PM “confident” of low coronavirus death toll in Australia

Scott Morrison is confident Australia can get through a global coronavirus pandemic without a high death toll, as his government prepares to ramp up the response to the crisis.

Photo: supplied

Photo: supplied

Asked whether he genuinely believes Australia can get through this escalating crisis without a large death toll, the prime minister told 3AW radio on Friday: “On the advice I have at moment, yes, of course.”

“That’s the indication at this point. We are not immune from this and that is why we have to focus on being prepared.”

Health ministers from across the country are gathering in Melbourne to discuss how the nation will respond to the dramatic spread of the infection around the world.

Morrison did a media blitz with the message to Australians not to panic.

He warned the virus, known as COVID-19, was highly transmissible, particularly amongst the elderly.

But he also noted there were no cases of person-to-person transmission within the Australian community.

“So you can go to the footy, you can go out to the Chinese restaurant – in fact I encourage you to,” he told Nine’s Today program.

“You can just get about your business. If you are a kid you can go off to school, play with your mate, do all of those things.”

Overnight on Thursday the World Health Organisation said the coronavirus outbreak, which began in China’s Hubei province in December, had reached a “decisive point” and urged countries to redouble efforts to contain its spread.

It’s now affecting 47 countries, has killed more than 2800 people and infected more than 82,500.

“This virus has pandemic potential,” WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned.

Australia’s deputy chief medical officer Paul Kelly told ABC Radio National was “a bit surprised” the WHO hadn’t yet declared a pandemic.

However, world financial markets are braced for another round of panic selling after Wall Street plunged 4.4 per cent on Thursday fearing the impact COVID-19 will have on the global economy.

Morrison warned the global spread of the virus will have a “big impact” on the Australian economy.

“We have a strong, stable financial base to address this, but we can’t kid ourselves that the impact of the coronavirus globally, here in Australia, is not going to be significant,” Morrison said.

State and territory health ministers have been asked to show how they are prepared in terms of shoring up the supply of medical items such as masks and medicines and ensuring there is a “surge capacity” in hospitals.

The meeting of health ministers comes as travel restrictions on people entering Australia from China were extended for another week.

Australian Border Force is drawing up plans for extra measures at airports and shipping ports to ensure travellers suspected of having the virus can be quarantined or self-quarantined quickly.

“As this spreads we are going to have to monitor the hotspots around the world for coronavirus and overlay that with travel patterns,” ABF commisioner Michael Outram told Sky News.

“It’s hard to travel directly to Australia so that gives us some choke points that we can focus on.”

So far, 15 people in Australia have been diagnosed with coronavirus cases and all have been cleared.

As well, eight former Diamond Princess cruise ship passengers are being treated in their home states.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation said no country should make the “fatal mistake” of assuming it will be spared the coronavirus.

With new infections reported around the world now surpassing those in mainland China, WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus says even rich nations should prepare for surprises.

“No country should assume it won’t get cases, that would be a fatal mistake, quite literally,” Tedros said on Thursday, pointing to Italy, where authorities said three more people had died, bringing the toll from Europe’s worst outbreak of the illness to 17.

Confirmed cases there rose to 650.

As well as stockpiling medical supplies, governments ordered schools shut and cancelled big gatherings, including sports events, to try to halt spread of the flu-like disease that emerged in China more than two months ago from an illegal wildlife market.

It is on the decline in China itself after an aggressive containment campaign but rising elsewhere.

There is particular concern over a case in Japan in which a woman tested positive for the virus for a second time.

Second positive tests have also been reported in China and could imply contracting the disease does not confer immunity. Scientists warned that much remains unknown about the virus.

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The head of the WHO’s emergency program, Dr Mike Ryan, said discussions were being held with organisers about the fate of the 2020 Olympics, scheduled for July in Tokyo, although no decision was expected soon.

Their cancellation or relocation would be a massive blow for Japan, which said it was closing its entire school system for the next month in a bid to prevent spread of the virus.

The new coronavirus had mainly battered China, causing nearly 80,000 infections and more than 2700 deaths.

It has spread to another 44 countries, where about 3500 cases and 54 deaths have been reported.

Though the outbreak meets the definition of a pandemic – widespread contagion across a large region – the WHO has so far held back from using the term.

“This virus has pandemic potential,” Tedros told reporters in Geneva.

He said Iran, Italy and South Korea were at a “decisive point”, still short of sustained community transmission.

Spooked by the impact on China, the heart of corporate supply chains and the increasing effect on other countries, stocks sank deeper into the red on Thursday and oil prices fell.

Global equity markets have dropped for six straight days, wiping out more than $US3.6 trillion ($A5.5 trillion) in value.

Politicians are also scrambling to respond.

President Emmanuel Macron attempted to rally the nation as France’s number of reported cases doubled.

“We have a crisis before us. An epidemic is on its way,” Macron said.

Germany, too, has warned of an impending epidemic. And Greece, a gateway for refugees from the Middle East and beyond, announced tighter border controls.

There is no cure for the coronavirus, which can lead to pneumonia, and a vaccine may take up to 18 months to develop.

Iran, urging people to avoid unnecessary travel, extended closures of cinemas, cultural events and conferences for another week and called off Friday prayers in some cities.

The WHO’s Ryan said Iran’s outbreak may be worse than yet realised. It has suffered the highest death toll outside China, with 26 dead and 245 infected, including some senior officials.

Italy, desperate to stave off a probable recession, warned that an “epidemic of misleading information” could do worse harm than the virus itself.

The coronavirus has played havoc with global aviation and tourism as airlines cancel flights, countries ban visitors from hot spots and nervous passengers put off travel.

Chinese authorities said the number of new deaths there stood at 29, its lowest daily tally since January 28.

There were 433 new cases in mainland China over the previous day compared with 586 in nations and territories elsewhere.

– with AAP

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