Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy told national leaders the historic ban on non-essential gatherings of 500 people or more should come into effect from Monday to avoid a mass panic as people left work on Friday. Schools, universities, workplaces, airports and Parliament will be exempt from the ban but all options remain on the table as the virus escalates and sparks wild swings on financial markets.
Australian stocks had their highest turnover in history. $18.2 billion changed hands as the market staged its dramatic comeback, but it was not enough to offset the past week’s losses of more than $6 trillion globally and the largest local weekly decline on record after the peak of the global financial crisis.
The repeated economic hits are set to hammer the federal government’s stimulus package as the government pumps $11 billion into household and businesses by June 30 to avoid a recession.
The advice from Chief Health Officers is designed to slow what is seen as the inevitable spread of the disease throughout the community. It is the first ban on mass gatherings since the Spanish Flu killed 15,000 Australians in 1919.
Mr Morrison said the decision was “incredibly important”.
“Because as we slow it, as we manage it, that ensures that the national health system will be able to accommodate the increasing demands we’d expect to see as a result of the coronavirus spread throughout Australia,” he said.
The advice is not enforceable at this stage, but the government will not hesitate to bring in emergency powers allowing for compulsory shutdowns if it is ignored.
COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, has now killed more than 4720 people worldwide and infected more than 128,000. Up to 68,324 people have recovered. Cases in Australia have doubled to more than 200 in the past week.
Italy, which has placed 60 million people in lockdown and told all members of the public to stay at home, has the second highest number of deaths after Hubei, the Chinese province where the virus was first detected in December.
France and New York have also introduced bans on mass gatherings in a bid to stop the spread of the virus as it races across the United States and Europe. Australia has at this stage opted not to put travel bans on either Europe or the US, but the measure could be considered by the national security committee if cases continue to surge. Existing bans on non-Australian residents travelling from Iran, China, Italy and South Korea have been extended for another week.
Professor Murphy said the decision to ban large events was based on international evidence.
“You might only have one or two people at a very large event who might be carrying the virus, and the chance of it being spread out those large events accelerates the rate of progression of this virus,” he said.
“We are not suggesting people should interrupt their normal daily work. It’s just avoiding those particular circumstances where transmission can be accelerated.
“We want to be as far ahead of the game is any country and control the spread of this virus and make sure that we keep its outbreaks in Australia to is limited as possible.”
The Royal Easter Show, which has 850,000 visitors a year, was cancelled for only the third time in 200 years on Friday. The Melbourne International Comedy Festival and the Melbourne Fashion Festival and the Australian Formula One Grand Prix are among the other events abandoned. Churches, mosques and synagogues with attendances of more than 500 people will have to split up services.
The AFL, which is scheduled to have its opening rounds next week is considering postponing the start of the season or playing matches without spectators. The NRL will host games with crowds this weekend before the ban comes into effect. Mr Morrison said he would be attending.
“It might be the last game I get to go to for a long time,” he said.
Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone called on Mr Morrison to “lead by example” and cancel his plan to watch the Cronulla Sharks play in the NRL on Saturday.
“It is time that we brought the community along with us by clearly informing them and then leading by example,” he said.
Dr Bartone said Mr Morrison should review the parliamentary sitting agenda to reduce the risk of coronavirus being spread inside Parliament House as it was “absolutely” unlikely the transition risk of COVID-19 would peak in the next 10 days, when politicians and staffers are due to return to Canberra.
Raina MacIntyre, head of the biosecurity program at the UNSW’s Kirby Institute, said the move to discourage mass gatherings should be followed by immediate school closures across Australia.
“Now is the time to do it,” Professor MacIntyre said. “If you wait until things are out of control, it doesn’t work.”
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra
Dana is health and industrial relations reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.