppers raiding shelves. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk called for calm and consideration of residents who were purchasing more products than they need.
"Some of the behaviour I have seen in our state and around the country has shocked me," she said.
"I understand that people are anxious but it saddens me that some Queenslanders are behaving this way at the expense of others."
The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus in Queensland rose to 94 as of Wednesday morning.
- Michael Doyle, AAP
1h agoMarch 19, 2020HIGHLIGHT
RBA to cut rates again
Australia's central bank is expected to cut interest rates in tandem with a federal government plan to help workers keep their jobs and ease the burden on business struggling against the economic impact of the coronavirus.
The Reserve Bank of Australia will make a rare out-of-cycle announcement on monetary policy at 2.30pm on Thursday.
Usually, such announcements are delivered on the first Tuesday of each month so if it does move it will be the second time in a month the RBA has cut rates.
The cash rate could be lowered to 0.25 per cent, matching a similar reduction to 0.50 per cent on March 4.
The central bank could also flag other measures to support the economy.
The spread of the coronavirus in Australia and across the world has cemented the likelihood the national economy will fall into recession this year, as consumer spending and productivity slumps.
ANZ economists have warned the economy could contract by as much as two per cent in the June quarter, risking a rise in the jobless rate to almost eight per cent from around five per cent now.
"Workers in industries such as tourism, education and retail are already being laid off and this will only worsen under travel bans, cancellations of large events and social distancing," ANZ said in a research note to clients.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann says the upcoming government economic package, which will follow $17.6 billion worth of support announced last week, will be "significant".
"The extent of the economic impact has been accelerating significantly," he told Sky News on Wednesday night.
The government is aiming for business-focused measures that cushion the impact of the crisis and may include cash payments or loan support for small and medium-sized businesses.
The government's first stimulus package included $750 one-off payments for pensioners and welfare recipients, as well as grants of up to $25,000 for small business.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry has recommended a range of measures for the second package, including help for businesses to keep employees as well as concessional loans to assist with cash flow restraints.
Australia's small business and family enterprise ombudsman Kate Carnell has urged the government to include sole traders in its support package, as they can't access the grants on offer.
Senior Labor figure Penny Wong said the second package needed to be comprehensive and include help for casual workers.
"(They) face a dreadful decision if they are asked to isolate, of either doing the right thing by the community and public health, but not being able to put food on the table for their families," she told ABC News.
"We should not put them in that position."
1h agoMarch 19, 2020HIGHLIGHT
'This could last 18 months'
ABC health expert Dr Norman Swan says we could be facing 12 to 18 months of disruption until a coronavirus vaccine is developed.
His comments echo those of the Prime Minister and Chief Medical Officer, who said yesterday Aussies should prepare for the "long haul".
Speaking on the ABC's Coronacast podcast today, Dr Swan was commenting on a recent study from London's Imperial College, which modelled the outcome of various measures to control the outbreak such as school shutdowns, quarantines and social distancing.
It was that study which forced the UK government to backtrack on its controversial "herd immunity" policy, after the modelling showed it would result in 500,000 deaths.
"They showed if you let the epidemic rip, a lot of people would die," he said.
"The upside is the epidemic would actually be much shorter because it would burn itself out, (but) it would be a disaster, hospitals would be overwhelmed, so nobody's going to do that."
The researchers looked at a scale of measures, from mitigation on the left-hand side "where you're only doing one or two things like social distancing", to the "full monty on the right-hand side where you're doing five different things".
"What they've shown with this study is you have to do a lot of things if you want to suppress the virus to very low levels - quarantine, distancing, shut down schools and universities," Dr Swan said.
He said "the scary part of this paper" is "they said maybe you do" have to keep those measures in place until a vaccine might be ready, which Health Minister Greg Hunt yesterday said could be 12 to 18 months away.
Dr Swan said the measures announced yesterday were the government "putting their foot very lightly on the brake". "We have relatively few cases so we've got probably a little bit of time, but not very much time, to see how it's going," he said.
"We're doing a bit of the right thing, but more on the left-hand side of the graph (mitigation) than the right (suppression). The problem is when you put your foot on the brake you have no idea when you can take it off and it might be as long as 18 months."
With the graph of case numbers particularly in NSW "going almost vertical" he said authorities might "pulse" the brake. "I suspect we're going to be pushed into closing schools," he said.
2h agoMarch 19, 2020HIGHLIGHT
Officials monitor school situation
Schools will stay open for now but health officials are keeping a close eye on the situation as the coronavirus spreads across Australia.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned the flow-on effects of closing schools would be severe.
They could include tens of thousands of job losses and taking out nearly a third of the health workforce as parents are forced to stay home with their children.
"Any measure you put in place, you must be prepared to put it in place for at least six months - it could be longer," he said.
"There's only one reason your kids shouldn't be going to school and that is if they are unwell."
Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said the health committee advising governments believed very strongly keeping schools open was the best thing to protect the community.
However, school life would have to change for the time being, with large gatherings like assemblies and excursions cancelled and teachers and students alike making sure to wash their hands regularly and practise good hygiene.
Mr Morrison spoke with private education sector representatives on Wednesday, after meeting with premiers and chief ministers who run the public systems on Tuesday night.
The National Catholic Education Commission says it will stick to the government's advice.
"I appreciate that, despite this advice some parents have chosen to keep their children at home, or have special circumstances to consider," executive director Jacinta Collins said.
"While this is an uncertain period for our communities, it is important that we remain calm and alert as we monitor this health risk, and for our families and staff to be well informed about the health advice and protocols to reduce this risk."
The Independent Education Union has been inundated with calls from anxious teachers worried about how to implement social distancing and questioning leave entitlements and hygiene practices.
Opposition education spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek has written to minister Dan Tehan asking him to make sure the government is making full preparations for any closures that may occur.
This includes support for parents who can't work, making sure families can access internet and computers at home, and giving special consideration to how extended closures might affect student marks, particularly for those in Year 12.
- Katina Curtis, AAP
1:44 amMarch 19, 2020HIGHLIGHT
Aussie cruise passengers jump ship
Dozens of Australian passengers onboard an international cruise ship have aborted the vessel in lifeboats as they make the mad dash home amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The ship, MV Columbus - owned by Cruise and Maritime Voyages - has hundreds of Australians onboard after recent stops in Sydney, Cairns and Darwin.
The ship, which can carry 1,400 passengers, was this week ordered to curtail its world cruise and sail back to its original port in Tilbury, England.
Passengers were given the choice to spend the next four weeks at sea while the ship makes its way back to England, or to join a nearby Australian cruise ship bound for its point of origin in Fremantle, Western Australia.
According to a passenger who spoke to news.com.au, 178 people elected to leave the international ship after arriving off Phuket Island and join the Vasco De Gama in Thailand on Wednesday, local time.
Sixty seven European and British passengers on the Australian vessel made the switch to the Columbus. In spectacular scenes, the passenger exchange was carried out by a fleet of lifeboats over a full day.
"We have almost four weeks sailing back to London, while they will take only 10 days to sail back to Australia, so we will be getting some of their supplies," the source said.
But despite the disruption to their travel plans, the mood among passengers remained calmed, according to the source.
"We chatted to some Australians last night who were leaving and they were very philosophical," he said.
"No panic, no anger….just a bit sad that they missed the Great Wall of China, the pyramids, the valley of the Kings, and so on."
Another passenger, Tecwyn Vaughan Jones, who lectured at the American College in Bangor, told British media there was concern among some passengers about the people being transferred to the Australian-bound ship potentially having the virus.
"Our ship will be totally full then and current passengers are scared these new passengers might bring the virus on board," he said.