Calling in the military: Army, police helping enforce new lockdown bans

Police and even the military are being deployed to enforce new pandemic controls, which may next see beaches, parks and malls declared off-limits, inner-city hotspots locked down and home quarantine monitored more closely.

Mar 24, 2020, updated Mar 24, 2020
Australia's armed forces paid out more than $3.7 billion to the big four consulting firms over the past decade, it has been revealed. (Photo: AAP Image/Danny Casey)

Australia's armed forces paid out more than $3.7 billion to the big four consulting firms over the past decade, it has been revealed. (Photo: AAP Image/Danny Casey)

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has already promised to “close” the state’s borders from Wednesday night and a national Cabinet meeting will today discuss how to mandate social distancing in public.

Acting on concerns over “serious health issues” associated with interstate travel, Palaszczuk today foreshadowed a sticker-based permit system to govern border crossings, giving exemptions for essential travel, some compassionate grounds and normal trade.

All other travellers will be asked by police to comply with self-isolation requirements while in Queensland – the most dramatic measure of its kind since 1918.

“People in Queensland should stay in Queensland, and people in New South Wales should stay in New South Wales,” Palaszczuk said.

“I don’t take this decision lightly.”

Pubs, clubs and other indoor venues were closed down on Monday, major events and sporting competitions have been cancelled, and authorities have now urged people to avoid non-essential travel to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Other businesses will also be ordered to close if their workers are deemed to be at additional risk.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt today warned of tough penalties for anyone breaking the rules or putting medical staff at risk following “disturbing reports of abuse” at GP clinics. He also confirmed there would be “direct text messaging” to the broader population to encourage people to comply with the rules and follow health advice.

Hunt announced universal, Medicare-funded telehealth services, subject to capacity and clinical guidance, and the pending supply of 30 million extra masks to protect frontline staff. It is the latest effort to bolster the health system.

NSW has the most cases in Australia – 818 and rising – and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian today said, “we don’t know what the next five or six weeks will look like”.

In Queensland, schools remain open, under a national approach that parents should still have that option, however more students are being pulled out by the day. The State Government is in talks with unions that want schools closed from tomorrow, and COVID-19 cases have already forced some schools into temporary closures – as well as up to 10 childcare centres.

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Health officials are increasingly concerned the 1,823 cases of COVID-19 in Australia, including 319 in Queensland, may not reflect the full extent of the disease. They plan to do more tests, on expanded criteria, however Hunt emphasised that Australia had a higher rate of testing per capita than other countries, including South Korea.

While Australia has a lower rate of positive results, on some 147,000 tests to date, that has focused only on those who have recently travelled or come into contact with a COVID-19 case. Sentinel testing, and expanded criteria, will show if the coronavirus has slipped the net.

Outbreaks in south-east Queensland, Sydney and Melbourne are the biggest worry, with more cases unable to be traced back to international travel and the World Health Organisation warning the pandemic is accelerating. Globally, some 1.5 billion people have been told to stay home – unprecedented in peacetime.

While the UK has effectively gone into a short-term national lockdown, Australia is still taking a staged or targeted approach, largely dependent on whether people voluntarily do the right thing or need to be forced. There are still questions over large, informal outside gatherings, while major shopping centres are being monitored lest the closure of other venues make them more crowded.

The Queensland Police Service is already undertaking compliance checks on venues meant to be closed down, and the Australian Defence Force today confirmed it was “developing options to provide ongoing support to Commonwealth and other state/territory agencies”.

Palaszczuk took to Twitter on Monday to announce state Cabinet had “decided to close Queensland’s borders” even though NSW had no such plans. The border with the Northern Territory is already closed to protect remote communities and being patrolled by ADF personnel.

The announcement caught many by surprise, particularly on the Gold Coast. The Queensland Disaster Management Committee met behind closed doors to finalise the details this morning.

Palaszczuk had also foreshadowed more financial relief for households, in the form of electricity bill rebates, but Treasurer Jackie Trad today announced a larger package today including payroll tax refunds for businesses.

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