University classes exempted from coronavirus orders

Responding to the global spread of the coronavirus infection, the Australian federal government has imposed a ban on meetings being called if 500 or more people are likely to attend.

But Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson said the government had made it clear that ‘essential gatherings’ such as university classes would be exempt.

“Every university has prepared for a broad range of contingencies as part of their pandemic plan,” Jackson said.

“All universities are focused on measures to slow the spread of the virus. We continue to be guided by expert medical advice to protect the health and welfare of our staff, students and community.”

The World Health Organization announced last week that the spread of the virus, dubbed COVID-19, was a pandemic. Latest reports indicate that the global death toll now exceeds 5,700 people and the number of cases tops 150,000.

Australia, however, has so far avoided the suffering and fatalities from widespread community transmission of the virus, in part because of the island nation’s remoteness from the main sources of the viral infection.

But protection also comes from the constant vigilance of government agents to prevent illegal arrivals from anywhere outside Australia’s borders.

The government has tried to limit people being infected by announcing that from Monday 16 March, organised, non-essential gatherings should be restricted to 500 or fewer people.

“Non-essential meetings or conferences of critical workforces, such as health care professionals and emergency services, should also be limited,” said Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy.

But he added that the advice did not include universities or schools and workplaces, or public transport and airports.

On 12 March Universities Australia published a statement from Catriona Jackson that the peak body had received notification from ACT [Australian Capital Territory] Health that one delegate at the Universities Australia Conference held at the National Convention Centre in Canberra from 25 to 27 February had subsequently tested positive for COVID-19 three days after the conference ended.

“Health authorities have been working to identify the source of the infection but have not yet been able to do so. It is possible someone at the conference may have been the source of the infection,” said Jackson.

“Universities Australia is working closely with the health authorities, and, as a precaution, we are advising delegates to be alert for any of the symptoms of COVID-19, which include fever, cough, sore throat, headache or muscle aches.”

She advised former conference delegates that if they developed these symptoms before 13 March, they should seek medical attention and advise the doctor that they have attended a conference where they might have been in contact with someone with COVID-19.

Limiting visitor numbers

Meanwhile, to protect vulnerable Australians, the government has also called for limits on the number of visitors to all residential aged care facilities and to remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced an allocation of AU$17.6 billion (US$10.8 billion) towards fighting the spread of the virus and taking care of those who had been infected.

“The package is designed to protect the economy by maintaining confidence, supporting investment and keeping people in jobs,” Morrison said in a national address.

He said the rate of transmission of the virus outside of China was “fundamentally changing the way we need to look at how this issue is being managed here”.

“I want to reassure Australians we have had 15 cases that have come from Wuhan [the city in China where the infection started] and all 15 of those cases have now been cleared and are now back in the community.”

There were another eight cases of people who had arrived in Australia on the ocean liner, Diamond Princess. There are no other cases in Australia and there had been no community transmission, Morrison said.

The government was now delivering a “comprehensive AU$2.4 billion health package” to try to protect all Australians from the coronavirus”, he said.

The package included vulnerable groups such as the elderly, those with chronic conditions and Indigenous communities.