Globally, the virus is spreading, with Italy on Sunday locking down more than 16 million people across the Lombardy region, including in the capital, Milan. The unprecedented step follows China’s quarantine of up to 60 million people in Hubei, where the number of daily infections has slowed significantly and draconian restrictions are slowly being lifted.
Worldwide, at least 3500 people have died and more than 106,000 have been infected.
Mr Hunt said on Sunday that the government would rather people over-test than under-test. “Even though it can be a little bit of a stress on the system,” he said. “If in doubt, get yourself tested.”
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian and Victorian Minister for Women Gabrielle Williams had earlier urged anyone who had a cough, runny nose or sore throat to stay home and get themselves assessed. More than 10,000 tests for the coronavirus have been administered so far. Figures from the Department of Health show up to 298,000 Australians caught the flu between January and October last year.
The Australian Medical Association has told health authorities to make the advice “very clear as soon as possible” as it prepares to roll out a network for GPs to consult patients online amid claims they are under-equipped for a major outbreak. As of Sunday evening, the official notice from the Health Protection Principal Committee, which advises cabinet, encouraged only close contacts or travellers from high risk zones to be tested.
AMA president Dr Tony Bartone said all medical bodies had to “start acting as one if we’re to deal with this threat” and demanded an apology from the Victorian government after it criticised a doctor for treating patients while he was unaware he had the coronavirus.
“The [comments] are a concern to the frontline medical profession, who have thought about nothing but the wellbeing of the community, putting themselves in the frontline, day after day, during this evolving crisis,” he said.
The escalation comes as Parliament prepares to face the threat of the virus. Two Defence members tested positive on Sunday. At least one travelled on flights [QF1509 and VA651] from Sydney to Canberra on February 28 and MPs and staff are now having their contacts traced to see if any may have contracted the disease.
Mr Hunt said most people would ultimately know somebody affected by the virus as the government prepares for up to $1 billion in funding to treat up to 200,000 patients.
The virus has raced across Europe and the United States. Italy on Sunday implemented travel restrictions in the north in a bid to stop the number of infections climbing past 6000.
China has seen its infection rate slow to just over 100 a day which could be the key to Australia avoiding a recession as the US looks to stop cases multiplying beyond 500 in Washington state and across the country.
Australia’s government is staring down the increasing possibility of a negative quarter and will sacrifice its election promise of a surplus to pump more than $3 billion into the economy.
The measures, to be announced by Thursday, will include investment allowances for businesses and incentives to keep workers in jobs as Labor calls for the rate of unemployment benefits to be lifted and for more than 3 million casual workers to be eligible for Newstart if they are forced into quarantine.
Health authorities in Hobart on Sunday said a man infected with coronavirus ignored instructions to self-isolate because he did not want to miss his casual shifts at Hobart’s Grand Chancellor Hotel.
In Sydney, 69 students and staff members at Epping Boy’s High in the city’s north have been told to isolate themselves after a student tested positive for the virus on Friday, the ABC has reported.
Industrial Relations Minister Christian Porter will lead a national round table in Sydney on Tuesday where measures to help the casual workforce will be discussed.
Labor’s health spokesman, Chris Bowen, said Labor would vote through billions of dollars in coronavirus stimulus.
“I know as soon as the government issues a stimulus package, Anthony Albanese will have a shadow cabinet meeting and facilitate any sensible packages through,” he said.
The symptoms of coronavirus include fever, cough, shortness of breath and breathing difficulties. If you suspect you or a family member has coronavirus you should call (not visit) your GP or ring the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.
With Sumeyya Ilanbey and Alexandra Smith
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra