May 13, 2020 / 12:48 AM / 13 days ago

Australians told to 'maintain vigilance' as coronavirus curbs eased

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australians need to stay on guard against new outbreaks of the novel coronavirus as mobility restrictions are eased this week, authorities said, as the death toll rose to 98 on Wednesday.

A worker disinfects a bench at Westmead Hospital amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sydney, Australia, May 12, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

Australia is one of the most successful countries in its handling of the pandemic, with about 7,000 cases and the average daily increase sliding to just 0.14%.

But the coronavirus crisis would be a “marathon, not a sprint”, Philip Gaetjens, secretary of the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, told a parliamentary committee as it began looking into Australia’s response to the epidemic.

New South Wales state, of which Sydney is capital, recorded six new cases overnight after none on Tuesday, with three linked to community transmission.

The death toll rose after an 81-year-old woman who contracted the virus on the Ruby Princess cruise ship died overnight.

With some restrictions on movements set to be lifted in New South Wales, the most populous state, on Friday, Premier Gladys Berejiklian warned residents to not let their guard down.

“It is important for us to all take precautions because there will be many more people out and about, and out and about for recreation as opposed to other reasons,” Berejiklian told reporters.

“We should feel very fortunate we are in this position as we ease restrictions ... but it also means we have to maintain our vigilance and get tested if we have the mildest symptoms.”

In Victoria state, where lockdown laws are being eased to allow small dinner parties, fishing and hikes, new cases rose by seven on Wednesday after 17 the previous day.

Images on social media showed Melbourne residents braving cold and wet weather to enjoy their newfound freedom.

Australia hopes to remove most of the restrictions imposed in March within three months in an attempt to get nearly one million people back to work.

Despite the relatively swift resumption of economic activity, Australia is facing its biggest economic contraction on record with unemployment seen doubling to almost 10% by June.

However, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg expects a rapid economic recovery once the lockdown rules are eased.

But growth will be constrained as borders will be kept closed and domestic travel prohibited in some parts of the country.

A wave of skilled migrants has swelled Australia’s population in recent years, stoking property prices that have been a key catalyst for economic growth.

Numbers of short-term holidaymakers have also increased as a weaker dollar lured visitors, from China in particular.

Data released on Wednesday showed the number of overseas arrivals in April 2020 fell 99% compared with last year.

Citing difficulties with travel, Australia’s corporate regulator said companies now had an extra month to lodge their financial results.

Reporting by Swati Pandey; Editing by Stephen Coates

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