The COVID-19 emergency response plan has been activated in its initial phase since January 21. On Thursday, Mr Morrison re-launched it and asked authorities to identify “any gaps in capabilities” and elevate the government’s response to “the next phase”.
The government is preparing to respond to sustained coronavirus transmissions in Australia under pandemic conditions, known as “scenario two” in the emergency plan.
Federal health minister Greg Hunt will meet with state and territory ministers on Friday and prepare surge capacity measures at medical institutions across the country.
Doctors, nurses, dentists and pharmacists will have access to protective equipment and alternative staffing arrangements are being drawn up in the event that large numbers of staff succumb to the coronavirus. Hospitals are preparing for coronavirus specific wards.
State and territory health ministers are expected to seize on the coronavirus to demand extra Commonwealth funding for their hospitals at the COAG Health Council meeting in Melbourne.
The Australian Border Force has been called in to escalate screening at airports, as cases of the flu-like disease spike in South Korea, Iran and Italy.
Earlier on Thurday (AEDT), World Health Organisation Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus condemned the push to declare a pandemic.
“Using the word ‘pandemic’ carelessly has no tangible benefit, but it does have significant risk in terms of amplifying unnecessary and unjustified fear and stigma, and paralysing systems.”
The United States reported its first case of human-to-human transmission on Thursday. Another infection was confirmed in Brazil, the first in South America. Saudi Arabia initiated a temporary ban on millions of Muslim pilgrims from entering the country for the holy pilgrimage to Mecca.
Mr Hunt said in the last 24 hours four continents have seen their first in-country cases confirmed. “That is a very significant moment,” he said.
“We are not immune. The likelihood is there is a further round of cases that may make it to Australia and this becomes a truly global pandemic.”
The virus has now killed 2800 people and infected 82,164 worldwide. 32,897 have recovered. Australia has had 15 confirmed cases to date.
The Australian Department of Education will also begin briefing state ministers to prepare schools for a pandemic response that could see classes reduced or cancelled.
“There is no evidence before us that children are at any greater risk but we do believe to take care of our kids that we needed an even greater abundance of caution should the coronavirus move to a extreme level,” Mr Morrison said.
The Prime Minister urged the public to go on with their normal lives and said the measures were being taken to stay ahead of global developments.
“There is no need for us to be moving to having mass gatherings of people stop. Go to the football and play with your friends down the street. You can go out for a concert and you can go out for a Chinese meal,” he said.
After a three hour meeting on Thursday, cabinet’s national security committee extended the travel ban on all non-Australian residents from China for another week, locking out more than 200,000 students and tourists since it was first introduced on February 5.
Mr Morrison said there would be “no carve outs” for 100,000 students in China who now face missing at least another week of the semester.
“We have always acted with an abundance of caution on this issue, and that has put Australia in the strong position we are in,” he said.
The decision comes despite the infection rate in China slowing, with 433 new cases reported on Thursday. At their peak in mid-February cases were rising by 15,000 a day.
Reuters reported on Thursday local health authorities in a city in Hubei province, the centre of the outbreak, have begun paying residents more than $2000 if they proactively report symptoms of the illness and it is confirmed after testing.
With Dana McCauley and Kate Aubusson
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based at Parliament House in Canberra