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Chief medical officer backtracks on "illegal dinner party" claim


UPDATED: Australia’s chief medical officer has backtracked on a claim that hospital staff in northwest Tasmania, the centre of a COVID-19 outbreak, attended an illegal dinner party.

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Two hospitals at Burnie were closed on Monday, with about 1200 staff and their families, up to 5000 people in total, told to quarantine for two weeks.

A cluster of more than 60 coronavirus cases, including 45 staff, has been linked to the facilities.

Professor Brendan Murphy, the country’s chief medical officer, told a select committee of New Zealand MPs on Tuesday that Tasmania had a cluster of 49 cases at a hospital over the weekend and “most of them went to an illegal dinner party of medical workers, we think”.

But he has since issued a clarification.

“This morning in discussions with a New Zealand Parliamentary Committee, I referred to suggestion that a dinner party may have been the source of some of the transmission in the North West Tasmania cluster of cases,” Murphy said in statement.

“Whilst this possibility had previously been mentioned to me following initial investigations, I am now informed that the contact tracing has not confirmed that such a dinner party occurred.”

At a press conference shortly after Murphy’s original comments, Tasmanian Premier Peter Gutwein said that the chief medical officer was “speaking about a rumour”.

The Tasmanian government ordered two hospitals in Burnie to close on Monday amid a cluster of more than 60 COVID-19 cases, including about 45 staff, associated with the facilities.

Anyone who had worked at either hospital from 27 March onwards was ordered into immediate, mandatory self-isolation for two weeks.

The order affected about 1200 healthcare staff and their households, with an estimated 5000 people in isolation.

Gutwein said Murphy was commenting on a rumour, but he had asked police to investigate.

“Our contact tracing has not identified a dinner party of health workers,” he said.

However, I accept that this is a serious allegation, and it’s something that needs to be followed up.”.

It came after Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned restrictions put in place to contain coronavirus will be in place for “many weeks”, despite the nation’s infection curve improving.

Australia has recorded 61 virus deaths and 6366 infections,  with more than 3000 having recovered.

State and federal leaders will meet this week to discuss when restrictions can be relaxed.

“I do want to caution Australians that we’re not in that phase yet … we’re many weeks away from being in a place like that,” Morrison said.

He said any lifting of restrictions would need to be backed up by a strong health system and even stronger testing regime.

“You’ve seen in places like Singapore and Sweden and other parts of the world where the virus has just taken off again,” he said.

Murphy said it was important Australia maintained social distancing measures for the time being, as every single undetected community transmission could infect a lot of people.

“The scale of measures at the moment are something that we clearly do have to review … but it’s not now, it’s within the next few weeks,” he told ABC radio.

“I think we need to look at all of the data, look at our preparedness, and the national cabinet will be making a lot of decisions about what, if anything, can be relaxed in the coming weeks.”

Murphy said he would be very concerned if social restrictions were relaxed before public hospitals were fully prepared and the country had enough personal protective equipment.

Treasury predicts 700,000 pandemic job losses

Meanwhile, Treasury modelling released on Tuesday shows Australia’s unemployment rate is expected to nearly double to 10 per cent because of measures including mandatory business shutdowns taken to limit the spread of coronavirus.

More than 700,000 Australians are expected to lose their jobs before the middle of this year.

The federal treasury expects the unemployment rate to hit 10 per cent in the June quarter, leaving 1.4 million people out of work.

Treasury estimates the rate could have tripled to 15 per cent were it not for the government’s $130 billion JobKeeper wage subsidy scheme, with more than 800,000 Australian businesses registering.

Scott Morrison described the projected unemployment figures as a tragedy.

“Unemployment at that rate – hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs – it is just absolutely heartbreaking,” he said.

“The JobKeeper program means we’ll be able to limit that devastation.

“We’ve also got the doubling of the JobSeeker program, which means that those who do find themselves unemployed will be able to gain access to support that we’ve never seen in this country before.”

Money under the JobKeeper program will begin flowing to eligible businesses in early May, who will then pass the $1500 fortnightly payments onto their employees.

The subsidies will be backdated to March 30.

The JobSeeker payment, previously known as Newstart, has been boosted to $1100 a fortnight during the pandemic.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said every arm of government and industry was working together to keep Australians employed and businesses open.

“The economic shock facing the global economy from the coronavirus is far more significant than what was seen during the global financial crisis,” he said.

Airlines seek taxpayer support

Qantas and Virgin are closing in on a multi-million dollar deal with the federal government to support flights between capital cities.

The airlines have copped a battering during the coronavirus crisis and there are fears Virgin could soon go into administration.

The company has again been placed in a trading half ahead of an announcement to the Australian stock exchange on Tuesday afternoon.

Virgin has stood down 10,000 staff, while Qantas stood down 20,000 workers weeks ago after the government banned Australians from flying overseas.

-with AAP

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