Australia optimistic over slowing virus spread, urges vigilance

FILE PHOTO: People walk by an almost empty commercial area during a workday following the implementation of stricter social-distancing and self-isolation rules to limit the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sydney, Australia, March 31, 2020./File Photo

Several Australian health officials said on Sunday they were cautiously optimistic about the slowing spread of coronavirus in the country but warned social distancing restrictions are to stay in place for months.

Confirmed cases rose by 181 during the 24-hour period to early Sunday, bringing the national total to 5,635, health ministry data showed. The death toll from COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, rose to 34.

This suggests the daily rate of infections was below 5%, about a fifth of what Australia saw in mid-March.

New South Wales (NSW) Director of Health Protection Jeremy McAnulty said there is hope that a flattening of the curve of new infections has started.

“We want to be hopeful, but not to over-egg the figures,” McAnulty said.

Health Minister Greg Hunt warned on Saturday, however, that despite the good signs, Australians will still have to keep their distance from others for the next half a year.

“This is a difficult six-month period that we have to go through,” Hunt said on Sky News Australia.

A March 29 Google Community Mobility Report, which charts movement trends over time, showed that Australians cut down their trips to restaurants and shopping centres only by 45%, while traffic to grocery stores decreased only by a fifth.

The data precedes the introduction of harsher restrictions last week, which limited public gatherings to two people and urged most to stay home. State borders, cafes, clubs, parks and gyms have been closed.

Several states have also given police the power to enforce the rules via hefty on-the-spot fines and potential jail terms. Victoria’s police issued 142 fines on Saturday for breaking social distancing rules, according to officials.

In New Zealand, which was fast to introduce strict restrictions that have ordered more people to stay home, trips to retail and recreation facilities, such as restaurants, cafes or shopping centres were down 91 percent, according to Google.

New Zealand recorded 48 new cases on Sunday, bringing the total to 872. One person has died so far of the flu-like respiratory disease, according to the health ministry data.

Premier Jacinda Ardern said on Sunday that “going hard and going early” seems to be working.

“While compliance has been generally strong, there are still some I would charitably describe as idiots,” Ardern said in a televised briefing.