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Australia enacts sweeping lockdown powers to combat coronavirus spread

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SYDNEY (Reuters) – People in Australia’s most populous state of New South Wales, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Australia, could be heavily fined or jailed for leaving their home without a good reason from Tuesday under sweeping new powers designed to slow infection rates.

File Photo: People are seen on the nearly deserted steps of the Sydney Opera House, in the wake of New South Wales implementing measures shutting down non-essential businesses and moving toward harsh penalties to enforce self-isolation as the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) reached what the state’s premier calls a “critical stage” in Australia, March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

The public health order, enacted late on Monday, comes amid warnings that it is too early to tell whether an apparent slowdown in infection rates across the country in recent days meant the outbreak was being brought under control.

“What we need to consider is the community-to-community transmission that we might not even know about,” New South Wales (NSW) Premier Gladys Berejiklian said in Sydney on Tuesday.

“It is really important for us, at this stage of the virus, for us to maintain that level of control and contain it as much as possible.”

NSW has 2,032 confirmed cases of the virus, almost half the country’s total, authorities said on Tuesday. The national death toll stands at 19.

The state is among several bringing in penalties from Tuesday, including fines of up to A$11,000 ($6,779) in NSW and the potential of a six-month prison term for anybody found breaching the new rules.

New orders restrict public gatherings to just two people, or a family unit, while outside gyms and parks will be shut. People will still be able to leave their homes for valid reasons such as to visit a doctor, buy food and exercise while adhering to social distancing rules.

Authorities said on Tuesday they wanted to increase testing, especially in areas of COVID-19 clusters such as Sydney’s Bondi area, which drew attention earlier this month after people ignored social distancing rules and flocked to the beach.

Kerry Chant, NSW Chief Health Officer, said that the virus may have been transmitted in the Bondi community via an infected backpacker who was not aware they were carrying the disease.

Chant said on Tuesday that an apparent slowing infection rate in recent days may have more to do with fluctuations with testing numbers, given there is less access to doctors over the weekend.

“I’m urging increased testing and particularly aligned to active clusters and community transmission,” Chant said.

Like all affected countries, Australia’s financial and jobs markets have been roiled by COVID-19, prompting the government to unveil several stimulus packages.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a tweet on Tuesday that 113,000 businesses had registered interest in a new A$130 billion ($80 billion) wage subsidy measure.

Reporting by Jonathan Barrett, Sonali Paul, John Mair and Melanie Burton; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien

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via Reuters