Sydney: Australia urged its citizens Wednesday not to travel abroad and warned those already overseas to rush home as it imposed unprecedented steps to choke off the spread of the coronavirus epidemic taking off Down Under.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison also ordered a halt to “non-essential” indoor gatherings of more than 100 people, on top of an existing ban on outdoor events of more than 500 that has stunned the sports-mad nation.
Although Morrison called the travel crackdown an “indefinite ban” on foreign trips, the official advice released by the government was couched as a recommendation.
“Regardless of your destination, age or health, our advice does not travel at this time,” the foreign ministry’s “Smart Traveller” alert said.
A spokesman for national carrier Qantas said it would continue issuing tickets to Australians wanting to leave the country. “It’s advice, it’s not a ban,” he told AFP.
Morrison called the coronavirus pandemic “a once-in-100-year-type event.”
“We haven’t seen this sort of thing in Australia since the end of the First World War,” he said.
“We are going to keep Australia running, we are going to keep Australia functioning, (but) it won’t look like it normally does,” he said, girding the country for measures that will last at least six months.
Australia has more than 500 confirmed cases of coronavirus and just five fatalities.
But the number of infections have been escalating daily, with the majority of these new cases being returning travellers or people infected by them.
Australia joined neighbouring New Zealand Wednesday in urging citizens overseas to return home promptly or risk being stranded in an ominous sign they expect flights to the remote South Pacific nations may shut down entirely.
Both countries had already ordered all travellers arriving from overseas to self-quarantine for two weeks.
In announcing the ban on indoor gatherings of more than 100 people, Morrison excluded public transportation, shopping sites, health facilities and schools from the measure.
He rejected growing calls for the government to close all schools, as has been done in other countries, saying the impact on society and the economy from such a closure would be “severe”, costing “tens of thousands of jobs”.
“Whatever we do we have to do for at least six months,” he said, adding that among other consequences a long school closure would remove 30 percent of workers from the healthcare industry as parents remained home with their kids.