Seventh Aussie dies as infection spreads

The Australian death toll from coronavirus has risen to seven after an 81-year-old woman died in hospital last night, following a record surge in new cases.

Meanwhile bars, cafes and restaurants are bracing for new restrictions after a record surge in coronavirus cases overnight as Australia grapples with a once-in-a-century health crisis.

Scott Morrison is expected to give further detail on rules for indoor gatherings of fewer than 100 people today, after earlier this week banning all indoor gatherings over 100 and outdoor gatherings over 500.

In the most dramatic day of the outbreak so far, the PM yesterday announced Australia would be shutting its borders to all non-residents from tonight in an effort to stop the importation of new COVID-19 cases, while Tasmania effectively shut itself off from the rest of the country.

It came as new restrictions were placed on medicine purchases, the Aussie dollar fell to a 17-year low of 55 US cents, the RBA announced an emergency rate cut and national carrier Qantas stood down 20,000 employees amid what CEO Alan Joyce described as a crisis "worse than the GFC".

Australia now has 709 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 307 in New South Wales, 150 in Victoria, 144 in Queensland, 42 in South Australia, 52 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.

 

Energy ministers to discuss virus plan

Frank Chung

Helping Australians who can no longer pay their power bills because of coronavirus will be central to discussions between the nation's energy ministers.

Federal Energy Minister Angus Taylor will host a teleconference with his state counterparts on Friday, with discussions set to focus on coronavirus.

The ministers will iron out ways to help households and small businesses experiencing financial stress because of the virus.

They have spoken with energy company bosses and relevant industry groups about hardship policies.

It's expected that customers who have to self-isolate and lose income won't be penalised because of it.

The meeting's agenda will also cover ways of limiting the risk of infection within the energy workforce, ensuring supply continues and coordinating emergency management powers.

Mr Taylor says Friday's meeting is an important step to increase coordination to ensure power supply.

"We will be working with state and territory governments, industry and stakeholders to ensure Australia remains well-prepared to respond to energy supply disruptions, including electricity, gas and liquid fuels," he said.

Mr Taylor on Thursday urged energy companies to cut Australian businesses some slack during the pandemic.

"We don't want them turning out the lights on companies who have been hit by the coronavirus," he said.

- Rebecca Gredley, AAP

  22m agoMarch 20, 2020HIGHLIGHT

Pleas for calm as virus spreads

Frank Chung

Queenslanders have been urged to be "kind and patient" amid a soaring number of coronavirus cases.

Total confirmed coronavirus cases in the state have jumped to 144 after 50 were confirmed on Thursday.

It is the state's biggest increase in confirmed cases, which now stretch from Cairns to the Gold Coast.

Authorities have called for calm with reports of escalating violence as the virus continues to spread.

"There have been reports of abuse and violence against pharmacists and pharmacy assistants," Health Minister Steven Miles said.

"They are important healthcare providers in our community. If you are unable to access the medicine you are after at the pharmacy, it is not the fault of the pharmacist or pharmacy assistant. Please, please do not take your aggression out on them. I would urge people to be kind and to be patient."

The effects of the coronavirus are far-reaching and have sparked numerous precautionary measures.

Queensland now has sweeping new powers to fight the illness, including being able to hit people with hefty fines if they fail to follow health orders.

Emergency officers can also direct businesses such as supermarkets to open and close and control public access to those businesses.

Health authorities have been given new powers to order individuals into isolation, and fine people more than $13,000 if they defy such orders. Parliament will be able to sit via electronic channels under changes passed in parliament.

- Robyn Wuth, AAP

  31m agoMarch 20, 2020HIGHLIGHT

'I Was Only 19' parody slammed

Frank Chung

Singer-songwriter John Schumann has urged fellow performers, satirists and digital media users not to use one of his best-known hits to parody the coronavirus pandemic.

Schumann said he was recently alerted to a COVID-19 parody of his song 'I Was Only 19', which tells the story of a teenager going off to the Vietnam War, and had since learned there was a number in circulation on the internet.

He was also disappointed to find out that two mainstream media organisations had broadcast parodies in recent days.

"People who know me know that I have a pretty robust sense of humour. I can be self-deprecatory and I've been known to do a few parodies myself," he said. "However, there is always a bit of sensitivity around parodies of 19."

 

Schumann said he had always "protected" the song as a gesture of respect to those it was written about, Australia's Vietnam veterans. He said those veterans were now elderly, many with compromised health.

"Many ADF members return from service with health issues. Vietnam veterans, particularly, are susceptible to the coronavirus pandemic," he said. "Plenty of veterans, particularly Vietnam vets, will be in the firing line."

Schumann said he had contacted the person responsible for the first parody who had since apologised and removed it from the internet.

The parody had also been removed from a TV network's Facebook page. "The encouraging thing is that once people pause and reflect, they usually get it and quickly go about making amends," he said.

- AAP

  42m agoMarch 20, 2020HIGHLIGHT

Qantas says crisis 'worse than GFC'

Frank Chung

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce has defended his decision to stand down two- thirds of the airline's workers in the face of the escalating COVID-19 pandemic.

The national carrier announced on Thursday it will temporarily stand down 20,000 workers after suspending all international flights and reducing domestic flights.

"This is the worst crisis the aviation industry has gone through. I know for the economy it's probably going to be a lot worse than the GFC," Mr Joyce told ABC's 7.30 program.

He said his focus was on getting through the crisis and being ready to help with the recovery once it is over.

 

"That's going to be an important role we will play," he said.

"We're not making people redundant and we're trying this mechanism to make sure we can get through and survive and they have a job at the end of the day."

The company is allowing workers to access long service leave early, and those who have exhausted their annual leave to take up to four weeks in advance.

Mr Joyce is also in discussions with supermarket giant Woolworths to redeploy some workers.

The airline, which has also frozen the pay of senior executives and board members, made an $891 million profit in 2018/19 but, like its competitors, has been decimated by the spread of the virus and escalating lockdown measures.

- AAP

  1h agoMarch 20, 2020HIGHLIGHT

Banks to announce virus package

Frank Chung

Australia's big four banks are set to unveil economic stimulus measures as the federal government plots its next package in response to coronavirus.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the next round of stimulus measures would continue support for small business.

"This second package we are working on right now is about cushioning the blow for so many of those Australians who may lose their job," he told Sky News on Friday.

The big four banks are expected to make an announcement on Friday, the Treasurer confirmed.

At an emergency meeting on Thursday, the Reserve Bank cut the cash rate to 0.25 per cent, the lowest in Australia's history.

The central bank will also start buying government bonds to flood Australia's financial system with extra cash to keep the economy functioning smoothly during the crisis.

A three-year $90 billion fund for banks to help small- and medium-sized businesses will be established, while the government will give $15 billion to small lenders.

Mr Frydenberg wants bank loans to help businesses pay rent, wages and utilities bills. "They need that cashflow support so they can meet some of their fixed expenses," he said.

He said the government's second package would not look at structural changes which can't be removed after the crisis is over.

"Our focus is on targeted measures using the existing tax and transfer system and making it as simple and as easy as possible for Australians to get that support," the treasurer told the ABC.

He also poured cold water on suggestions the government could nationalise major companies, like Virgin Australia. "That's not our focus right now," he said.

The Morrison government announced a $715 million package for the aviation sector earlier in the week.

Qantas has temporarily stood down two-thirds of its 30,000 workers after suspending all international flights and slashing domestic routes. Virgin will stop international travel from the end of March to June 14.

The government's first stimulus was a $17.6 billion package which included support for welfare recipients and a boost for small business.

- Matt Coughlan, AAP

  1h agoMarch 20, 2020HIGHLIGHT

Coronavirus closes NSW school

Frank Chung

Another NSW school has shut its doors today after a positive coronavirus test.

St Columba Anglican School in Port Macquarie on the Mid North Coast informed parents in an urgent email last night.

"We have been informed by NSW Health that one SCAS community member has tested positive to COVID-19," principal Terry Muldoon said.

He did not say whether it was a student or staff member at the school.

"In the interests of student and staff safety, the school will be closed tomorrow, Friday March 20," he said.

"All students should remain at home. Before and After School Care will also be closed. The Columba Cottage Early Learning Centre will remain open."

Mr Muldoon said parents would be informed about the date and time of reopening.

"Thank you for your understanding as we work together to respond to this matter. Further information and updates will be provided as they come to hand from the relevant agencies," he said.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard last week said rolling school closures were "likely to be the new norm" whenever a new case was detected.

He said any more school cases will also see classes stopped.

"If a child, a staff member, or any other person within that school, is found to have the COVID-19 virus, then effectively a breather will be taken and a day out will be the immediate requirement," he said.

Mark Scott, from the NSW Department of Education, told parents to keep their kids away from school if they exhibited any cold or flu symptoms.

"If your child is presenting with symptoms you wouldn't want someone to have if they were sitting next to you on the bus, we don't want those kids in our classrooms," he said.

  1h agoMarch 20, 2020HIGHLIGHT

New indoor gathering rules

Frank Chung

Scott Morrison is expected to announce further restrictions on indoor gatherings of fewer than 100 people after meeting with state and territory leaders at the national cabinet today.

The country's leaders will receive further advice on the issue from their top health officials who make up the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee.

The Prime Minister earlier this week announced a ban on non-essential indoor gatherings of more than 100 people and outdoor gatherings of more than 500, flagging more restrictions would be considered today on indoor gatherings of fewer than 100.

Speaking to reporters in Canberra yesterday, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly said the country's health advisers were looking at a "density amount".

"It's about how many people can fit in a room," he said. "(The recommendation) was four square metres per person, so that's a hard concept to announce."

Prof Kelly said he could spin around in a circle to demonstrate but "I'm told I would look silly, I won't do that". "It depends on the size of the room and how the room is being used," he said.

"I've had meetings with businesses, with hospitality and so forth, and many of my colleagues have been meeting with them. It's about the practicality of how you set up a room, the size of the room."

In practical terms, that means a venue of 100 square metres would only be allowed 25 people at a time, and cafes and pubs could be forced to use tape and barriers to keep people separated.

 

 

To refresh, here's what was announced on Wednesday.

All non-essential outdoor gatherings of 500 or more people and indoor gatherings of 100 or more people are banned.

The indoor ban applies to restaurants, pubs, clubs, nightclubs and other hospitality venues, as well as churches, mosques and synagogues.

It does not apply to schools, hospitals, aged care and other health services, correctional centres or other custodial facilities, courts, tribunals or parliaments.

Shopping centres, supermarkets, grocery and other retail stores are also exempted in the course of "normal business of those premises", the PM said.

Also exempted is all public transportation, including airports, stations, platforms, stops, trains, trams and buses.

Workplaces are also considered essential - that means office buildings, factories, construction and mining sites are all exempted "for their normal operation".

At today's national cabinet meeting, the states and territories will consider further practical guidance and possible rules for non-essential gatherings of fewer than 100 people for places like cinemas, theatres, restaurants and cafes, pubs, clubs, weddings and funerals.

For now, gyms, indoor fitness centres and swimming pools are not required to close as long as they enforce 1.5 metre social distancing and hand hygiene.

Six people have died - one in Western Australia and five in New South Wales - and 43 have recovered.

Aussies on cruise fear being "left to die"

Megan Palin

Australians on a cruise ship abroad fear being "left to die" in coronavirus-ravaged Italy as the vessel makes its way to the country where they may not be able to get medical treatment.

It's understood there are several elderly Australians onboard the Costa Victoria, which the operator Costa Cruises has confirmed is set to sail into port in Venice on March 28 - when passengers will be "advised" to leave the ship.

But many of them, and their families at home, fear their health will be put at serious risk.

Almost 30,000 cases of coronavirus have been recorded in Italy - and and nearly 3000 deaths.

 

4h agoMarch 20, 2020

Shane Warne's surprising announcement

Megan Palin

Shane Warne's gin distillery Seven Zero Eight has halted production, and will instead produce medical grade hand sanitiser until further notice, as part of a "wartime" mentality to help combat the coronavirus.

 

Originally published as Aussies on cruise ship fear being 'left to die'



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