Australians overseas are being urged to return home as soon as possible as the federal government mulls further measures to limit the spread of coronavirus, including an assistance package for airlines.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison led a meeting of national cabinet on Tuesday evening, with a number of announcements set for mid-morning Wednesday.
The decisions will be based on advice from the nation’s chief medical officers, and are set to also focus on precautions for aged care homes and schools and could include restrictions on the number of people allowed in pubs and restaurants.
Late on Tuesday, the Department of Foreign Affairs updated its travel advice telling all Australians to reconsider their need for overseas travel.
“If you’re already overseas and wish to return to Australia, we recommend you do so as soon as possible by commercial means,” the advice on the Smart Traveller website says.
“As more countries close their borders or introduce travel restrictions, overseas travel is becoming more complex and difficult. You may not be able to return to Australia when you had planned to.”
All people arriving from overseas must self-quarantine for 14 days and cruise ships are barred from Australian ports for at least 30 days.
National coronavirus cases are approaching 450 and five people have died. Some 81,000 people have been tested, 99.5 per cent of whom returned a negative test.
The federal government has already flagged another round of economic stimulus measures on top of an A$17.6 billion package announced last week.
This could include a $715 million assistance package for airlines like Qantas and Virgin Australia that will give the carriers relief from airport fees and other aviation industry charges. The measure will likely be backdated to February 1, The Australian reported on Wednesday.
Qantas is slashing international flights by 90 percent until the end of May in a fresh round of cuts equivalent to grounding 150 aircraft.
The states and territories have developed their own economic packages to lessen the economic blow from the spread of COVID-19, which is set to crush major industries and hurt workers.
Australians have been encouraged to practice social distancing, while non-essential gatherings of more than 500 people have been banned.
Most schools are already taking precautions, including canceling 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 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.”
A scaled-back federal parliament is on the cards for next week’s sitting, where the focus will be on passing legislation allowing the economic stimulus measures.
It comes as a third coalition member, NSW senator Andrew Bragg, has tested positive for the virus after LNP senator Susan McDonald and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.
The widespread impact of the virus has led to Australia’s highest court delaying cases for months, while major events have either been canned or postponed.
Australia’s chief medical officer Brendan Murphy has again implored the public not to panic buy.
“This panic buying is just stupid and I really encourage Australians to take a deep breath and just buy what you need,” he said.
By Rebecca Gredley