Barr calls for calm amid corona confusion and economic doubt

Dominic Giannini 12 March 2020
Rachel Stephen-Smith and Andrew Barr

ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith and Chief Minister Andrew Barr have told residents to avoid spreading rumours as anxieties heighten amid coronavirus spread. Photo: Dominic Giannini.

UPDATE: 12:30 pm – First case of coronavirus appears in ACT

While there are currently no coronavirus cases in the ACT – making the Territory the only Australian state or territory without one – the spread of the virus to the capital has been called inevitable, with more than a dozen people currently in precautionary isolation here.

All ACT residents – about 13 or 14 people – who were exposed to an infected person at a Defence meeting in Russell last week have been contacted and quarantined, the ACT’s Chief Health Officer Dr Kerryn Coleman said.

The campaign against the virus will take a coordinated and concerted effort from state, territory, and the Commonwealth governments, Chief Minister Andrew Barr added as he foreshadowed the impact the spread of coronavirus – or COVID-19 – would have on the economy.

The economic impact of the virus cannot be forecast because of the demand-driven nature of COVID-19, the Chief Minister said, as he flagged the prospect of bringing forward some infrastructure spending to help boost the stalling economy.

“Clearly there is going to be a major impact on the tourism sector, and trade in services, which is the main part of the ACT’s export economy, manifested particularly in higher education,” Mr Barr said.

“Public policy now will require a forward-leaning approach from government to invest in infrastructure and in the necessary economic supports to keep the economy out of recession.

“If a stimulus is required, especially in the second half of the calendar year, our budget would be the timeframe in which we would look to deliver that.”

Despite the ACT Government recently topping up the Health Directorate by $60 million, and projecting a $255 million deficit next year, Mr Barr insisted there is wiggle room in the budget to help stimulate the economy.

“If we need to provide a further fiscal injection into the health system towards the end of the financial year, we have the capacity to do so,” he said.

“We would also look at what other budget measures we can put in place in the fiscal year 2020-21 depending on the circumstances when we get closer to budget day, but we will reserve the right to make those decisions right up until the day the budget goes to press and possibly even beyond.”

The pressure on the budget will be eased a little by the Commonwealth’s recently announced health fund, which would see any additional costs from the coronavirus split equally between states and territories and the Federal Government.

An initial injection of $100 million has been put into the fund by the Commonwealth, but the fund could reach more than $1 billion (comprising $500 from the states and territories which would be matched by the Federal Government).

“We will look at what happens through the Commonwealth program and the extent to which we will be a partner of delivery with some of those measures as we are in the context of the bushfire recovery response,” Mr Barr said.

However, the more immediate threat to the ACT remains in stopping the spread of not only the virus, but the unfounded anxiety that is spreading just as quickly.

The ACT Government says that treatment responses can be ramped up if demand increases and specific respiratory assessment clinics will be put in place should Canberra begin to experience community transmissions of COVID-19. While the cancellation of public events is not being considered at the moment, it is not completely off the table should the threat worsen.

The Government has also set its sights on reducing confusion about who is at risk of the virus with ACT Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith saying the public can help reduce anxiety by not sharing unverified rumours.

“We can all look after one another and reduce anxiety in our community by sharing accurate information and not sharing rumours and inaccurate information through social media,” Minister Stephen-Smith said.

“If you are concerned, please visit the ACT Health website and keep an eye on ACT Health social media for up-to-date and accurate information,” she said.

Mr Barr reiterated these comments as he called for a measured reaction from the public, saying that most people who get the virus will be alright.

“COVID-19 is coming, but that does not put our community at a significant health risk. For the vast majority of fit and healthy people, the infection will result in symptoms similar to the flu or a mild cold.

“We all have a responsibility to help limit the spread of the virus when it arrives to protect older residents and those more susceptible to serious health issues from infection.

“The best advice we can give Canberrans is to remain calm and keep up-to-date.”


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