PM introduces coronavirus emergency response plan
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said the government is introducing the first phase of Australia's emergency response plan against the deadly coronavirus, ssaying "the risk of a global pandemic is very much upon us".
Mr Morrison said "people's safety" was their "top priority" after he had instructed Health Minister Greg Hunt through the National Security Committee, to engage with state and territory ministers and bring back the plan to identify any gaps in capabilities at the various stages all levels that a pandemic may proceed to.
"I want to stress that these actions are being taken in an abundance of caution," he said.
"We have always acted with an abundance of caution on this issue, and that has put Australia and the strong position we are in to this time in being able to contain the impact of this virus. "The actions we are now taking in being prepared even further, is to ensure that we can respond immediately when these, the virus moved to the next level."
Mr Hunt said the plan involved "ensuring full preparation phase" for the nation's medical stockpile.
"We have also asked the Commissioner of Border Force to be reporting to us as quickly as possible on additional measures that would be required at our various ports of entry to ensure we are able to identify any persons coming from wherever in the world that may require additional information in terms of being self quarantined or other forms of quarantine that may be necessary, as this issue continues to roll on."
Mr Morrison has also asked the Education Minister to engage with education ministers from the states and territories.
"I want to stress and I'm sure Dr (Paul) Kelly will enforce this point, there is no evidence before us that children are at any greater risk as a result of what is a code more recently, but we do believe to take care of our kids that we needed an even greater abundance of caution to ensure that should the coronavirus move to a extreme level or there is any particular risk that is associated with children, particularly those attending school, that we have the preparedness and arrangements in place with state and territory is," he said.
Mr Morrison said the plan comes as the China travel ban is being extended for another week but Austrlaians were able to go to school sports, sporting matches, concerts and other large gatherings.
TRUMP DOWNPLAYS THREAT OF VIRUS
US President Donald Trump says the "original 15" US citizens infected with the coronavirus are making a good recovery as he downplayed the threat of the COVID-19 crisis and outlined his government's response.
Mr Trump told reporters at the White House his early action to impose major travel restrictions from China to the US had prevented the virus from spreading and that the risk to the nation was "low".
He announced that he has tasked Vice-President Mike Pence with leading the government's efforts to combat the deadly virus and that the US will spend "whatever it takes" to beat the disease.
"We have, through some very good early decisions, decisions that were actually ridiculed at the beginning - we closed up our borders to flights coming in from certain areas, areas that were hit by the coronavirus and hit pretty hard and we did it very early," Mr Trump said.
"A lot of people thought we shouldn't have done it that earlier and we did and it turned out to be a good thing. The number one priority is the health and safety of American people, that's the way I viewed it when I made that decision.
"Because of all we have done, the risk to the American people remains very low. We have the greatest experts in the world - really in the world right here. People that are called upon by other countries when things like this happen.
"We're ready to adapt and we're ready to do whatever we have to as the disease spreads, if it spreads, as most of you know the level that we have had in our country is very low and those people are getting better."
Mr Trump said of the 15 US citizens infected, eight had returned to their homes until fully recovered and five had fully recovered. The remaining two were making good progress is hospital.
"What we have done is we stopped non-US citizens from coming into America from China. That was done very early on. We're screening people and we have been at a very high level," he said.
MELBOURNE UNI SLAMMED OVER CASH GRANTS
Meanwhile, Melbourne University is helping Chinese students circumvent the travel ban with cash grants of $7500, with one expert describing the move as "morally reprehensible".
The grant from the tertiary institution covers accommodation, airfares and quarantine costs. It could help cover the costs of spending a two-week quarantine period in a third country after leaving China, before returning to Australia.
The number of deaths in China - where the virus was first detected - has declined, with 52 deaths in the last 24 hours, the lowest count in more than three weeks.
But the daily number of infections worldwide is higher than in China, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said.
On Tuesday, 412 new cases of the COVID-19 disease were reported in China, while 459 were reported outside the country.
It comes as Australian nursing homes will be told to encourage residents and their families to discuss their end-of-life plans amid growing fears of a major coronavirus outbreak that would see intensive care beds rationed.
The offer from one of Australia's most prestigious universities comes after the University of Western Australia and The University of Adelaide offered smaller cash grants of $1500 and $5000, the ABC reports.
Melbourne University told the national broadcaster in a statement that it was "working hard to ensure they can complete their studies on time".
"The student support grants are intended to help students with unanticipated expenses incurred as a result of the travel restrictions related to COVID-19 and to help students transition to or return to study at the University of Melbourne," University of Melbourne provost Professor Mark Considine said in the statement, according to the ABC.
Associate Professor Salvatore Babones, who has researched Australian universities reliance on the Chinese student market, told the ABC it was "morally indefensible to encourage thousands of Chinese youngsters to travel at this difficult time, especially when they would be transiting through poor, vulnerable countries like Thailand".
There have been some 81,000 infections and 2,761 deaths worldwide, according to the latest toll from the WHO late on Wednesday.
In its latest count, more than 40 people have died outside mainland China since the start of the epidemic, out of more than 2,900 people infected.
The toll rises to some 50 if the most recent deaths are included from certain countries, which are not yet included in the updated WHO report.
Cases of the virus have appeared in eight new countries - Algeria, Austria, Croatia, Georgia, Greece, Norway, Pakistan and Switzerland - bringing the number of countries hit to around 40.
Praising China's drastic quarantine and containment measures, Bruce Aylward, leader of a joint WHO-China mission of experts, also warns other nations are "simply not ready" to contain the outbreak.
"You have to be ready to manage this at a larger scale... and it has to be done fast".
He warns the new coronavirus may be around "for months".
Meanwhile, as well as encouraging nursing home residents and their family to discuss end of life plans amid the coronavirus outbreak, The Daily Telegraph has also learned consideration is being given to negotiating with private hospitals to take over elective surgery so that public hospitals can concentrate on treating large numbers of COVID-19 carriers.
And hospitals that don't have space for a dedicated "fever clinic" will be expected to build temporary structures so people who present with virus symptoms are kept away from emergency departments and other patients before they are admitted.
A "social distancing" policy could also force major events to be cancelled and schools closed.
The plans have emerged after more than 80,000 coronavirus cases have been confirmed globally and 2707 people have died as the situation inches closer to being declared a pandemic.
Australians were this week warned against travelling to tourist hot spots in Italy, which has now recorded 323 cases and 10 deaths.
In Australia, the Department of Health is fast-tracking preparations for a forum to help the aged-care sector prepare for cases, with the elderly most vulnerable to the virus.
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly told the Telegraph that in an outbreak, nursing homes would need to isolate infected residents, stop visitors, prepare for "care in place" rather than hospitals and encourage "end of life planning".
Professor Kelly also said responsibility for elective surgery could be shifted to the private sector, freeing up public hospital resources.
PRINCE GEORGE AND PRINCESS CHARLOTTE'S PEERS IN ISOLATION
Its understood the students from Thomas's Battersea have been sent home as they await test results for the deadly bug.
Two children are said to have reported flu-like symptoms after returning from a trip to Northern Italy, where the virus has recently hit.
The reports emerged on Spanish news site El Confidencial.
Thomas's said in a statement reported on the Spanish site: "Like all schools, we are taking very seriously the potential risks related to the spread of Covid-19 and to this end we are following the Government's instructions to the letter on infection prevention and case management in which it is suspected that some staff member or students exposed to the virus or showing any symptoms.
We currently have a very small number of students who have been evaluated and these individuals currently remain in their homes waiting to receive the results of their exams.
"All parents have been informed and we have maintained regular communication with our school community to ensure that councils are shared and important information circulated.
"Of course, we will preserve the confidentiality of staff and students, and we will not comment on specific cases."
AUSSIE WATER POLO TEAM RETURNS HOME AFTER ITALY WARNING
Australians have been warned to "exercise extreme caution" if travelling to northern Italy as a coronavirus outbreak has killed at least 10 people in the region.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the "Level 2" travel advisory applied to the provinces of Lombardi and Vietto, while new cases in Austria, Switzerland and Croatia were also a concern.
"As a consequence of increased numbers in Italy, where I think the latest figures we have our
323 cases and 10 lives lost, primarily concentrated in northern Italy, the Australian government, on medical advice, has lifted our travel advisory for northern Italy," he said.
Chief Medical Officers Brendan Murphy said the spread of coronavirus overseas made it "more likely" there would be more outbreaks in Australia, though at this stage the disease was still "contained".
"We have no community transmission of this virus in Australia, and that's a really important message for the public," he said.
"There is no reason to change anything you do, to wear masks or behave in a way that is different from normal.
"But we are preparing."
This comes as news that the Australian Women's Water Polo team will now return to Australia after they were held in Dubai overnight to avoid the Italian leg of their tour.
Prof Murphy said the Commonwealth was working with states to ensure public hospitals, GPs and aged care facilities were prepared.
"Aged care is a big part of our plan," he said.
"That plan has to be flexible because we don't know if we get further outbreaks here what form that will take and how many people would be involved and how easily it would be contained, how easily we would be isolating people so the plan is very focused on flexible response."
Prof Murphy said if a pandemic was declared but Australia was still able to contain the disease, the response would "continue" as it is now.
"It's just a label," he said.
"A pandemic is a label that simply says there is sustained community transmission in several countries.
"We are already preparing for the eventuality that we have further outbreaks in Australia.
"Declaring a pandemic doesn't really change what we're doing at all. More cases in Australia, community transmission in Australia, definitely does."
As to whether events like the AFL might have to be cancelled, Mr Hunt said, "The possibility of events is always there, but that is a last resort. "
In Australia, there have been 15 cases in the general population and all have been cleared and discharged.
An eighth case emerged among the group of Australians evacuated from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, Mr Hunt said.
He is a Victorian man whose partner had it previously and he had been in quarantine and isolation as part of the Diamond Princess evacuation.
Mr Hunt said all of the Diamond Princess patients were doing well and were in a "mild situation".
With more than 80,000 cases now confirmed across the globe and more than 2700 people dead, the government has prepared a pandemic plan and is bracing for an imminent declaration from the World Health Organisation (WHO).
WHO has not yet classified coronavirus as a pandemic with the organisation's chief Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus telling reporters the disease wasn't there yet.
"For the moment we are not witnessing the uncontained global spread of this virus," he said.
"Does this virus have pandemic potential? Absolutely it does. Are we there yet? From our assessment not yet."
The declaration would be the first since an influenza pandemic in 2009, and would trigger a range of responses from the federal and state governments.
It's understood the impact of the virus on the Australian economy will be more significant than the recent bushfires.
The federal government is concerned about the likelihood of further outbreaks in Japan as well as the developing crisis in Italy, which would be almost impossible to contain across Europe's open borders.
AUSSIE STINGERS TO RETURN HOME
The Australian Women's Water Polo team will now return home to Australia from Dubai.
The changing proposition of the CoVid19 (coronavirus) means the Aussie Stingers will return to Australia once travel arrangements from Dubai can be finalised and will head to the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in Canberra to complete the training camp.
The squad was held in Dubai overnight after plans were altered to skip the Italy leg of the tour and travel straight on to Hungary.
But in consultation with Dr David Hughes, AIS Chief Medical Officer and AOC Medical Director for the Australian Olympic Committee, and WPA Chief Medical Officer Rachel Harris, the decision today is that the squad will now return to Australia.
Water Polo Australia Acting CEO, Richard McInnes, said that the latest decision was once again precautionary and in the interest of athlete welfare.
"We are taking necessary precautions to minimise disruption for our squad's preparations 150 days out from the Olympic Games.
"The coronavirus (CoVid19) local transmission in Europe has increased significantly in the last few days and we want to not only minimise exposure but also minimise the risk of our squad being quarantined.
"The squad will return to Australia and relocate to Canberra for the remainder of the two training block. While a training camp in Europe would have provided us a good opportunity to train against opposition sides, the welfare of our players and staff is fundamental.
"We are confident this won't impact our preparations for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, as our squad will still have value time together at the AIS and we have international Tournaments and camps scheduled for the USA prior to the Olympics," he said.
Meanwhile, Ireland's Six Nations match with Italy in Dublin on March 7 has been postponed due to the coronavirus epidemic, the Irish Rugby Football Union announced.
The IRFU consulted with Irish Health Minister Simon Harris, who had expressed his grave misgivings due to 12 deaths from the coronavirus in Italy, the EU country that has been hit hardest by the virus, registering 374 cases of infection.
The other matches with Italy teams that weekend - the under-20s and women - have also been postponed.
It comes as Brazil and Pakistan announced their first confirmed cases of coronavirus.
PANDEMIC 'VIRTUALLY INEVITABLE'
Concerns that Iran is hiding the true extent of its coronavirus cases is also fuelling growing belief within government and health sectors that a WHO pandemic declaration is virtually inevitable.
It comes as Virgin Australia announced it was reducing its fleet as well as planning fewer flights amid cancellations on international and domestic routes due to the coronavirus.
Virgin Australia Group chief executive officer Paul Scurrah told staff this morning network capacity would be reduced by 3 per cent in the next four months and five of Tigerair's loss-making routes would be cut, The Courier Mail reports.
He also revealed the group was "proposing to close Tigerair's Brisbane and Sydney bases".
"Unfortunately a number of our team members will be impacted as a result and we have commenced formal consultation with pilot and cabin crew representatives," he said.
The airline said the coronavirus outbreak is currently expected to negatively impact the group's earnings by $50 million to $75 million in the second half.
The update came as it posted a $88.6 million net loss in the first half of FY20 compared to a net profit of $73.8 million after buying all of its Velocity Frequent Flyer program, writing off assets and workforce reductions.
Virgin will reduce capacity on the Trans-Tasman and Cairns routes, in the short term, due to dwindling demand.
Tigerair Australia will exit the following domestic leisure routes in addition to frequency reductions on existing routes: Melbourne-Coffs Harbour, Sydney-Coffs Harbour, Adelaide-Sydney, Sydney-Cairns (all from April 27) and Hobart-Gold Coast (from April 28).
Internationally, Virgin has decided to withdraw from Sydney-Hong Kong route.
SPREAD OF VIRUS ESCALATES IN EUROPE
There are fears Europe could experience a rapid coronavirus outbreak similar to the one seen in China.
The outbreak has now spread from Milan to Tuscany and Sicily, according to health officials.
Italian officials reported 322 cases of the virus, including 11 deaths. Croatia and Austria reported their first cases of the virus.
Switzerland has confirmed its first case of coronavirus, the country's federal office of public health has announced.
The first case of coronavirus in mainland Spain has been identified by health authorities in Catalonia, according to the La Vanguardia newspaper.
And an Italian doctor staying at a hotel in the Canary Islands tested positive for the virus, prompting the quarantine of hundreds of guests.
Croatia, Hungary and Ireland advised against travelling to Italy's affected area, one of a number of government moves seeking to limit further exposure.
DFAT has not changed its travel advice for Italy but is warning tourists that "authorities have introduced measures to restrict the use of public spaces and limit travel in some parts of northern Italy where cases have occurred".
Despite the outbreak in Italy, the European Union has no plans to suspend travel or temporarily shut borders across the 26-country Schengen region, where travellers can move freely and without visas.
"We need to take this situation extremely seriously - but we must not give in to panic and of course to disinformation," EU's Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said.
Closing borders in the Schengen region would be a devastating blow for Europe's peak tourist season, just a few months away.
The thousands of Aussies that escape the winter for the European summer also face an anxious wait as the continent struggles to contain the disease.
Findings from consultant firm Retail Economics found less than 10 per cent of travel insurance providers would refund tourists cancelling trips over coronavirus fears.
The UK has warned its citizens to exercise caution while Serbia has advised its citizens against travelling to Italy.
The disease also forced more than 50,000 people in the north of Italy into isolation, as towns from Lombardy to Veneto quarantine themselves against the illness.
The coronavirus outbreak has already triggered a number of panicked situations across the region.
Austria stopped trains to and from Italy for hours on Sunday night after two German tourists reported feeling sick.
The train, with more than 300 passengers, was travelling between Venice and Munich and was able to continue after the tourists tested negative.
And on Monday in France, police were forced to impound a FlixBus coach after the driver complained of a severe cough.
The bus had come from Milan, Italy, where authorities are testing people at the airport before allowing them into the city.
Venice's iconic Carnival festival, where thousands were due to flood the city's St Mark's Square, was also cancelled.
Meanwhile, Latin America has its first confirmed case of coronavirus, O Globo newspaper reports.
The case involves a male, 61, from Sao Paulo recently returned in Brazil from Italy.
He was being treated at the Albert Einstein hospital in São Paulo.
- with wires