Australia Tells Citizens Not to Travel Abroad, Bans Gatherings

Edward Johnson and Jason Scott

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned all Australian citizens not to travel abroad indefinitely and banned non-essential gatherings of 100 people or more, in a dramatic escalation of the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The “Level 4” advice against any international travel is unprecedented, Morrison told reporters in Canberra Wednesday after meeting with the national cabinet and medical officials late yesterday.

The government also declared a human biosecurity emergency to enable authorities to deal with the growing crisis that has infected more than 450 people in Australia and left five people dead. Schools and universities will remain open.

“This is a once in a 100-year type of event,” Morrison said. “There is no two-week answer to what we are confronting,” he said. “We are looking at a situation of at least six months for how we deal with this.”

Australia had already banned mass gatherings of 500 people or more, leading to a wave of sporting and cultural events being canceled. The government is also urging Australians overseas to return home before other nations enact travel bans.

Morrison said public transport will remain open, but he emphasized the importance of social distancing to halt the spread of the virus. Public Anzac Day commemorations on April 25, which recognize war veterans in Australia and New Zealand, will be halted both home and abroad.

The measures are another escalation of the response by the government, which has announced a A$17.6 billion ($10.6 billion) stimulus package to buttress the economy and ordered anyone arriving in the country to self-isolate for 14 days.

Nations around the world are trying to shield citizens from the deadly virus, imposing curfews, lockdowns, travel bans and shutting shops, bars, schools, and restaurants.

Australian stocks have joined other global indexes in collapsing into a bear market amid growing concern about the economic impact of the spreading virus. The nation’s benchmark index has fallen 26% from its Feb. 20 record high as of the close of trading Tuesday, and the Australian dollar has slipped below 60 U.S. cents.

The government also unveiled a A$715 million relief package for Qantas Airways Ltd., Virgin Australia Holdings Ltd. and other regional airlines, including refunds and waivers of fuel excise, air services charges and regional security fares.

Virgin Australia announced on Wednesday it will suspend all international flights until June 14 and will slash domestic capacity by 50%. That followed the move by Qantas to cut international flights by 90% and domestic trips by 60%

Morrison said his government is working on further economic support designed to cushion the impact on small businesses and welfare recipients. He urged Australians to stop hoarding supplies amid scenes of chaos in supermarkets as people strip shelves of food.

“Stop hoarding,” Morrison said. “I can’t be more blunt about it. Stop it. It is not sensible, it is not helpful and it has been one of the most disappointing things I have seen in Australian behavior in response to this crisis. That is not who we are as a people.”

(Updates with details of measures in 6th paragraph and throughout)

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