March 5, 2020 / 11:28 PM / a month ago

Australia closes first school after pupil contracts coronavirus

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia ordered its first school closure on Friday after a 16-year-old pupil tested positive for the coronavirus, as the country’s prime minister warned the public bill for treating infected patients could top A$1 billion (£509 million).

Epping Boys High School, the site of Australia’s first ordered school closure after a 16-year-old pupil tested positive for the coronavirus, is pictured in Sydney, Australia, March 6, 2020. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he has written to Australia’s state governments to create a A$1 billion fund to treat coronavirus patients, though he cautioned more money may be needed.

Australia has recorded 60 cases of the coronavirus while two elderly people have died from the virus as authorities struggle to contain the outbreak.

Morrison in late February said a global pandemic of the coronavirus was likely, and on Friday he detailed the healthcare costs for the first time.

“We are estimating based on the advice that we have at the moment that this could be as much as about A$1 billion,” he said.

“I hope it is not that much. It could be more.”

While the majority of those infected in Australia contracted the virus overseas before returning home, the outbreak is now spreading locally.

A 16-year boy in Sydney, Australia’s largest city, became the latest to be diagnosed.

Desperate to ensure the coronavirus doesn’t spread, the New South Wales government ordered the closure of Epping Boys High School in the city’s north for at least one day, the country’s first school closure as a result of the outbreak.

Health officials said the nearly 1,200 pupils and staff will need to quarantine themselves.

“Students at the school are advised to stay at home and self-isolate over the weekend,” the NSW state government said in an emailed statement.

“Staff are also asked to stay at home and self-isolate. The school will provide a further update over the weekend about next steps.”

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said the teenager is believed to have contracted the virus through contact with another coronavirus patient, making his a case another local transmission.

The spread of the coronavirus is expected to have a significant economic toll with the government on Thursday warning the crisis would subtract at least half a percentage point from first quarter growth.

Australia’s government is poised to announce a stimulus package to cushion the economic hit of the virus.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the multi-billion dollar package would target sectors most affected by the coronavirus.

Local media on Friday reported the government was considering subsidising wages for small- and medium-sized businesses amid fears of widespread job losses that could lead to a recession.

Australia’s A$2 trillion economy has already hit turbulence after 29 years of recession-free growth, with many economists predicting a contraction in the current quarter.

Slideshow (2 Images)

Treasury Secretary Steven Kennedy said it was too early to determine the long-term economic toll of the epidemic, but it was clear it would have immediate and significant effects.

The Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) has already cut interest rates four times in less than a year to a record low 0.50%, in response to a range of growing economic challenges.

Deputy Governor Guy Debelle said late on Wednesday the central bank has the capacity to reduce its cash rate one more time to 0.25% before deploying quantitative easing.

Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Sam Holmes

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