By Colin Packham and Renju Jose
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s capital and the country’s second most populous state declared states of emergency on Monday while large, non-essential gatherings were banned in a bid to slow the spread of coronavirus after the national death toll rose to five.
Australia has recorded nearly 300 cases of coronavirus and authorities fear a rapid rise in the flu-like respiratory disease.
After a 77-year-old woman and a 90-year-old woman died in New South Wales, Victoria state and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) – home to the capital city of Canberra – both declared a state of emergency that will give health officials sweeping powers.
The proclamations allows the Victoria state and ACT’s chief health officers near unchecked powers to contain the spread of the virus and reduce the risk to the public.
The chief health officers will be able to issue fresh quarantine orders to cover entire suburbs, businesses or professions if deemed necessary.
“These powers have never been used before,” Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters in Melbourne, the state capital of Victoria. “This, I hope provides a clear sense about the unprecedented nature of this public health emergency, this really significant challenge.”
The Victoria state of emergency will run for four weeks, while the ACT declaration will be in force for at least a week.
Western Australia state declared a state of emergency on Sunday.
Nationally, Australia is tightening its borders, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday ordering everyone arriving from overseas to self-isolate for 14 days.
Australia has also banned non-essential social gatherings of more than 500 people, though this not apply for public transport, work or schools.
Still, many offices are asking employees to work from home and several leading universities on Monday shuttered for at least a week.
Australia’s parliament, which is scheduled to sit next week and pass the country’s planned A$17.6 billion ($10.8 billion) stimulus package, will also restrict access to visitors.
Morrison said lawmakers will be asked to limit the number of staff members that come to Canberra next week.
The contagion has taken a heavy toll on global markets, with central banks cutting interest rates to fight the coronavirus slowdown.
Australia’s central bank said on Monday it was ready to purchase local government bonds to support the smooth functioning of the market and will announce further policy measures later this week.
The Reserve Bank of Australia earlier pumped extra liquidity into the banking system, part of a package of measures aimed at ensuring business and households have access to credit as the coronavirus causes chaos in global financial markets.
Australia’s corporate regulator asked some participants in the equity market to limit the number of trades they execute each day by up to 25% after a huge spike in volumes last week.
The moves, however, did little to calm market jitters, with the local share market falling as much as 7% in morning trading.
Hundreds of Australians have begun stockpiling goods, from staples to sanitizers, clearing supermarket shelves.
The country’s biggest grocer, Woolworths Group, said on Monday it would open exclusively for an hour in the morning from Tuesday until at least Friday for elderly Australians and people with disabilities.
“Common sense, great idea, well done,” Morrison told Channel 7 of the measures. “Let’s look after each other and help each other out.”
Australian medical officers given sweeping powers to contain coronavirus