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GRAND MESS: Mass gatherings halted | F1 axed | ASC worker among coronavirus count

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UPDATED | Sporting, cultural and religious events will face major upheaval with all “non-essential gatherings” of more than 500 people set to be banned from Monday, as the federal and state governments make a dramatic bid to limit the spread of the coronavirus in Australia.

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Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed all mass gatherings of more than 500 people should not go ahead from next week – but insists he will still attend an NRL game this Saturday, before the ban takes effect.

“That, of course, doesn’t include schools. It doesn’t include university lectures. It doesn’t mean people getting on public transport or going to airports or things of that nature,” Morrison told reporters.

A new national cabinet made up of the prime minister, premiers and chief ministers will meet on Sunday to decide how to put in place arrangements to cope with the strictures.

However, Morrison said he would still be attending the season-opening game of his beloved Cronulla Sharks rugby league team in Sydney on Saturday night.

But the AFL late today took the unprecedented step of locking spectators out of its first round.

The AFL confirmed plans to play round one of the 2020 season as scheduled, but without spectators in stadiums.

In a statement, AFL boss Gillon McLachlan said the “health and well-being of fans, players, umpires, officials, partners and communities is the priority, with the decision made following advice provided by both Federal and state governments and the State and Territory Chief Medical Officers”.

 McLachlan said the situation is fluid with multiple different scenarios across the country in different states, and the league would continue to have constant dialogue with the Australian Government and the various state and territory governments and relevant regulatory and medical authorities. 

 “I am disappointed for our fans but we cannot put them in a situation that potentially jeopardises the health and well-being of the whole community,” he said.

“We are working through a major issue that impacts the wider community and we will work with all our clubs and industry partners to ensure that footy finds a way.”

AFL.com reported “multiple clubs have expressed reservations about playing to empty stadiums, and several senior players had made it known to the AFL Players Association that they would prefer for the season start to be postponed over it beginning as scheduled only to be paused soon after”.

But it said the AFL’s priority was “to ensure all 198 home-and-away season and nine finals matches were played”.

“The AFL is preparing to reschedule all matches beyond round one, as it knows it will almost certainly have to indefinitely shut down its competition to deal with the Coronavirus outbreak,” the site said.

“There is an acceptance of the playing group that at least some matches will be shortened in length, and that team lists will need to be bolstered with players who are not currently listed.

“Depending on player availability, some clubs might be forced to play several matches in relatively quick succession.”

Morrison said the Government’s advice from Monday was part of a stepped response.

“We are not of great concern right now in terms of where those gatherings might be today, but in the weeks ahead, this will change,” he said.

“The fact that I would still be going on Saturday speaks not just to my passion for my beloved Sharks, it might be the last game I get to go to for a long time. That’s fine.”

Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said his advice was very much only around non-essential events.

He said the current evidence was that community transmission of the coronavirus was not widespread in Australia.

“But all international evidence suggests that if you have some community transmission, the way in which it can be spread more rapidly is in very large events,” he said.

“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 at those large events accelerates the rate of progression of this virus.”

In another tumultuous day of coronavirus chaos, an ASC worker at Osborne has tested positive as Australia’s pandemic response significantly escalated, with the last-minute cancellation of the Melbourne Grand Prix, Australian cricketers to play in empty stadiums and the AFL making its dramatic call on the eve of its season.

The drama continued locally, nationally and worldwide today, as health experts railed against political inaction on a raft of major events, after Morrison doubled down on his assertion that he intended to attend an NRL match on the weekend.

However, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy told Premiers, Chief Ministers and the Prime Minister at today’s COAG meeting that mass gatherings of more than 500 people should be cancelled – sparking a major shift in Australia’s response.

It comes as SA authorities plan contingencies to “provide essential services in the event that a proportion of the public sector workforce is required to work from home”.

The RAH’s former director of Trauma Services Dr Bill Griggs this morning took to social media exhorting authorities to cancel all mass gatherings.

In South Australia, schools across the state have cancelled all international trips scheduled between now and the end of Term 2 – with the prospect of extending the moratorium beyond that.

A missive from Education Minister John Gardner and department chief Rick Persse went out to public schools this morning, with the independent and Catholic schools sectors confirming to InDaily that they would be following the same strictures.

“While there have so far been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 at Department of Education sites, it is important that we are prepared for the possibility,” the advice stated.

“Overseas school excursions to all countries except New Zealand are on hold until the end of Term 2. This will be reviewed as more information comes to hand.”

The minister said “current advice indicates that domestic travel and school trips and events such as sports days and swimming lessons can still take place”.

The Government said if there was a “confirmed case” of the virus at a school or early childhood facility, including preschools and OSHC, “the site will immediately be closed for a minimum of 24 hours [and] will only reopen on the advice of health experts and when it is safe to do so”.

“Closure will allow public health officials to identify and notify any close contacts and advise on isolation requirements,” they said in a statement.

“The site will also be subjected to a thorough clean.”

“This protocol is an essential measure to keep our education sites safe and slow the spread of coronavirus,” Gardner said today.

“It is critically important that we are prepared for the likely eventuality that a child or staff member becomes ill.

“A minimum 24 hour closure allows public health officials to thoroughly assess and respond to the risks. It will also allow a deep clean to be carried out before we consider reopening the site.

“We understand that any closure will cause disruption to families, but it is absolutely vital that we follow the best advice of health officials.”

That protocol will be tested already with a high school student Sacred Heart College among four new cases of coronavirus in South Australia revealed this afternoon by SA Health.

The senior campus in Somerton Park will be cleaned over the weekend and students who shared two classrooms with the boy will be put into quarantine.

Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier said the protocol generally was “essential for public health that schools and early childhood services take prompt action when a confirmed case of COVID-19 is identified at the facility”.

“An immediate closure provides the best chance of containment and allows the public health team to carry out the necessary work to identify close contacts who will need to remain at home for 14 days,” she said.

Independent Schools Association SA chief Carolyn Grantskalns told InDaily the same advice would be distributed to its own networks today, “and schools will definitely follow that advice”.

She said the association did not have data on how many trips would be affected, noting “some schools have already made a decision to cancel some trips to places like China and Japan”.

“But it will [now] be a blanket ban, which in many ways will be easier to manage,” she said.

“Health advice is something that all school principals take very seriously… it would be most unlikely that a school wouldn’t heed that advice because the care of their students is their first priority.”

It’s understood a number of schools have already cancelled interstate as well as international excursions, along with other events including a Scotch College ‘Grandparents and Grand friends Day’ scheduled for next month.

Public school authorities confirmed four overseas student travel applications have been cancelled thus far.

Grand Prix official David Simpson breaks bad news to the waiting crowd. Photo: Scott Barbour / AAP

Shipbuilder ASC today confirmed “a positive COVID-19 result from one of its personnel from its Osborne (North) site in South Australia”.

“All employees who have had direct contact with the individual have been notified and are undertaking self-isolation,” an ASC spokesman said in a statement.

“ASC is also taking the extra step of closing the building that the individual was working from, to have it professionally cleaned, as an extra precaution.

“This closure has resulted in a small number of ASC staff working from home or being granted leave today. All other ASC facilities and operations remain unaffected.

“The health of ASC’s people and the broader community is of paramount importance. ASC has notified the relevant authorities and is working with health agencies to minimise the impact of the virus.”

It’s unclear if the ASC worker is one of the South Australian cases already identified by SA Health.

Commissioner for Public Sector Employment Erma Ranieri told InDaily state authorities were “actively looking at how the Government will continue to provide essential services to South Australians in the event that a proportion of the public sector workforce is required to work from home”.

“The Government and Department CEs are in the process of updating their business continuity plans in response to the ongoing challenges of Coronavirus,” she said.

“Senior public sector leaders are meeting regularly and are continually reviewing information based on advice from the Chief Public Health Officer.”

The Commissioner’s office website has updated a ‘holding document’ entitled COVID-19 Workforce Considerations for the South Australian Public Sector – which was blank earlier today – but now contains a detailed strategic plan.

It comes as this weekend’s Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne was officially killed off earlier this morning, after hours of mixed messages.

 

It followed the overnight withdrawal of the McLaren Racing Team after one of its members returned a positive test for COVID-19.

Thousands of Formula 1 fans who have already arrived in Melbourne have been promised refunds.

The Prime Minister has thus far refused to issue a blanket ban on large public gatherings despite the states seeking guidance on the issue at today’s COAG meeting and warnings from leading infection control experts.

Professor Bill Bowtell, from the Kirby Institute for Infection and Immunity, says Australia could face a virus “catastrophe” like Italy’s unless it acts now to impose proper infection controls.

“Facts and evidence dictate that these mass gatherings should not take place,” he told the ABC.

“We must bring down the rate of new infections of coronavirus in this country. And we must do so in the next hours and days.”

He called for AFL and NRL matches, and even Anzac Day events, to be canned, expressing disbelief after the Prime Minister vowed to attend an NRL match this weekend, and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann proclaimed he would be happy to go to the since-cancelled Grand Prix.

“Are you really seriously suggesting that ministers should say to the Australian people it’s business as usual, and go to the Grand Prix?” he said.

PM Scott Morrison shares an awkward COAG moment with NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian as he attempts to shake her hand – in contravention of current health advice. Photo: David Gray / AAP

Cricket Australia today banned spectators from Australia’s one-day series against New Zealand, which will be held behind closed doors.

Late today, the AFL also confirmed that its Women’s competition would be closed to spectators from tomorrow, saying: “As of Saturday March 14, NAB AFLW matches will only host players, coaches, essential club officials, umpires, AFL officials, broadcast teams, media & required venue staff with no supporters permitted to attend.”

Before the Grand Prix was called off, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said spectators would not be allowed in to the event.

About an hour later, the race was cancelled, amid reports top drivers – including former world champions Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen – had already left the country.

All is quiet on the track after the cancellation of the Grand Prix. Photo: Scott Barbour / AAP

Yesterday, six-time F1 champion Lewis Hamilton said he found it “shocking” that the race was being staged amid a global coronavirus pandemic.

“I am really very, very surprised that we are here. For me it is shocking that we are all sitting in this (press conference) room,” the Mercedes star said.

It remains to be seen how the Grand Prix’s cancellation impacts on the rest of the season.

Organisers have already banned fans from attending the Bahrain event on March 22 race while the Chinese Grand Prix has been postponed.

“We appreciate this is very disappointing news for the thousands of fans due to attend the race and all ticket-holders will receive a full refund, and a further announcement will be communicated in due course,” the sport’s ruling body FIA and Formula 1 said in a statement.

Andrews suggested other sports fans will face similar news.

“I cannot tell you whether there will be footy played next week,” he said.

“That is a matter that will depend on advice from the chief health officer and that advice may well change, just as the advice changed overnight because of developments at the Grand Prix and events around the world.”

The 2020 AFL premiership season is due to start next week when Richmond and Carlton clash at the MCG on Thursday night.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews (centre) sitting alongside SA Premier Steven Marshall and his agency boss Jim McDowell at COAG today. Photo: David Gray / AAP

Cricket Australia today announced its three-match One-Day International series against New Zealand to begin today in Sydney and conclude in Hobart on March 20 “will proceed as scheduled, however fans will not be admitted into the venue”.

It also confirmed the indefinite suspension of its Women’s ODI series and three-match Twenty20 tour of South Africa.

All fans who purchased public tickets are eligible for a full refund.

“Cricket Australia will continue to monitor the coronavirus situation at home and overseas before making a decision on Australian men’s international matches beyond the Australian leg of the ODI tournament,” the organisation said.

“We have taken strong action today in the face of an unprecedented public health issue,” Cricket Australia CEO Kevin Roberts said in a statement.

“We believe this is the right decision to minimise the risk of public exposure to the coronavirus.”

Also today, Football Federation Australia revealed US Soccer had cancelled April’s international friendly in Utah between the US Women’s national team and the Matildas.

“FFA acknowledges the decision and, like US Soccer, is committed to putting the health and welfare of its players, staff, and fans first at all times,” it said in a statement.

“FFA is currently reviewing activity for all its senior and youth national teams and will make further announcements regarding these activities as necessary as soon as possible.”

A-League matches and W-League Semi Finals will all proceed as scheduled this weekend, albeit with “mitigation protocols” in place for all matches.

Late today NBL Owner and Executive Chairman Larry Kestelman said the remainder of the Grand Final Series between the Sydney Kings and Perth Wildcats would be “closed to the general public”.

Arriving at COAG this morning, Morrison reiterated that “each of these organisations will make their own decisions about these events and the states themselves will act on the best medical advice in relation to these issues”.

It followed the PM’s comments yesterday that he was “going to the footy this weekend and I’m looking forward to it”.

“And I’m sure Australians would, and I encourage you to, unless you’re ill,” he added at the time.

That attitude was reflected by Opposition frontbencher Jim Chalmers, who before the mass gathering advice told the ABC his Brisbane Broncos “are away tonight, so it’s not an option for me to go to the Broncos this weekend, but I’d still consider going unless the advice from the Chief Medical Officer changes”.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese has called for federal parliament to be recalled next week to deal with the crisis and to rush through an economic stimulus package to help businesses weather the impact.

Australia has about 130 confirmed cases of coronavirus, including US actor Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson, who remain in isolation in a Gold Coast hospital.

The prime minister has said about half of those cases have been cleared, or are close to being cleared. Three people, aged 95, 82 and 78, have died.

-with AAP

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