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PM cancels elective surgery as hospitals prepare for pandemic cases

National

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that all public and private elective surgery apart from the most urgent cases will be suspended from midnight tonight, to let hospitals conserve resources and prepare for expected coronavirus cases.

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The decision was agreed to by the state and territory leaders in conjunction with the Federal Government, Morrison said at a press conference before midday.

He said the cancellations were based on the advice of the expert medical panel.

“This will allow the preservation of resources like personal protective equipment and health services to prepare for their role in the COVID-19 outbreak,” Morrison said.

The decision was quickly welcomed by the Australian Society of Anaesthetists.

“The only way Australian hospitals can effectively prepare for an influx of patients is if we have the time to devote resources to this preparation,” president Suzi Nou said.

“We believe that the health system is not yet ready to cope with the likely massive demand for our services.”

The new directive follows Morrison’s announcement last night of new personal restrictions and an expanded list of businesses forced to close their doors at midnight Wednesday.

He also said that weddings will now be restricted to the couple, celebrant and two witnesses only, while funerals can only have a maximum of 10 mourners.

The new rules were decided upon after COVID-19 infections in Australia yesterday hit 2136 – double the number of cases recorded on Saturday.

Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy says Australians need to avoid unnecessary interactions.

“We are very worried about the rate of rise of the number of coronavirus cases in Australia, particularly over the last few days,” Prof Murphy said on Tuesday night.

“It is a very, very steep growth and it is very concerning.”

There are been eight deaths in Australia so far – seven in NSW and one in WA.

The number of cases in NSW has jumped to 1029 after the state recorded its first cases of the infection in children under 10.

A two-month-old boy and a seven-year-old girl, who both had contact with people with coronavirus, have tested positive, NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said on Wednesday.

Of total NSW cases, less than half were contracted overseas.

Morrison said last night it was still safe to send children to school and he would meet education unions on Wednesday.

He said it’s vital that essential workers be able to send their children to school if they needed to.

“Who is an essential worker? Someone who has a job,” he said.

Schools in Victoria and the ACT have closed but remain open in NSW, South Australia, Tasmania, Western Australia and Queensland.

But Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone today called for a nationwide UK-style shutdown.

“It is a big call for governments to direct the population to cease work, suspend schools, and only leave home for essential needs, but the AMA will back governments in making this call,” he said on Wednesday.

Murphy was particularly concerned about travellers returning from overseas with the virus and stressed the importance of social distancing to prevent community transmission.

“We have to change the way we interact, as human beings, in our society, for quite a long time. This virus will be with us for some time,” he said.

Open house inspections and auctions are now banned, as are personal services such as beauty therapy, waxing, tattoo parlours and massage to go with the closure of pubs, clubs, cafes and restaurants announced on Sunday.

Takeaway services from cafes and restaurants are still available although food courts in shopping centres will have to close seating areas.

Most community facilities will also close, including libraries, swimming pools, RSLs, galleries and community centres.

Health-related personal services, such as physiotherapy, will be allowed to keep running.

Outdoor boot camps and personal training will be limited to a maximum of 10 people per session.

Outdoor and indoor markets are banned while rules around major food markets will be addressed by states and territories.

State governments will also be policing social gatherings in public spaces – even parents grouping together at playgrounds – and in people’s houses.

“These measures are really draconian,” Prof Murphy said.

“But if we’re going to control community transmission, we have to stop the capacity of this virus from spreading from person to person. And I have said many times, it is a long haul.”

 Australians are receiving stern warnings to keep their distance from other people, as governments appear set to start tracking the movements of people who catch the disease.

The government is sending text messages telling Australians: “stop the spread, stay 1.5m from others, follow rules on social gatherings, wash hands, stay home if sick”.

Morrison acknowledged it would be tough as even large social gatherings in homes are banned.

“Barbecues of lots of friends or even … extended family coming together to celebrate one-year-old birthday parties and all these sorts of things – we can’t do those things now,” he said.

“If you’re gathering together in a group, say 10 people, outside together in a group, that’s not OK.”

Morrison also said Australians will be banned from travelling overseas after it became clear that some are defying the advice not to travel anywhere in the world.

Small exceptions will be made for aid workers and other vital government travel.

Cruise ship blame game

A passenger from the Ruby Princess cruise ship was confirmed on Tuesday as Australia’s eighth coronavirus death.

The NSW woman in her 70s is one of 133 coronavirus cases from the ship which was allowed to dock in Sydney last week and unload its untested passengers, who then travelled home around Australia.

The NSW chief health officer says most Ruby Princess passengers who have since come down with COVID-19 did not show symptoms until after disembarkation.

The Australian Border Force, however, has laid blame for the debacle on federal agricultural authorities and NSW Health.

More than 100 passengers on the ship which disembarked in Sydney on Thursday have since been confirmed to have the coronavirus.

Some 13 passengers showed respiratory symptoms before disembarkation at 6am on Thursday, with three testing positive to COVID-19. One passenger, a 77-year-old woman, has since died.

Operator Princess Cruises last week said everyone who’d developed symptoms had been in isolation on board.

However NSW, chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant said symptoms had not presented in most infected passengers until the day of disembarkation or in the following days.

There was little health authorities could do to prevent the disembarkation of asymptomatic cruise passengers.

Mobile phone, internet use soars

Mobile phone calls and broadband usage have risen by up to 30 per cent as more Australians work from home or try to contact Centrelink during the coronavirus crisis, Telstra says.

The telecommunications giant said call volumes to 1800 and 13 prefix information numbers spiked this week.

“They have increased up to 20 fold,” CEO Andy Penn told Nine’s Today show on Wednesday.

“On data and fixed broadband networks, what we use at home, we’re seeing data volumes up about 10 per cent and on the mobile data side, they’re up about 20-30 per cent.”

Penn said while the Telstra network was experiencing “pinch points”, overall it was holding up and performing pretty well.

The federal government-owned National Broadband Network has already increased capacity for telecoms service providers by 40 per cent since the health crisis began.

Mr Penn warned once that was exhausted, due to the high volume of internet traffic, more physical infrastructure might be needed “which we’ve got the ability to do, but that does take a bit more time”.

Virgin Australia stands down most of workforce

Virgin Australia has stood down about 8,000 of its 10,000 workers until at least the end of May and further slashed domestic flight capacity in the wake of the coronavirus border restrictions.

The airline on Wednesday said its domestic schedule would now be cut by 90 per cent, from last week’s 50 per cent reduction and it would also suspend all flights of its low-cost Tigerair Australia service.

Virgin said it would try and redeploy workers and encourage them to use leave, but leave without pay would be inevitable for many.

Most domestic flights will be suspended from March 27 until June 14, while its previously announced international ban will be in place from March 30 to June 14.

The remaining domestic flights will provide essential services, such as carrying critical freight.

“We are now facing what will be the biggest grounding of aircraft in this country’s history,” Virgin Australia chief executive Paul Scurrah said.

More than 125 planes in the Virgin fleet will be grounded from the end of this week.

Virgin’s announcement follows a decision by rival Qantas last week to stand down two-thirds of its 30000 workforce as it slashed capacity.

Casino firm stands down 8000 staff

The Star Entertainment Group is the latest listed firm to stand down the bulk of its workforce with 8,100 workers suspended following the closure of its food, beverage, conferencing, and gaming facilities.

The company on Wednesday said its casino operations in Sydney, Gold Coast and Brisbane have been severely curtailed following government imposed bans on gatherings and non-essential services, necessitating a temporary standdown of 90 per cent of its staff.

“The Star has taken a very difficult, but necessary, decision in relation to its workforce … these stand downs include senior management,” the company said in a release.

The Star has provided two weeks of paid pandemic leave and employees will be able to access any accrued annual and long service leave entitlements.

It’s estimated that more than 800,000 jobs could be lost by the end of June and the unemployment rate reach 1.5 million as vast swathes of the Australian economy is shut down.

-with AAP

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