Australia recorded zero new coronavirus deaths for the first time in two months on Tuesday, as a slowdown in new cases allowed a crippling lockdown in its second-biggest city to be eased.
Just 50 fresh virus cases were reported nationwide — down from peaks above 700 in late July and early August — while no fatalities were registered for the first time since July 13, according to an AFP tally.
The news came a day after a strict lockdown of Melbourne was loosened, allowing residents to spend an extra hour a day exercising outside and visiting friends living alone.
In surrounding Victoria state, locals will be able to leave their homes and businesses can reopen from midnight Wednesday after rural case numbers dipped.
“It is a massive thing, it is a very positive thing,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said.
Melbourne residents still face restrictions, with non-essential businesses remaining closed and an overnight curfew in place until October 26.
Almost three-quarters of Australia’s almost 27,000 cases and 90 percent of the 816 coronavirus deaths have occurred in Victoria state.
Hundreds died in aged care homes as the virus swept through facilities, infecting thousands of residents and staff.
Clusters also emerged at schools, abattoirs and hospitals after security bungles at hotels used to quarantine international travellers allowed the virus to leak back into the community.
With case numbers under control, pressure is mounting on the government to allow thousands of Australians stranded overseas by border closures to travel home.
Caps introduced on international arrivals in the wake of the Melbourne outbreak have severely limited those able to return, with commercial airlines reportedly prioritising first- and business-class passengers to recoup losses racked up flying near-empty planes.
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese called on the prime minister to use his Royal Australian Air Force jet to bring home citizens, a plan derided as a “stunt” by one government minister.
Other politicians have called on the government to use immigration detention centres to house the returnees — a method initially used for nationals returning from Wuhan, but abandoned once the virus spread globally.
China said Tuesday that it had detained a high-profile Australian journalist working for its state media on “national security grounds”.
Cheng Lei’s detention was a new blow to deteriorating relations between the two countries that have seen China warn its citizens of travelling to Australia and vice versa.
In the first comments on CGTN anchor Cheng Lei, held since August 14, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said authorities took “compulsory measures” against her on suspicion “of criminal activity endangering China’s national security”.
“The case is still in the process of investigation in accordance with the law,” Zhao said, adding that her “legal rights and interests are all receiving full legal protection”.
He did not give further details of the allegations against her.
Cheng — who conducted interviews with international CEOs for CGTN’s Global Business and BizTalk shows — has not been seen in public since being held, although Australian diplomats in Beijing were able to speak to her on August 27.
Two other Australian reporters Bill Birtles and Michael Smith fled China overnight, saying they also feared arrest.
“As long as foreign journalists obey the law… they have no reason to worry,” foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said after stating authorities had investigated the Australian pair as part of an unspecified case.
The Australian Financial Review, Smith’s employer, reported that both journalists had been told that “they were persons of interest in an investigation into Ms Cheng”.
Cheng is the second high-profile Australian citizen to be detained in Beijing after writer Yang Hengjun was arrested in January 2019 on suspicion of espionage.
Earlier this year, Australia warned its citizens they faced the risk of arbitrary detention if they travelled to China.
Australian officials on Sunday extended a strict virus lockdown of the country’s second-biggest city by two weeks, saying new cases had not dropped enough to prevent another spike.
Melbourne residents were due to exit a harsh six-week lockdown next weekend but face continued restrictions for months to come, with Victoria state premier Daniel Andrews saying the current lockdown would remain in place until September 28.
“If we open up too fast then we have a very high likelihood that we are not really opening up at all — we are just beginning a third wave,” he told a press conference.
“And we will be back in and out of restrictions, coming in and out of lockdown, before the end of the year.”
Just 63 new cases and five deaths were recorded in Victoria on Sunday, after peaking above 700 at the height of the outbreak, but health officials are taking a cautious approach.
Hopes of a return to normality this month have been dashed, with an overnight curfew, restrictions on visitors to homes and a limit on travelling more than five kilometres (about three miles) set to remain in place until at least October 26.
Announcing the roadmap for the easing of restrictions, Andrews said that rushing to experience a “brief period of sunshine” would likely lead to the virus again spiralling out of control.
The toughest rules will be eased in Melbourne from September 13, with an overnight curfew beginning an hour later at 9:00 pm, daily exercise increased to two hours and small “social bubbles” created for people living alone.
Under the government’s plan, childcare centres will reopen and up to five people will be able to gather outdoors from the end of September — but only if cases fall below an average of 50 per day.
Rules for people living in regional and rural Victoria will be relaxed more quickly, due to small numbers of active cases in those areas.
The announcement comes a day after more than a dozen anti-lockdown protesters were arrested in Melbourne during clashes with police.
Hundreds attended the illegal gathering organised online by conspiracy theorists, labelling the government’s response to the pandemic overblown or an outright “scam”.
Australia has been relatively successful in containing the virus, with the country recording just over 26,000 cases and 753 deaths in a population of 25 million.
The vast majority were reported in Melbourne over the past two months, while other regions have rolled back restrictions after largely bringing the virus under control.
Australia has fallen into recession for the first time in three decades and Brazil’s economy shrank by almost 10 percent because of the coronavirus, leaving China as the only major nation still recording economic growth during the pandemic.
A raft of bleak data from India to Europe in recent days has laid bare the toll from lockdowns as nations try to keep a lid on an illness that has killed more than 850,000 people and infected over 25 million.
The challenges were further highlighted Wednesday when Australia announced a record contraction of seven percent despite authorities providing billions of dollars in support to struggling firms.
“Today’s national accounts confirm the devastating impact on the Australian economy from Covid-19,” said Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.
“Our record run of 28 consecutive years of economic growth has now officially come to an end. The cause: a once-in-a-century pandemic.”
Australia has confirmed almost 26,000 cases of coronavirus and 663 deaths, but had successfully contained the illness in most of the country by July.
A recent outbreak in Melbourne, however, forced a new lockdown covering five million people that has dragged on any economic recovery.
– ‘Depressing feeling’ –
Shutdowns have taken a toll on livelihoods across the globe as business revenues plunge and millions are forced out of work.
New Delhi reported Monday that growth in Asia’s third-largest economy suffered a historic 23.9 percent decline between April and June as the manufacturing sector was battered by restrictions on businesses.
In the Philippines, meanwhile, there has been a resurgence of barter trade as cash incomes dry up, with people flocking to Facebook groups to exchange everyday possessions for food.
“People are realising that while they have no money, they have accumulated a lot of material things,” said Charles Ramirez, who runs a 14,000-member bartering website in the capital Manila.
“It’s a depressing feeling, of course, having to let go of things you have accumulated just to be able to survive.”
The site is one of dozens that have sprouted up to provide a lifeline to Filipinos hit hard by the country’s recession.
– ‘Changed everything’ –
Brazil’s economy, the biggest in Latin America, contracted by a record 9.7 percent in the second quarter of the year, plunging the nation into a virus-induced recession.
“GDP is now at the same level as in late 2009, at the height of the global financial crisis,” the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics said.
The drop in the April-June period was the biggest for any quarter since the current system of records began in 1996, it added.
The only major economy to have avoided a recession is China — where the coronavirus first emerged last year — thanks to strict lockdowns that have seen Covid-19 all but disappear in the country.
In the second quarter the Chinese economy rebounded by 11.5 percent, having fallen by 10 percent in the first quarter.
The Chinese city at the centre of the initial outbreak, Wuhan, took another step back to normality on Tuesday when almost 1.4 million children returned to schools and kindergartens.
In Europe, where GDP plunged 12.1 percent in the three months to June, fears are growing of more lockdowns and disruption this autumn and winter as the virus refuses to die.
“The pandemic has changed everything,” said Gema Perez Barea, who runs a firm offering tours of wineries in southern Spain that are highly dependent on tourists.
She said there were “far fewer visitors” than before the pandemic and “now all the tourists we have are from Spain”.
The country is the world’s third-largest wine producer by value after France and Italy, but sales have been battered by the virus crisis.
The virus has failed to put the brakes on the Venice film festival in Italy, however, which on Wednesday was gearing up for the movie industry’s first post-Covid-19 international competition.
Still, only about half the usual number of visitors are expected to attend.
“It’s a festival without stars because Hollywood is still in lockdown,” festival director Alberto Barbera told AFP.
Australia tumbled into its first recession for almost three decades with its pandemic-crippled economy shrinking a record seven per cent in the second quarter, official data shows.
With vast swathes of the domestic and global economy shut down to contain the deadly disease, business activity suffered a catastrophic drop — despite authorities providing billions of dollars in support — not even witnessed during the global financial crisis.
“Today’s national accounts confirm the devastating impact on the Australian economy from COVID-19,” said Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.
“Our record run of 28 consecutive years of economic growth has now officially come to an end. The cause: a once-in-a-century pandemic,” he said.
The economy contracted seven per cent in April-June from the previous three months, in line with government forecasts, the Australian Bureau of Statistics said. That followed a 0.3 per cent dip. A recession is defined as two consecutive quarters of contraction.
Gross domestic product dropped 6.3 per cent year-on-year.
“The June quarter saw a significant contraction in household spending on services as households altered their behaviour and restrictions were put in place to contain the spread of the coronavirus,” said ABS head of national accounts Michael Smedes.
Hours worked fell almost 10 per cent while cash payments of social benefits rose more than 40 per cent, both records, while imports and exports were also down.
The country was already reeling from a prolonged drought and massive bushfires that rattled the economy before the disease struck.
The government has stumped up tens of billions of dollars to fight the economic fallout from the pandemic and Frydenberg said the contraction would have been far worse without such support, which included payments to employers to avoid laying off staff.
“Today’s devastating numbers confirm what every Australian knows: that COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on our economy and our lives like nothing we have ever experienced before. But there is hope and there is a road out,” Frydenberg said.
Australia has confirmed almost 26,000 cases of the disease and 663 deaths, in a population of 25 million, and had successfully contained it in most of the country by July.
But an outbreak in Melbourne and its surrounds since then forced a new lockdown of five million people in the country’s second-largest city, dragging on the recovery.
Borders between Australia’s states and territories also remain closed to most travel to avoid further outbreaks, hampering tourism and other key sectors.
Authorities expect national unemployment to peak at 9.3 per cent in December and the budget deficit to blow out to almost a tenth of GDP by mid-2021.
Still, Frydenberg insisted Australia has been more successful than most in handling the crisis.
“This gives us confidence that as a nation we are better placed than most other nations, and that by containing the virus we can chart a pathway to economic recovery and we can leave the worst of the economic crisis in the June quarter behind us,” he said.
“But the road ahead will be long. The road ahead will be hard. The road ahead will be bumpy.”
The Australian and New Zealand legs of the 2021 sevens rugby world series were cancelled over the coronavirus on Tuesday as the sport’s problems deepened less than a year from the postponed Tokyo Olympics.
The demise of the two tournaments, slated for January 23-24 and 30-31 respectively, means the first four events of the upcoming season have been axed after Dubai and Cape Town went in July.
The sevens circuit was halted in March by the pandemic, with the 2020 season’s remaining five tournaments — including the flagship Hong Kong leg — eventually cancelled.
To bolster struggling unions, World Rugby announced a $2.5 million fund to help teams that have already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics next July.
New Zealand Rugby said the latest cancellations were due to the “continued global uncertainty surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic”.
World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper said it was “disappointing not be able to go ahead with the series events in New Zealand and Australia.”
“We look forward to returning to Sydney and Hamilton in future,” he added.
World Rugby is carrying out “collaborative contingency planning” for the 2021 series, and looking for “supplementary competition opportunities”, a statement said.
Australia’s parliament is set to probe alleged foreign interference at public universities, a government minister said Monday, as concerns grow about Chinese influence.
A proposed inquiry by the security and intelligence committee follows a series of controversies over China’s clout on Australian campuses, ranging from hacks of university data to questionable financial donations and intimidation of Beijing’s critics.
Concerns have also been raised about the nature of research links between academics and scientists in the two countries.
Alan Tudge, the minister for population and cities, told Sky News the mooted inquiry was the latest government attempt to tackle spiralling foreign interference now at “levels not seen since World War II”.
The move comes after Canberra announced last week that it was seeking new powers to scrap deals between local authorities and foreign countries that threaten the national interest — sweeping powers that would extend to universities.
It also comes less than a year after Australia announced new guidelines for universities for research collaboration, cybersecurity, and international partnerships.
Tudge said the inquiry would “go further” than previous probes into alleged foreign interference.
“We need to be assured and the public need to be assured that there isn’t that foreign interference in our universities sector,” he said.
He did not say if the probe was aimed at China.
The Australian newspaper reported that Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton outlined the terms of reference for the inquiry in a letter Sunday to committee head Andrew Hastie, a government parliamentarian and outspoken China critic.
Advisors to Dutton did not respond to a request for comment.
The university guidelines announced in November push public institutions to enhance cybersecurity systems, undertake due diligence before signing partnerships with overseas organisations, and train staff to recognise foreign influence attempts.
Academics have been urged to be wary of sharing knowledge on sensitive topics and discern how joint research with international scholars could potentially be misused.
Schools and government officials also committed to more intensive consultation to protect Australia’s national interests.
Beijing has repeatedly denied interfering in Australian campus life.
China-Australia relations have reached a new ebb in recent months, with the two governments at loggerheads over trade and competing for influence in the Pacific.
Tensions spiked in April when Australia infuriated China by calling for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, which emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.
Australia’s leader called Wednesday for coronavirus immunisations to be mandatory, wading into ethical and safety debates raging around the world as the race to develop a vaccine gathers pace.
Almost 30 potential vaccines are currently being tested on humans across the globe in hope of ending a pandemic that has now killed more than 775,000 people and infected nearly 22 million, according to an AFP tally.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he wants all 25 million Australians to get the jab after the country secured access to a vaccine currently under development by AstraZeneca and Oxford University.
“There are always exemptions for any vaccine on medical grounds, but that should be the only basis,” he said.
Nations are scrambling to develop an immunisation or gain access to one of a handful of contenders in the final stages of clinical trials.
Upping the ante, Russia on August 11 said it had developed the world’s first vaccine offering “sustainable immunity”, and was in the final stage of human testing.
But the announcement was met with scepticism by the World Health Organization, which said it still needed a rigorous review, and scientists say it has been approved without large-scale trials.
Among the competitors, Brazilian health regulators on Tuesday gave the green light to the final stage of trials on a vaccine by Johnson & Johnson.
The US pharmaceutical firm will test its drug on 7,000 volunteers in Brazil, authorities said, part of a group of up to 60,000 worldwide.
South Africa, meanwhile, will launch clinical trials of a US-developed vaccine with 2,900 volunteers this week, the second such study in the African country worst hit by the disease.
However, the push for a vaccine has coincided with a rise in anti-vaccine sentiment that could hinder efforts to encourage widespread uptake.
– ‘Fastest way’ –
The global outbreak has seen a sharp rise in online misinformation, speculation and opposition — something experts have dubbed an “infodemic” — with debate raging over whether vaccine rules impinge on personal freedoms.
The WHO has said the planet’s highest-risk populations must all be inoculated simultaneously or else it will be impossible to rebuild the global economy.
It has appealed to countries to join its global shared vaccine programme rather than go it alone in developing a cure.
Director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said the most exposed 20 per cent of each country’s population — including frontline health workers, adults over 65 and those with pre-existing conditions — would be vaccinated first in the WHO-led scheme.
“The fastest way to end this pandemic and to reopen economies is to start by protecting the highest risk populations everywhere, rather than the entire populations of just some countries,” he said.
– New spikes –
His warning comes as the virus refuses to die across large parts of the globe, with South Korea and Lebanon the latest countries to witness new spikes.
Seoul ordered nightclubs, museums and buffet restaurants to close, and banned large gatherings in and around the capital, after a burst of infections mostly linked to Protestant churches.
The country on Wednesday reported 297 new cases, its sixth consecutive day of triple-digit increases after several weeks with numbers generally in the 30s and 40s.
In Lebanon, authorities announced a new lockdown and overnight curfew to rein in a spike following a colossal chemical explosion on August 4 that has hampered virus prevention efforts.
In the absence of a vaccine, some people around the world have been resorting to novel and whacky methods to ward off the virus.
Namibia’s health minister on Tuesday was forced to warn against the use of elephant dung, traditionally steamed and inhaled as a cure for the flu, to ward off COVID-19.
The sparsely populated southern African country has seen infections double over the past month and many Namibians have turned to natural remedies.
Dung is widely believed to treat body ailments such as nosebleeds, headaches and toothaches.
“A desperate person may do a desperate thing,” minister Kalumbi Shangula said.
Australia has secured access to a “promising” potential coronavirus vaccine, the prime minister announced Tuesday, saying the country would manufacture it and offer free doses to the entire population.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia had reached a deal with Swedish-British pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca to receive the COVID-19 vaccine it is developing with Oxford University.
“The Oxford vaccine is one of the most advanced and promising in the world, and under this deal we have secured early access for every Australian,” he said.
“If this vaccine proves successful we will manufacture and supply vaccines straight away under our own steam and make it free for 25 million Australians.”
The Oxford vaccine is one of five globally in Phase 3 efficacy trials, and researchers hope to have results by the end of the year.
It is the first such deal for Australia, and Morrison said his government was also in talks with “many parties around the world” over other potential vaccines as well as supporting local scientists in their efforts.
The country is yet to reach a final agreement with AstraZeneca on the cost, and a local manufacturer has not been locked in.
However, Australia has signed an Aus$25 million ($18 million) agreement with American medical technology company Becton Dickinson to buy 100 million needles and syringes to administer the doses.
Although none of the coronavirus vaccines under development has proved its efficacy yet in clinical trials, at least 5.7 billion doses have been pre-ordered around the world.
Five vaccines — three Western and two Chinese — are in Phase 3 efficacy trials involving thousands of people, including the Oxford vaccine.
AstraZeneca has also signed agreements to provide doses to the US, Europe and Brazil.
Another deal struck by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, would see India manufacture the Oxford vaccine for distribution in 57 low- and middle-income countries.
First shipments of a COVID-19 vaccine created by Western laboratories have often been snapped up by the United States.
Morrison said Australia remained “committed” to ensuring early access to the potential vaccine for Pacific countries and regional partners in Southeast Asia.
Earlier this month he called on nations to share potential vaccines, saying any country that discovered one and did not make it available globally “would be judged terribly by history”.
Australia has recorded almost 24,000 cases of COVID-19 and 438 fatalities to date.
Early in the pandemic it was considered among the most successful at curbing the virus’s spread until an outbreak in Melbourne, the country’s second-biggest city, that authorities struggled to contain.
The outbreak — which was traced back to two hotels being used to quarantine travellers returning from overseas — has ravaged aged-care homes in the city, causing dozens of deaths.
An overnight curfew, mandatory mask-wearing and the shutdown of non-essential businesses now appear to be bringing the virus under control, with the number of new daily cases falling below 300 in recent days.
Australia imposed an overnight curfew on its second-biggest city Sunday and banned people from moving more than five kilometres from home in a bid to control a growing coronavirus outbreak that is infecting hundreds daily.
Declaring a “state of disaster”, Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews said Melbourne would move to Stage 4 restrictions until September 13 given “unacceptably high” levels of community transmission.
The harshest rules in Australia to date will see city residents face a curfew from 8 pm to 5 am for the next six weeks. Only those carrying out essential work, or seeking or providing care, will be allowed out.
“The time for leniency, the time for warnings and cautions is over,” Andrews said.
“If you are not at home and you should be, if you have the virus and are just going about your business, you will be dealt with harshly. Lives are at stake.”
Melbourne residents will be limited to an hour of exercise a day, no further than five kilometres (about three miles) from home starting Sunday night.
Only one person per household will be able to shop for essential items each day, also within the same strict radius.
Most school and university students in Melbourne will go back to online learning from midnight Wednesday, just weeks after returning to their classrooms, while weddings will also be banned.
The sweeping new measures follow a city-wide lockdown that began in early July but has failed to curb the spread of the virus, with Andrews blaming the continuing rise in cases on people flouting stay-at-home orders.
‘Months, and months and months’
“These are the decisions made because anything short of this will not keep us safe,” Andrews said, adding anything less “will see it drag on for months and months and months”.
Additional restrictions affecting workplaces would be announced Monday, Andrews added, suggesting that non-essential businesses will face closures.
Victoria accounts for the vast majority of active coronavirus cases in Australia, recording 671 new cases and seven deaths from the virus Sunday.
Health authorities have linked the resurgence to security bungles at hotels used to quarantine international travellers that allowed the virus to leak back into the community.
The state’s chief health officer, Brett Sutton, said an estimated 20,000 cases were averted during Stage 3 restrictions, but flattening the curve to hundreds of new cases a day was “intolerable”.
“We need to see those numbers through the eyes of our healthcare workers and the kind of awful fear that they have about what it means for people presenting to hospital,” he said.
The virus has spread rapidly among vulnerable residents in aged-care centres, where government disaster relief teams have been deployed to replace infected staff.
Outside Melbourne, the rest of Victoria will move to a Stage 3 lockdown from midnight Wednesday with people allowed to leave home only for essential work, study, care and needed supplies.
Elsewhere in Australia, other states and territories have for weeks reported few or no new cases while relaxing restrictions.
They have, however, banned visitors from Victoria and Sydney — another virus hotspot.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said people were now being “strongly encouraged” to wear masks, particularly on public transport, in shops and at places of worship as the state attempts to avoid the fate of neighbouring Victoria.
“We are holding the line and doing OK but I cannot stress enough that the next few weeks will make or break us, in terms of the way we get through this pandemic,” she told reporters in Sydney.
Berejiklian added that unlike in Victoria, masks were not compulsory but would instead act as a “fourth line of defence” after testing, social distancing and hand-washing.
Australia’s total reported infections reached almost 18,000 on Sunday, with 208 deaths in a population of 25 million.
Australia’s parliament will be suspended for two weeks over fears that politicians could bring coronavirus from outbreak hotspots to the country’s capital, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced Saturday.
The postponement comes a day after the nation’s second-biggest city reported a record rise in COVID-19 infections.
Citing medical advice, Morrison said the government could not ignore the risk that legislators might spread the disease to Canberra.
“The risks posed by a parliamentary sitting are significantly higher and unlikely to be resolved in the next month,” he said.
Canberra and its surrounding Australian Capital Territory continue like much of the country to control the virus but cases have been on the rise in Sydney and Melbourne.
The announcement means parliament will not reconvene until at least August 24, having resumed on June 8.
The main opposition party accepted the decision but described the loss of political oversight ahead of a government update on the economy Thursday as “problematic”.
“We expect to be consulted much further in advance from any decision being made than what’s occurred with these circumstances,” Labor Party leader Anthony Albanese told media in Sydney.
‘Shocked us all’
On Saturday officials in the southern state of Victoria, for which Melbourne is the capital, said the region had recorded more than 200 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours following a rise on Friday of 438.
“217 is much better than a number above 400, but it’s a number that would have shocked us all a month ago,” Victoria’s chief health officer Brett Sutton said.
“We need to remember it’s still a high number.”
Melbourne is battling a recent surge that has seen more than five million residents placed on lockdown.
The outbreak has also spread to Sydney, Australia’s biggest city, where there have been growing numbers of locally transmitted cases after an initial cluster erupted from an infected Melbournian who visited a popular pub.
Nationwide Australia has reported more than 11,400 cases of COVID-19 so far in a population of about 25 million, with 118 deaths from the illness.
The vast majority have been in Victoria and neighbouring New South Wales, the country’s most populous state and home to Sydney.
Other regions have not reported any new local infections in weeks.