Virus fears: Handshake ban urged

THE danger of coronavirus spreading through the Australian population has dramatically risen after the first human-to-human transmission was recorded, sparking drastic warnings for people to stop shaking hands.

Australia's top medico has given a grim assessment, saying it is "no longer possible" to stop the killer Covid-19 disease from spreading within the nation.

Strict biosecurity quarantine laws will be used for the first time to crack down on any localised coronavirus outbreaks if necessary.

This would see ban orders preventing people from gathering at specific shopping centres, schools or workplaces, while infected people could be slapped with control orders.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard revealed two cases of human-to-human transmission had been uncovered in the state.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy says it’s “no longer possible” to stop the killer disease spreading. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP
Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy says it’s “no longer possible” to stop the killer disease spreading. Picture: Mick Tsikas/AAP

The patients are a 53-year-old health worker, and a 41-year-old woman believed to have caught the disease from her 43-year-old Iranian brother who recently flew in to Sydney.

World Health Organisation research into the disease spread in China suggests the vast majority of human-to-human transmissions are within family groups.

Mr Hazzard said neither person had travelled overseas recently, making it highly likely they were human transmissions, with the previous 28 cases having been contracted overseas.

He went as far as suggesting people should stop shaking hands in a bid to limit the diseases spread.

"It it's time Aussies actually gave each other a pat on the back for the time being, no handshaking," Mr Hazzard said.

There have been 33 cases of the disease confirmed in Australia now, with the first death reported on the weekend.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy said because the disease had spread to more than 60 countries, many with significant outbreaks, he was preparing for greater numbers of the disease locally.

"The view at the moment was that travel bans are, at this stage … a way of delaying the burden of new cases coming in," he said.

"It is no longer possible to absolutely prevent new cases given the increasing changes in epidemiology.

"We are prepared, and we are preparing for even greater numbers."

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the virus was a "significant risk" to Australia, but added it was still safe for people to go about their normal business.

"Anyone who has symptoms of a virus should practise social distancing, especially if they have recently travelled overseas," he said.

Attorney-General Christian Porter flagged that strict biosecurity laws will be used in the event of localised outbreaks.

He said there were two powers the public needed to be made aware of, human biosecurity control orders and human health response zones.

A control order can see a person or groups of people infected by Covid-19 forced to stay at a particular location, undergo decontamination and disclose who they have been in contact with.

The response zones can ban people from entering certain buildings where the government is concerned the disease could spread, including shopping centres, schools and work places.

"What will mean for Australians is actually something very important," Mr Porter said.

"It could require any Australian to give information about people that they have contacted or had contact with so that we can trace transmission pathways.

"These are challenging times going forward and these will be some of the first times these important powers maybe used."

The powers have been available to enact since Covid-19 was declared a "human disease" on January 21, but this has been the most significant warning issued by the Federal Government about their use.

Mr Hunt said healthcare workers and aged care workers returning to Australia from South Korea or Italy should not attend their workplace for 14 days.

It is to prevent a spread of the disease through the sectors, which are expected to come under increasing pressure should the disease have a significant outbreak in Australia.

"That is an additional level of protection which has been advised by the Chief health and medical offices and accepted by the Australian government," Mr Hunt said.

It follows Australia increasing its travel warning to Italy.

Australian travellers are now being urged to exercise a high degree of caution in the country as a whole.

But there is a heightened warning, asking them to reconsider their travel plans to 10 towns in the Lombardy region, as well as Vo' Euganeo in the Veneto area.

There are almost 1700 confirmed cases of the disease in Italy, after a dramatic rise on the weekend.

Australia has retained a travel ban with China and Iran, while urging travellers to Japan and South Korea to exercise a high degree of caution.

Mr Hunt did not rule out further travel restrictions to Italy or an outright ban, saying he would accept the advice of the chief medical officers.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg flagged the virus was going to have a significant economic impact on Australia.

"We are seeing as a result of the spread of the coronavirus disruption to international supply chains and disruption to international students and tourists coming to this country," he said.

"Our fiscal response, will be responsible. It will be considered and it will be targeted."