MELBOURNE (REUTERS) – Australia stepped up enforcement of social-distancing rules on Saturday (March 28) to contain community transmission of the novel coronavirus, implementing fines, closing beaches and threatening stricter measures if people defy pleas to stay at home.
The death toll from the virus rose to 14 after an elderly woman died in an aged-care facility in New South Wales (NSW) state where several residents and employees have tested positive for the virus, according to NSW health officials.
The country’s total number of confirmed coronavirus cases rose by 212 to 3,378 early on Saturday, two-thirds of them in NSW and Victoria states, according to the federal heath ministry.
The infection rate in Australia remains slower than in many other countries, although it is accelerating, especially in the most populous states of NSW and Victoria, where more than half of the country’s 25.5-million people live.
As of midnight on Saturday, all returning citizens from abroad will be put into compulsory quarantine in hotels for two weeks at the government’s expense.
The compulsory self-isolation for travellers in hotels and other lodgings across Australia comes as the country gradually tightens its social-distancing rules, which have so far confused many.
Military personnel will help ensure travellers comply with the new rules.
“There are so many parts of the world where this (coronavirus) is running rampant and I think every returned traveller is a significant risk,” Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews told a televised briefing.
Two-thirds of the cases in Australia have been traced to contact with people returning from overseas, government health officials said, although community transmission has been growing.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said harsher enforcement of social distancing could be necessary if community transmission began to rise “at a rate that we are not comfortable with”.
While Australia shut down mass gathering venues, closed many businesses and introduced the mandatory 14-day quarantine for those returning from abroad, there is no national order to stay home, although the government has said that those who can, must stay inside.
“If you don’t, you’ll do nothing but spread the virus and that will kill people,” Mr Andrews told journalists at a televised briefing.
“Unless we work together, be responsible, do the smart and decent thing and the lawful thing, we will finish up with our health system overrun and people dying.”
Victoria, where about a quarter of Australia’s 25.5-million population lives, saw its largest daily increase of coronavirus cases of 111 on Saturday, bringing the total in the state to 685 cases. As of late Friday, there were 3,166 confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Australia, with 13 deaths related to the virus.
Victoria Police Minister Lisa Neville said those flouting coronavirus restrictions could face on-the-spot fines of more than A$1,600 (S$1,408), while businesses could be penalised more than A$10,000 if they do not adhere to strict social distancing and quarantining requirements.
New South Wales, where about a third of Australians live, introduced similar fines earlier this week.
“If you need to go for a walk, exercise, great, but this is not about spending a day at the beach,” Ms Neville said.