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No passenger allowed off ships in Sydney until new protocols signed: NSW premier

SYDNEY (Reuters) – No passenger will be allowed off cruise ships in Sydney until new protocols, which are still being negotiated with the federal government, are signed, Australia’s state premier said on Thursday as the number of coronavirus cases spiked.

Cruise ships have become a focal point in Australia after 147 passengers who disembarked from the Ruby Princess in Sydney last week tested positive for COVID-19. Ruby Princess is owned by a unit of the world’s largest cruise operator, Carnival Corp.

“I don’t want anyone off a ship in Sydney until border force, the federal minister, health authorities together sign off on the new arrangements,” New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters.

“That is difficult for some because there are a number of ships that have been at sea carrying Australians but there is no option,” she said.

“The protocols that I want far exceed what the existing protocols are and that’s what we are negotiating with the federal government.”

The number of cases of coronavirus jumped overnight in Australia’s two most populous states of NSW and Victoria, taking the total in Australia past 2,550. The number of deaths increased to 11 after two men in their 70s succumbed to COVID-19 in Victoria.

Berejiklian said her state would move to tighter restrictions on social distancing if the number of cases continued to climb.

The premier of Victoria state, of which Melbourne is the capital, said on Wednesday he would go harder on the lockdowns, if necessary, while warning there could be a shortage of ventilators if the virus is not contained.

Australia has tightened restrictions across the country, including limiting the size of weddings and funerals, and closing non-essential businesses such as bars, restaurants and cinemas.

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'We've got a moat': Tasmania cuts itself off from Australia

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s southern island state of Tasmania is quarantining itself from the mainland to stop the spread of coronavirus – after Saturday anyone who enters, even from elsewhere in the country, will have to spend 14 days in isolation.

“We’ve got a moat, and we’re not afraid to use it,” read the front page of Tasmania’s The Mercury newspaper on Friday, after state premier Peter Gutwein declared a state of emergency and the “toughest border restrictions in Australia”.

Australia requires all people returning from overseas to self-isolate for 14-days and is banning all foreigners and non-residents from entering from Friday night, but no other state has imposed restrictions on domestic travel.

As of Friday, Tasmania had 10 cases of COVID-19, with no fatalities. The national total is 785 cases and 7 deaths.

The restrictions however will not apply to the Aurora Australis, carrying 55 Antarctic expeditioners and 26 crew, which is due to dock on Tuesday. Many of the expeditioners have spent 12 months living on sub-Antarctic Macquarie Island conducting scientific research.

“They have been in splendid isolation,” said Australian Antarctic Division operations manager Robb Clifton.

As well as people travelling directly from Australia’s bases in Antarctica, Tasmania will exempt health, emergency and transport workers from its quarantine requirement.

Australia’s three bases on the Antarctic continent, Mawson, Davis and Casey, have been “completely cut off,” Clifton said.

“These expeditioners and the people on the International Space Station are probably the most secure people in the human population,” he said.

Tasmania is a one-hour flight or 10-hour ferry crossing from the mainland city of Melbourne, 445 km (275 miles) away.

Forty per cent of the island is wilderness or protected areas.

Qantas Airways is reducing flights to Tasmania from March 29, but the island’s ferry service will continue to carry freight to and from the mainland.

“We will have the essential supplies we need,” Gutwein told local media.

Tourism, international students, seafood and dairy are Tasmania’s major exports, with China a major customer.

Tasmania-based Huon Aquaculture , which produces 19,000 tonnes of fish a year from coastal salmon farms, is classified as an “essential service” under the new border rules, which gives it priority access to freight space.

Online sales for Huon’s salmon doubled in March as anxiety over food supply gripped mainland Australia.

“Remember that everyone has to eat,” founder Peter Bender said in an email to staff.

“People might be unable to go to the pub, the movies, or visit a sporting venue but they still have to eat.”

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Australia delays budget as coronavirus appears among cruise passengers

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia on Friday delayed its federal budget by five months to October saying the coronavirus pandemic made it impossible to make sensible economic forecasts, as it prepared to dramatically expand its stimulus spending to avoid recession.

The country’s banks said separately they would defer loan repayments for small businesses impacted by coronavirus for six months at a cost to their bottom lines of A$8 billion ($4.7 billion), amid fears of massive job losses.

“The idea that you can actually put together any sort of forecast around the economy at this time is simply not sensible,” said Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who welcomed the banks’ move as a “game changer”.

The country of 25 million people has seen only seven deaths from the flu-like virus but its case numbers have jumped to almost 800 in recent days, and the government is stepping up limits on movement including a ban on all foreign arrivals.

About 2,700 passengers from the Ruby Princess cruise ship that disembarked in Sydney on Thursday were ordered to self-isolate after three of them tested positive for the novel virus which can cause a respiratory disease known as COVID-19.

“Our big concern, the very big concern, is that those people came off the cruise with no knowledge of COVID actually being on their ship,” said Brad Hazzard, the health minister of New South Wales state of which Sydney is the capital.

In a move presaging a possible shut-down of entertainment venues, Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged people to “do the right thing” and keep a distance of four square meters (43 square feet) between each other at indoor gatherings.

Visits to remote indigenous communities would be restricted to protect vulnerable populations, but schools would remain open in the “national interest”, he added.

“At the end of the day, you don’t stop this virus, but you can defeat it by slowing it down. And that is how we save lives,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

MORE STIMULUS

Fears of a surge in unemployment mounted on Thursday when flagship carrier Qantas Airways Ltd (QAN.AX) told most of its 30,000 employees to take leave, as the virus ravaged the global aviation and tourism industries.

Australian Banking Association Chief Executive Anna Bligh said small businesses employed about five million people in the country, and loan relief was vital if they are to “keep their doors open”.

The loan relief came as the government signaled it would announce further stimulus spending on the weekend.

The size of the package is still be determined, but Australian media reported it could be worth around 3%-4% of Australia’s A$2 trillion economy, or up to A$80 billion.

Treasurer Frydenberg only last week announced stimulus spending worth A$17.6 billion to stop the country slipping into its first recession in nearly 30 years, with support for the health sector, small businesses and apprentices, among others.

Frydenberg declined to comment on the size of the next package, but told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation it was “about cushioning the blow for those Australians who may find themselves out of work”.

The stimulus expected over the weekend will complement a A$100 billion package unveiled by the Reserve Bank of Australia and the government on Thursday.

Australia’s central bank bought A$5 billion ($2.9 billion) in local government bonds on Friday, in the first round of its unlimited quantitative easing program as it looks to cushion the economic shock from the coronavirus pandemic.

In a separate statement, the government said it would buy A$15 billion of residential mortgage-backed securities and other asset backed securities over the next 12 months.

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Australia to unveil second stimulus package within days: sources

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia will within days unveil a second stimulus package designed to shelter its economy from the impact of the coronavirus, two sources familiar with the government’s plan told Reuters on Friday.

Australia has recorded nearly 700 coronavirus infections, a relatively small number compared with other countries, but officials are increasingly concerned about the prospect of an exponential rise in cases.

New South Wales, the country’s most populous state, on Friday reported the country’s seventh death after an 81-year-old woman died overnight.

Australia last week said it would inject A$17.6 billion ($10.06 billion) to stop the country slipping into its first recession in nearly 30 years.

However, the sources said Australia would announce an expansion of this package over the weekend, as the coronavirus causes widespread panic in global markets and brings industries such as the aviation sector to its knees.

“The package is still being finalised, it will be unveiled over the weekend,” one government source told Reuters.

The size of the package is still be determined, but local media reported it could be worth around 3-4% of Australia’s A$2 trillion economy.

Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg declined to comment on the size of the package, but said the new stimulus would target at those most impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“This second package is more about cushioning the blow for those Australians who may find themselves out of work,” Frydenberg told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Flagship carrier Qantas Airways Ltd, one of Australia’s largest employers, on Thursday told most of its 30,000 employees to take leave and ceased international services.

With unemployment rising, Australian internet searches for jobs with major supermarket chains has surged following recent announcements that grocers would be hiring thousands of workers to meet demand.

On Tuesday, searches for major supermarkets accounted for 8.8% of all queries on jobs website Indeed, which is four times higher than it was two days earlier and almost 500% higher than search activity during 2019.

“Supermarkets have become a lifeline for workers who are now either unemployed or who have experienced a fall in the number of hours they work,” said Callam Pickering, Indeed’s APAC economist.

The stimulus will complement a A$100 billion package unveiled by the Australian central bank and government on Thursday.

The Reserve Bank of Australia’s stimulus includes a three-year funding facility for at least A$90 billion to the country’s banks at a fixed rate of 0.25%.

In a separate statement, the government said it would buy A$15 billion of residential mortgage-backed securities and other asset backed securities over the next 12 months.

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Australia mulls second stimulus package to tackle coronavirus, sources say

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia is considering a second round of economic stimulus, three sources familiar with the deliberations told Reuters, as Canberra accelerated efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus that has now killed five people in the country.

Australia has recorded nearly 300 cases of coronavirus and authorities fear a rapid rise in the flu-like respiratory disease.

The spread of the virus has roiled global markets despite pledges of stimulus packages, including Australia’s plan to inject A$17.6 billion ($11.4 billion) into its economy.

As Australian markets slumped further on Monday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison will meet with senior Cabinet officials to discuss a potential “scaling-up” of its stimulus package, three sources told Reuters.

Earlier, Australia’s central bank said it was ready to purchase local government bonds to support the smooth functioning of the market and will announce further policy measures later this week.

The Reserve Bank of Australia also pumped extra liquidity into the banking system, part of a package of measures aimed at ensuring business and households have access to credit as travel and industry are disrupted.

Australia’s corporate regulator asked some participants in the equity market to limit the number of trades they execute each day by up to 25% after a huge spike in volumes last week.

The moves, however, did little to calm market jitters, with the local share market falling as much as 7% in morning trading.

STATE OF EMERGENCY

As Australian financial policymakers and regulators moved to underpin its markets, Australia’s capital and the country’s second most populous state declared states of emergency to slow the spread of the outbreak.

After a 77-year-old woman and a 90-year-old woman died in New South Wales, Victoria state and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) – home to the capital city of Canberra – both declared a state of emergency that will give health officials sweeping powers.

The proclamations allows the Victoria state and ACT’s chief health officers to issue fresh quarantine orders to cover entire suburbs, businesses or professions if deemed necessary.

“These powers have never been used before,” Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters in Melbourne, the state capital of Victoria. “This, I hope provides a clear sense about the unprecedented nature of this public health emergency, this really significant challenge.”

The Victoria state of emergency will run for four weeks, while the ACT declaration will be in force for at least a week.

Western Australia state declared a state of emergency on Sunday.

Nationally, Australia is tightening its borders, with Morrison on Sunday ordering everyone arriving from overseas to self-isolate for 14 days.

Australia has also banned non-essential social gatherings of more than 500 people, though this not apply for public transport, work or schools.

Still, many offices are asking employees to work from home and several leading universities on Monday shuttered for at least a week.

Australia’s parliament, which is scheduled to sit next week has also restricted access to visitors, while Morrison said lawmakers will be asked to limit the number of staff members that come to Canberra next week.

Hundreds of Australians have begun stockpiling goods, from staples to sanitizers, clearing supermarket shelves.

The country’s biggest grocer, Woolworths Group, said on Monday it would open exclusively for an hour in the morning from Tuesday until at least Friday for elderly Australians and people with disabilities.

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Australia to impose 14-day self-isolation on international travelers

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia will impose 14-day self-isolation on international travelers arriving from midnight Sunday and ban cruise ships from foreign ports for 30 days, mirroring restrictions in nearby New Zealand aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the new measures after a meeting with a newly formed national cabinet, dubbed the coronavirus ‘war cabinet’.

The strict measures were designed to slow the spread of the global pandemic across Australia and help the country “flatten the peak” of the virus, Morrison told a news conference.

“To help stay ahead of this curve, we will impose a universal precautionary self-isolation requirement on all international arrivals to Australia and that is effective from midnight tonight,” he said.

“Further the Australian government will also ban cruise ships from foreign ports from arriving at Australian ports for an initial 30 days.”

The new border restrictions come as Australia recorded more than 250 cases of coronavirus and three deaths.

As of mid-March, COVID-19, the deadly respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, has infected 156,00 people globally and killed more than 5,800.

Australia has already imposed bans on travelers from Italy, South Korea, Iran and China, countries with high infection rates.

The bans mean foreign nationals who have been in any of the four nations will not be allowed into Australia for 14 days from the time they left those countries.

Australian citizens and permanent residents traveling from those countries will still be able to enter Australia but must self-isolate for a fortnight after returning home.

Qantas Airways said it would give passengers on all Qantas and Jetstar flights the option to cancel and receive travel credits, while Virgin Australia said it was assessing how it could best support its customers.

DISTANCING

Australia has advised against non-essential gatherings of more than 500 people from Monday, but this is yet to apply to schools and universities.

Morrison on Sunday urged people to practice “social distancing”, such as keeping a meter (three feet) apart and not to shake hands, in order to reduce transmissions.

He said the rate of community transmission had started to increase and that social distancing would help limit demand on the healthcare systems, which would mean better treatment for elderly and those in remote and vulnerable communities.

“Slowing the spread will free up beds,” he said.

“That’s what happens when you get this right and we’ve seen other countries going down this path.”

Neighboring New Zealand on Saturday said it would require incoming travelers, including its own citizens, to self-isolate for two weeks and banned cruise ships. [L4N2B705A].

The Australian government is yet to restrict the operation of schools, but earlier on Sunday the Health Minister Greg Hunt did not rule out such a measure in the coming months.

The new phase of restrictions come as the Australian government launches a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign focused on good hygiene, and the formation of a Coronavirus Business Liaison Unit to address the economic fallout.

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Australia's' 'war cabinet' set to meet as COVID-19 cases surpass 250

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s new national cabinet is set to meet Sunday as the country’s cases of coronavirus topped 250 and the government faced questions about the possible closure of schools and tighter border controls.

The government has already advised against non-essential gatherings of more than 500 people from Monday, though this does not include schools, airports or public transport.

The national cabinet which includes federal, state and territory leaders, dubbed a “war cabinet” by the media, will hold its first meeting via teleconference on Sunday to discuss the response to the spread of the virus.

The meeting is expected to canvas whether schools should be closed and whether border controls should be further tightened to contain COVID-19, a deadly respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus that has so far infected 156,000 people and killed more than 5,800 globally.                                                          

“We are rightly, keeping all options on the table, whether it’s in relation to travel or whether it’s in relation to schools. The schools question will be very much guided by the medical advice,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told ABC television. 

“One of the things that they have talked about, is not moving too early on something like that.”

Visitors who have been in high-risk nations are already banned from entering Australia, while New Zealand on Saturday said it would require incoming travelers, including its own citizens, to self-isolate for two weeks.

Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Sunday the government’s approach was designed to “flatten the curve” of coronavirus infections to avoid the country’s healthcare system from being overwhelmed.

“We were quick to put in place travel restrictions. Our strategy has been around containment, about flattening out that curve and ensuring that our health system gets the resources we need,” he told Sky news.

The national cabinet meeting comes as the government launches a multi-million-dollar advertising campaign focused on good hygiene, and the formation of a Coronavirus Business Liaison Unit to address the economic fallout.

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