By Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia will ease social distancing restrictions in a three-step process, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday, as Canberra aims to remove most curbs by July and get nearly 1 million people back to work amid a decline in coronavirus cases.
Australia in March imposed strict social distancing restrictions, which coupled with the closure of its borders, are credited with drastically slowing the number of new infections of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
With fewer than 20 new infections each day, Morrison said Australian states and territories on Friday agreed a road map to remove most of the curbs.
“You can stay under the doona forever. You’ll never face any danger,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra, using an Australian word for quilt. “But we’ve got to get out from under the doona at some time.”
Morrison said it will be up to Australia’s various states and territories to decide when to begin implement each stage. Each step will likely be separated by four-week transition.
Several states, including Queensland and South Australia, said they will ease restrictions from Monday. The country’s most populated states, which have the most COVID-19 cases, said looser restrictions would not be adopted for several more days at least.
Despite the staggered easing, Morrison warned the country should still expect further outbreaks.
Australia has had fewer than 7,000 confirmed cases of COVD-19 and fewer than 800 people are still sick with the disease. Almost 100 people have died.
SLOW AND CAUTIOUS
Under the first stage of the plan, restaurants and cafes currently limited to takeaway services will be allowed to reopen, but with a maximum of 10 patrons at a time.
“Step 1 is tentative, baby steps into normalisation,” Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy told the briefing.
If no major outbreaks are recorded states and territories will move to stage two where gyms, cinemas and galleries will be allowed to re-open, although businesses will only be able to have 20 customers at a time.
At this point, states that have closed their borders would start to allow some interstate travel, Morrison said.
When implemented, stage three will permit gatherings of up to 100 people, allow employees to return to their offices and see the re-opening of nightclubs.
All interstate travel will be allowed, along with some limited international travel, including flights between Australia and New Zealand.
International students would also potentially be allowed to return to Australia, but would face two weeks in quarantine.
While the lockdown measures have successfully prevented local hospitals being swamped by coronavirus patients, they have taken a devastating toll on the economy.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg estimated the lockdown is costing A$4 billion ($2.6 billion) a week.
Australia’s central bank on Friday predicted the country is facing its biggest economic contraction on record, despite pledges from it and the government of A$320 billion ($203 billion) to cushion the economic blow.
In its quarterly statement, the Reserve Bank of Australia forecast the A$2 trillion ($1.3 trillion) economy would shrink by 10% in the first half of the year, marking the first recession in three decades.
Despite the government subsidising the wages of about 6 million Australians that keeps them out of unemployment statistics, about 10% of the country’s labour force is also expected to be without a job this year.
Morrison, however, said once the three-stage process is implemented, his government expects about 850,000 people will return to work.
“We’re now ready to take the first steps forward,” Ross McEwan, CEO of National Australia Bank said in emailed statement.
“We’re now also planning for and working through when our colleagues can gradually return.”
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Richard Pullin)