MELBOURNE/SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian officials announced a raft of plans on Wednesday to speed up the resumption of public life to boost the ailing economy amid a diplomatic spat with major trading partner China.
The government is also talking with Australian universities about allowing the return of some international students, a sector that contributes more than A$30 billion ($19.6 billion) to domestic coffers.
New South Wales, the country’s most populous state, will allow people to resume recreational travel from next month, effectively reopening tourist regions on its southern coast that were badly damaged by huge bushfires before the epidemic.
“We want people to enjoy themselves, to feel free, but at the same time please know that nothing we do is the same during a pandemic,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said.
Australia has reported just over 7,000 infections, including 100 deaths, and has completed around 1.1 million tests among its population of 25 million. Health Minister Greg Hunt said just 11 new cases were logged over the past 24 hours.
Australia’s states and territories are implementing a three-step federal government plan to unwind lockdown measures that have been in place for two months, but the staggered pace means different restrictions around the country at any point in time.
South Australia said it planned to move more quickly to phase two, allowing more people to eat and drink in restaurants and bars. Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania, which have all reported low numbers of cases, are keeping state borders closed.
Deputy Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said from a medical point of view there was no need to keep borders closed.
The resumption of business and social life across the country comes amid a dispute with China over Australia’s leading role in the push for a global inquiry into the origins and spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
World Health Organization members overwhelmingly voted on Tuesday for an independent review on the pandemic, with China eventually joining over 130 other countries as a co-sponsor.
China has attacked Australia’s lobbying for an inquiry as “political manoeuvring”. Canberra has said it wanted to learn the lessons of the pandemic so the world could prevent a repeat.
After Beijing last week banned some major Australian meat exporters, citing labelling breaches, and this week placed hefty anti-dumping and anti-subsidy tariffs on Australian barley, concerns were raised in local media that it was retaliation for seeking the inquiry.
“We would be disappointed if there was any process of conflating these issues,” Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.
The Chinese embassy in Canberra on Tuesday derided as “a joke” the Australian assertion that the WHO resolution, first proposed by the European Union, was a vindication of its push for a global review.
An article in China’s Global Times newspaper on Wednesday cited an anonymous comment made in a Weibo post saying “Australia, this giant kangaroo that serves as a dog of the U.S., will hit a deadlock with China on trade disputes in sectors like coal and beef.”
The disagreement could affect plans by universities to lure back pupils. Chinese students account for almost 40% of Australia’s international higher education population.
In Victoria, the country’s second most-populous state, health authorities revealed they were using a controversial smartphone contact tracing app for the first time to track the movements of an infected person.
Almost 6 million Australians have downloaded the COVID-safe app, short of the 40% of 18 million smartphone users the government has said would make it an effective tool, amid privacy concerns. Authorities have said use of the data is restricted to state health officials but have so far provided limited detail on its use.
Reporting by Melanie Burton and Kirsty Needham; editing by Jane Wardell and Lincoln Feast.