Health Minister Greg Hunt has defended the coronavirus travel ban, saying the economic impact of the deadly disease taking hold in Australia would be much greater than the pain businesses and education providers were enduring now.
Health officials will examine whether to lift or extend the ban on Thursday as the education and tourism sectors feel the economic squeeze from the number of Chinese students and visitors drying up.
The initial 14 day travel ban was imposed from Feb. 1 on noncitizens who have traveled from or transited via the Chinese mainland in the past fortnight.
The ban has prevented tens of thousands of Chinese students from coming to Australia in time for the start of the new university year, posing a significant threat to the higher education sector which relies on income from foreigners.
Tourism operators have also been hard hit, first by China banning outward bound group tours and then Australia curtailing travelers.
Hunt said the government had been very cautious and medical advice would guide decisions over the ban.
“We are very aware, deeply aware, of the economic consequences,” he said. “But the consequences of contagion within Australia at an economic, let alone more significantly a human level, would be extraordinary.”
Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy said the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee would discuss whether to extend the ban or lift it.
“The important consideration is we are still containing the virus in Australia. We’ve only had 15 cases and there is still risk associated with the outbreak in many of the provinces of China,” he told the ABC. “We have to look at all of the factors but we are also very aware this travel ban has had a huge impact on students and tourism and other economic factors.”
Professor Murphy said there were two scenarios experts were looking at when determining whether to lift the travel ban.
“One is when we are pretty confident the outbreak is controlled in the provinces of China other than Wuhan (city) and Hubei province. We know that the Hubei province is locked down at the moment but if the growth in other provinces stopped and the disease seemed to be under control in those provinces it would be a good basis for stopping [the ban],” he said.
“Clearly the other, less attractive option would be if there were spread of the virus to many countries and we had widespread transmission in the form of a global pandemic and then travel bans probably don’t add any value in those circumstances.”
This story was first published in The Australian Financial Review.
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