Australia prepares to ease coronavirus restrictions in four-week stages

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia will ease social distancing restrictions in four-week increments, two sources told Reuters, as the country’s national cabinet meets on Friday to decide which curbs to remove first amid dwindling numbers of coronavirus cases.

Australia in March imposed strict social distancing restrictions, which coupled with the closure of its borders, are credited with drastically slowed the number of new infections of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.

With fewer than 20 new infections each day, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday began talks with state and territory leaders to decide which restrictions will be eased.

The easing will be staggered to ensure measures do not lead to a resurgence in infections, two sources familiar with the plan told Reuters.

“The restrictions will be removed in four-week increments,” one source told Reuters.

Confirming the approach, New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the gradual removal of curbs was needed to ensure fresh restrictions did not have to be introduced.

“We must continue to gain ground in fighting the virus and we don’t lose ground,” she told reporters in Sydney.

“I want New South Wales (NSW) to keep moving forward… it is important for us to do this in a gradual way.”

Home to nearly a third of Australia’s 25.7 million population, NSW reported just four new cases of COVID-19 on Friday.

Although the measures have successfully prevented local hospitals being swamped by coronavirus patients, it has taken a devastating toll on the economy, which is on course for its worst recession ever, and its first in 30 years.

Unemployment is expected to top 10% this year and the Reserve Bank of Australia expects GDP to slump 6% during 2020, a decline that Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said is costing the country A$4 billion ($2.6 billion) each week.

Australia has had fewer than 7,000 confirmed cases of COVD-19 and fewer than 800 people are still sick with the disease. Almost 100 people have died from the virus.

Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: open tmsnrt.rs/3aIRuz7 in an external browser.

($1 = 1.5404 Australian dollars)

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Lincoln Feast

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