Snapshot of COVID-19 in Australia: Daily infection rate dropsSmaller gatherings may soon be allowedAustralia hit with inflated prices for PPEATO approves early super applications totalling $3.8 billion

Australia’s COVID-19 positive cases are on the decline, with fewer than 1700 active and more than 5000 recovered.

With just 12 cases reported on Thursday, the average daily increase in infections has dropped to 0.2 per cent.

While Australia is on track to slowing – and eventually erradicating – the spread of the coronavirus, state borders will not open for at least three to four months.

This means Australians will be state-bound and unable to visit friends and family interstate.

Some elective surgeries have resumed on Thursday, however, which includes IVF, dental and eye procedures as well as joint replacements, endoscopy and colonoscopies.

It comes as the federal government is expected to relax the 40-hour per fortnight work limit for international students enrolled in medical courses in an attempt to boost the number of health and disability workers.

It also comes as the Ruby Princess cruise ship leaves Australia and Prime Minister Scott Morrison warns coronavirus complacency could lead Australia to being exposed to soaring death rates sweeping Europe and the US at the moment.

THE AUSSIE RESTRICTIONS THAT COULD BE LIFTED FIRST

Community sport and small gatherings are among the activities being considered for relaxed restrictions in three weeks.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy said he did not want to pre-empt health experts’ deliberations but hinted some smaller gatherings may soon be allowed.

“Things like community sport, some retail measures, all of those things will be in the mix,” he said.

“I personally feel that community sport is a really important thing and there are ways to make it safer, the National Cabinet will have to weigh up the public health risks vs the clear benefits of re-establishing community sport.”

Large gatherings such as weddings and major events are not being considered at this time.

“We certainly would not be contemplating large scale gatherings, (but) certainly some relaxing on the size of small groups,” Prof Murphy said.

“There is great concern that if we relax too much, too quickly we could get a second wave as has been seen in Singapore.”

Prof Murphy said the “cautious” measures were being considered by the Australian Health Principle Protection Committee, with recommendations to be handed to the National Cabinet in mid-May.

When asked about the future of community sport, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he would prefer to ease restrictions on lower-risk activities.

“I wouldn’t be offering a view on that. What we are seeking to do is focus on those activities that are more low-health-risk and more high-economic-value,” he said.

“My priorities are to get kids back to school, to get people back to work. That’s what my priority is.”

PM, TREASURER’S ECONOMIC UPDATE

About 590,000 JobSeeker and other related applications have been processed in the past few weeks, the Prime Minister has revealed in his economic update.

“That is more than we do in a year,” Mr Morrison said. “That has been an extraordinary effort from those services.”

Scott Morrison went into greater detail about a possible lifting of social distancing rules, saying that rate of transmission figures would be released on Friday.

“We are one week down and we are making good progress,” Mr Morrison said.

“That also involves making good progress on things like testing kits, personal protective equipment, respirator supplies, the status of those and the supply lines are in place and they are strong and that is enabling us, I think, to make a lot of progress.

media_cameraPrime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg have given an economic update. Picture: AAP

“We are on the road back and that is demonstrated by the measures that we already have taken and we are on the way back to a COVID-safe economy as well, which is what we have to achieve.”

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said 275,000 business had applied for the JobKeeper scheme.

The ATO has approved 466,000 applications to access super totalling $3.8 billion.

Mr Frydenberg said the average withdrawal is around $8000.

“Those applications are now with the superannuation funds for their payment over the next five days,” he said.

“Just to remind you that you can access up to $10,000 from your super this financial year and up to another $10,000 next financial year.”

It comes amid revelations Australia has been forced to pay “premium prices” for masks and personal protective equipment as global demand soars during the coronavirus pandemic.

Banks have been ordered to prioritise helping businesses lacking the cash flow needed to pay their workers $1500 a fortnight until the JobSeeker scheme kicks in.

The big four lenders have agreed to set up a dedicated hotline for customers seeking short term loans to pay their workers until the government’s wage subsidy starts on May 1.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg discussed the issue with the banks on Thursday morning after concerning reports many business owners were not getting the funds they needed fast enough.

“We emphasised the need for the banks to provide support to those businesses,” Mr Frydenberg said.

“They have agreed to set up, each of these four major banks, a dedicated hotline for their customers to call to receive the bridging finance necessary to pay their staff, ahead of receiving that money under the JobKeeper program.”

Mr Frydenberg said the banks had also agreed to “expedite the processing of all those applications to the front of the queue”.

“So our message today is, if you are a business or a not-for-profit that is eligible for the JobKeeper payment, as required, you need to pay your staff ahead of receiving the money from the Tax Office,” he said.

“Go to your bank. Ring their hotline. Ask for that support. And that support with be forthcoming.”

The JobKeeper payments from the government through the ATO to businesses will be backdated to March 1 but many employees have had no income while waiting for the scheme to kick at the start of May.

The government told businesses they could pay employees $1500 a fortnight backdated to March 1 with “confidence” of getting that reimbursed in May but most employers have reported lacking the cash to do so.

Those which then turned to banks for a loan have struggled to secure the funding quickly, prompting the government’s intervention.

AUSTRALIA ONLY BUYING HIGH QUALITY EQUIPMENT

Despite the inflated prices health officials have been told to “spend what you need to make Australia safe”, a senate inquiry into the federal government’s COVID-19 response heard on Thursday.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy said a large team of people were working to ensure Australia purchased only “high quality” equipment.

“Obviously there have been lots of people offering PPE,” he said.

“There have been some people who have been making fairly outrageous price demands … we certainly have been paying premium prices, but the … message from government all the way through has been do what you need to make us safe.”

Prof Murphy said the domestic requirement for PPE was a balancing act based on how widely the outbreak might spread.

media_cameraA nurse at the Alfred Hospital wearing PPE (personal protection equipment). Picture: David Caird

“At no stage have we ever been in a position where I have felt that any safety has been compromised by a lack of PPE,” he said.

Prof Murphy said if Australia had suffered a “very big outbreak” early in the pandemic the country may have reached a point where PPE was “not sufficient” but the worst case scenario had been avoided by successful measures cracking down on early cases and closing borders.

“The reason we are not in the position of the UK or the US is because we were well prepared … we got on top of all of those early cases in China … and in other countries they spread,” he said.

Prof Murphy said he did not believe there was a large number of asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers in the Australian community.

“We have at no stage had widespread undetected community transmission like those other countries have,” he said.

media_cameraDespite the inflated prices of gear, health officials have been told to “spend what you need to make Australia safe. Picture: Rohan Kelly

The senate committee heard Australia moved ahead of World Health Organisation advice to close borders with China amid fears the country was at a high risk due to the large volume of travel.

“We had a huge amount of traffic from China … I think 160 plus flights a week from China,” Prof Murphy said.

“China was clearly in that early phase, the epicentre, and we knew that the greatest risk to uncontrolled transmissions was in imported cases.

“As an island we were in a position of perhaps doing border measures better than other countries … I think in retrospect our colleagues in the UK and the US regret that they didn’t do the same.”

Prof Murphy said Australia was now in a “wonderful position” but there remained a “permanent risk” of further coronavirus waves as the disease was highly infectious.

media_cameraNurses at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. Picture: Rohan Kelly

He said officials were closely watching Taiwan, which has successfully suppressed the coronavirus through border measures and a strong public health response rather than social distance restrictions.

“At the request of the National Cabinet are now looking at in terms of can we reduce some of our distancing measures by enhancing some of our public health measures, and that means testing like you’ve never seen testing before,” he said.

“Taiwan I think is a good example of very strong public health measures.

“Singapore is very interesting, their approach was very similar to ours … and now they have had a second wave.”

The senate committee, which is chaired by Labor and includes senators from both major parties and the cross bench, was formed to provide oversight of the measures introduced by the government during the pandemic.

Labor Senator Katy Gallagher said the first hearing would focus “predominantly on the issues that are front of mind for Australians”.

“For example, parents want to be clear on when they can safely send their kids back to school,” she said.

“Australians are concerned about what protections are in place for the rollout of the proposed tracing app, and people are very keen to understand the Government’s plans for the easing of social distancing restrictions.”

LAS VEGAS OFFERED UP AS ‘CONTROL GROUP’

The Mayor of Las Vegas has stunned the world with her claim that she offered up her city as a “control group” to see if social distancing really slowed the spread of COVID-19 – but she was “turned down”.

Demanding the city be allowed to reopen its casinos, Mayor Carolyn Goodman also said “we’ll find out the facts afterwards” after she was asked why she doubted the benefits of social distancing.

“Unfortunately, we all do better in hindsight,” she said. “We offered to be a control group. It was offered, it was turned down. This isn’t China, this is Las Vegas, Nevada.

“Assume everybody is a carrier. And then you start from an even slate. And tell the people what to do. And let the businesses open and competition will destroy that business if, in fact, they become evident that they have disease, they’re closed down. It’s that simple.”

media_cameraThe Las Vegas Strip is deserted. Picture: AP

Meanwhile, lockdown measures in the UK will be needed until the end of the year to control coronavirus – until a drug or a vaccine is found, according to Britain’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty.

British politicians will be looking at different scenarios for lifting the strict measures in the coming weeks, but some rules will still be needed for a long time to come, according to The Sun.

The Chief Medical Officer said some form of the measures will have to be in place for a long period of time to make sure the transmission rate does not grow as the virus could begin spreading again.

In a stark warning to the public of what is to come, he said it was “wholly unrealistic” to think a return to normal life is possible anytime soon, Mr Whitty said.

And it comes as scientists have warned a second wave of coronavirus could come this northern hemisphere winter.

media_cameraA mask-clad woman stands on a virtually empty train in London. Lockdown measures could be extended until 2021. Picture: AFP

There will be a “series of choices” and ministers will decide a mix of measures to try and ease some rules.

But whatever options they must not see the transmission rate go above one – as the cases could rocket again.

The only “exit” from lockdown will be a vaccine or drugs to treat coronavirus, he said.

And the chances of that happening in the next calendar year is “incredibly small”, even as the first human vaccines start tomorrow.

Professor Whitty told the country: “In the long run, the exit from this is going to one be one of two things … One of which is a highly effective vaccine.

“And/or highly effective drugs so that people stop dying of this disease even if they catch it, or which can prevent this disease in vulnerable people.

media_cameraA sign on a closed shop in London. The UK’s lockdown could extend until 2021. Picture: Getty Images

“I think we should be realistic about that.

“We are going to have to rely on other social measures, which are incredibly disruptive.

“Its going to take a long time. We need to be aware of that.”

It could mean that older people may not be able to spend Christmas with their loved ones if the crisis carries on, Dr Hillary warned earlier.

Dr Hillary said there was still a chance that Christmas could be “wonderful” but it was unlikely the country would be back to normal.

Protecting the elderly would be likely to be the measure that is kept in place the longest.

US DEATH TOLL LIKELY ‘HIGHER’ THAN REPORTED

Meanwhile, America’s horrific coronavirus infection and death tolls are likely to be much higher than current reports after it was revealed two people who died were infected weeks before the first US death was officially recorded.

Public health detectives believe the discovery – and the fact neither person had travelled – reveals the virus was already spreading quickly in local communities in America in early February.

It was long before the White House, Congress or state Governors publicly acknowledged the gravity of the situation and enacted strict stay-at-home lockdowns.

California’s Santa Clara County announced two people who died at home on February 6 and 17 tested positive for COVID-19 during their autopsies.

media_cameraA medical worker at Elmhurst Hospital in New York. Picture: AFP

It was previously believed the first US victim of the virus was a man in Washington state who died on February 29.

Santa Clara officials believe limited testing has led to an undercount of cases and deaths, a phenomenon which has played out in other municipalities and countries, including New York City.

“As the Medical Examiner-Coroner continues to carefully investigate deaths throughout the county, we anticipate additional deaths from COVID-19 will be identified,” the statement said.

Neither of the victims had a travel history, meaning in all probability they were infected in the community, indicating the virus was already spreading at the time – a reminder of how swiftly the epidemic has transformed life in the country and around the world.



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