Federal health minister Greg Hunt will meet with state and territory ministers on Friday and trigger “surge capacity” measures at hospitals and medical centres across the country. Staff could be asked to return from leave, medicines stockpiled and fever clinics established.
The Australian Border Force has been called in to escalate screening at airports, as cases of the flu-like disease spike in South Korea, Iran and Italy. The United States reported its first case of human to human transmission on Thursday. Another infection was confirmed in Brazil, the first in South America. Saudi Arabia initiated a temporary ban on Muslims pilgrims from entering the country for the holy pilgrimage to Mecca.
“In the last 24 hours we have seen four continents have first in country cases confirmed,” said Mr Hunt. “That is a very significant moment.”
“We are not immune. The likelihood is somewhere, sometime, there is a further round of cases that may make it to Australia and this becomes a truly global pandemic.”
The virus has now killed 2800 people and infected 82,164 worldwide. 32,897 have recovered. Australia has had 15 confirmed cases to date.
After a three hour meeting on Thursday, the national security committee extended the travel ban on all non-Australian residents from China for another week, locking out more than 200,000 students and tourists since it was first introduced on February 5.
Mr Morrison said there would be “no carve outs” for 100,000 students in China desperate to get into Australia and who now face missing at least another week of semester.
“We have always acted with an abundance of caution on this issue, and that has put Australia in the strong position we are in to this time in being able to contain the impact of this virus.”
The Department of Education will also begin briefing state ministers to prepare schools for a pandemic response that could see classes reduced or cancelled.
“There is no evidence before us that children are at any greater risk but we do believe to take care of our kids that we needed an even greater abundance of caution should the coronavirus move to a extreme level,” said Mr Morrison.
Mr Morrison said advice from Treasury had shifted and the coronavirus had now become a health crisis with significant economic implications.
The government is set to target small stimulus measures at particularly affected industries including those in the tourism, travel, marine, and businesses with supply chain issues coming out of China.
“There will be an impact on the economy and I anticipate it will have a very real effect,” said Mr Morrison.
“I can say, though, in terms of broader, larger, fiscal stimulus-type responses, that is not the advice we’re receiving from Treasury.”
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra