Australia extends bans on travel from coronavirus hotspots to slow spread

By Colin Packham
FILE PHOTO: People wearing face masks walk by Flinders Street Station after cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in Melbourne

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia on Thursday banned the arrival of foreigners from South Korea, tightening its border controls in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus as it recorded its second death from the illness.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison also extended existing bans on foreigners arriving from mainland China and Iran and said there would be tougher screening processes for people arriving from Italy.

"It affords the best protection and enables us to slow down the rate of transmission," Morrison told reporters in Canberra, as health officials said modeling suggests the worst case scenario is for the virus' spread to millions of people within weeks.

Australia was one of the first countries to take a hardline approach to tackling the coronavirus outbreak, imposing border controls on visitors from the epidemic's epicentre in China just over a month ago.

Australia has recorded 54 cases of the coronavirus, the majority of those people who contracted the disease overseas before returning home for treatment.

However, concerns are growing about the likelihood of a more rapid spread given at least five people contracted the illness locally. An eight-month-old boy, whom officials believe contracted the illness from his mother when she returned to Australia from Iran, is among the most recent cases.

Despite official attempts to quell public anxiety, the country's major grocers this week reported consumer stockpiling and social media was awash with photographs and videos of overloaded shopping trolleys.

Several stores imposed strict limits on purchases of items, notably toilet paper, as a result.

An elderly woman who became the country's second fatality this week picked up the virus from a worker at her aged care home, making her death the first from local transmission. Health authorities have confirmed another resident at the facility has tested positive, despite not coming into contact with the infected worker.

The new travel restrictions mean that any foreign traveller who has been in China, Iran and South Korea - all countries that have reported large outbreaks of the coronavirus - within two weeks of arriving in Australia will be turned away. The bans, which include anyone who has transited through those countries, will be reviewed on a weekly basis.

Australian nationals and residents are exempt from the bans, but are required to self-isolate for two weeks on their return to Australia.

Travellers from Italy will be given temperature checks and required to completed a detailed health questionnaire before they are cleared for entry.


ECONOMIC WOES

The Australian government earlier on Thursday warned that the crisis will subtract at least half a percentage point from the country's economic growth in the current quarter.

Treasury Secretary Steven Kennedy said it was too early to determine the long-term economic toll of the epidemic, but it was clear it would have immediate and significant effects.

"At this stage we expect the virus to detract at last half a percentage point from growth in the March quarter 2020," Kennedy said, adding the forecast took into account the impact on tourism, international education and some exchange rate effects.

The estimate is in line with that made by the Reserve Bank of Australia. Treasury had forecast gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 2.25% to end-June 2020.

The Reserve Bank of Australia on Tuesday cut interest rates to a record low 0.50%, hoping to give the A$2 trillion (£1.03 trillion) economy enough of a boost to continue a record 29 years of recession-free growth.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said a stimulus package expected to be announced within days will be worth billions of dollars and targeted to sectors most affected by the coronavirus.

"It is going to have a 'b' in front of it that is for sure," Frydenberg told Sky News. "The shock is very significant."


(Reporting by Colin Packham, Swati Pandey and Wayne Cole; Editing by Jane Wardell)