By Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s prime minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday bans on international travel and large gatherings would stay in place even as the government eases lockdowns and moves towards a “COVID-safe” economy and society.
Some states have already started to lift restrictions amid a slowdown in new coronavirus infections – something Canberra has put down to its measures and widespread testing.
Health minister Greg Hunt said Australia would expand screening further after securing 10 million more testing kits – enough to last it through 2020.
“When we move back into this more COVID-safe economy and society, it is important to know that with the easing of those restrictions, of course there will continue to be additional cases,” Morrison told reporters in the capital.
“It won’t be exactly like it was before. I can’t see international travel occurring anytime soon. The risks there are obvious. I can’t see (Australians) going along to a game for a while, those larger mass gatherings,” Morrison said.
Australia has recorded 6,738 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, and 89 related deaths as of Wednesday – way below the figures reported in the United States, parts of Asia and Europe and other hotspots.
Morrison urged more people to download an app to trace contacts of COVID-19 patients. The government has said more than 3 million Australians – about 12% of the population – now have CovidSafe installed on their phones, but the proportion needs to rise to 40%.
“I look forward to the time when Australians can travel again within Australia. I look forward to the time where they can sit down to a meal at a restaurant,” Morrison said. Health authorities have said they want to expand testing to check for people infected with the coronavirus without showing symptoms.
“These 10 million tests will allow our state and territory public health units to be able to test right through 2020, to provide us with the capacity to contain, suppress and defeat the virus,” health minister Hunt told reporters in Melbourne.
He said the kits were secured from China by Fortescue Metals Group founder Andrew Forrest, who sold them to the government at price of A$320 million ($209.18 million).
In New South Wales, the country’s most populous state, Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she wants to increase testing rates by 50% and urged care workers and anyone with the “slightest sniffle” to get checked.
State authorities will also expand testing of health workers and employees at aged care homes following an outbreak at a facility in the west of Sydney, where at least eleven elderly people have died from COVID-19.
Anglicare, the company in charge of the home, said on Wednesday more deaths were likely.
(Reporting by Colin Packham and Paulina Duran in Sydney; Editing by Stephen Coates, Jane Wardell and Andrew Heavens)