Large sections of the Australian economy and social life will be shut down from midnight on Wednesday, after the national cabinet agreed to a range of further restrictions on indoor and outdoor gatherings in addition to a ban on non-essential overseas travel to combat the Covid-19 outbreak.
But despite the range of further restrictions, Scott Morrison said the national cabinet would not “just rush on the sense of an opinion of inevitability” towards a full lockdown, because measures to contain the spread of the virus may yet prevent it and more severe action would threaten the livelihoods of many Australians.
On Tuesday evening Morrison announced that real estate auctions and open houses, markets, personal services including beauty salons, food courts in shopping centres, arcades, amusement parks, play centres, community centres, health and fitness, social sport, cultural institutions and swimming pools will all be closed.
Morrison told reporters in Canberra that Australians would be urged to “stay at home unless it is absolutely necessary you go out”, suggesting that outings should be limited to “basics” such as attendance at work, exercise with a partner or small group, or attending shops to buy food or medicine.
Morrison acknowledged that New South Wales and Victoria – which pushed for more extensive restrictions – were “far more advanced” than other states in terms of case numbers, but despite not all states being in the same position, the cabinet had still achieved “consistency of application”.
With hundreds of thousands facing unemployment, the federal government has suspended mutual obligations to apply for jobs to obtain jobseeker payments for one week, with further measures to protect renters now expected to be decided on Wednesday not Tuesday, as planned.
In addition to widespread business closures, Morrison announced new restrictions on funerals, which must be limited to 10 people or fewer, and weddings, which are limited to the marrying couple, celebrant and witnesses.
Social visits to one another’s houses “should be kept to a minimum and with a very small numbers of guests”, he said, although the government would not be “overly specific” on the limits of social life.
Morrison warned that states and territories would also consider whether to make it an offence to hold house parties, with barbecues and birthday gatherings also listed as events that should no longer occur.
Morrison said the “do not travel” advisory on overseas trips would be upgraded to a ban on Wednesday, with limited exceptions for essential work, aid workers and compassionate grounds.
The federal government will also look to create a new offence in relation to profiteering on the export of essential goods overseas, including medical supplies and personal protective equipment.
Asked if a fuller lockdown, such as implemented by the UK, was now inevitable, Morrison replied “hopefully it is not necessary”.
“If we do all the things that [chief medical officer] Dr Murphy has outlined, and these other quite strict measures we have put in place about areas of social gathering … stopping all those things we believe will have a really significant impact, we would hope, on the spread of the virus.”
Morrison said the medical advice remained to keep schools open, and he would meet with the education sector and unions on Wednesday about measures to do so while protecting teachers.
On Tuesday, the total number of coronavirus cases in Australia reached 2,139, with 95 new cases confirmed in NSW, 78 in Queensland and 56 in Victoria.
A group of experts from the Group of Eight universities, asked by the chief medical officer to advise on social distancing, backed the “the stronger decisions being now taken by government and what we term as the ‘go now, go hard and go smart’ strategy”.
In a letter sent to the health minister, Greg Hunt, on Sunday, the experts warned at its current rate of increase Australia “could theoretically expect over 6,000 cases by the end of next week and over 50,000 cases by Easter”.
They recommended that Australia “without delay implements national stronger social distancing measures, more extensive banning of mass gatherings, school closure or class dismissal”.
In Queensland, the border was shut to non-essential travel in order to help limit the spread of Covid-19, with limited exemptions for freight, emergencies and travel to and from work.
The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said that her state was “at a critical stage in relation to the virus” after a “significant increase in the number of cases again overnight”.
“If you see how the virus is getting out of control around the world, if you see the huge escalation in deaths, many countries did not control the spread at this stage of the virus,” Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.
“But many countries did not take some of the actions this early on in the process in order to control the spread.
“And I don’t want to be another example of a jurisdiction that didn’t do what it needed to do at the right time.”
Earlier, Hunt said the government’s “general direction” was that people should “spend more time at home, obviously keeping the distance” but it would use a “staged approach” to implement further restrictions.
“These ideas that some have heard of house parties – they’re out,” he said. “They are out, let me be absolutely clear on that.”