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Australia unveils $1.6 billion health package to combat coronavirus

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia announced a A$2.4 billion ($1.56 billion) health package on Wednesday that proposes setting up fever clinics and offering cost-free facilities for people to consult doctors over video calls, as it combats the spread of the coronavirus.

FILE PHOTO: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a joint press conference held with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at Admiralty House in Sydney, Australia, February 28, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott/File Photo

Australia has been struggling to contain the disease, which is expected to take a significant economic toll, with the Treasury department warning the outbreak would cut at least half a percentage point from economic growth in the first quarter.

“Just under $1.2 billion of that will actually, we anticipate, be spent this financial year, particularly as the virus and its impacts ramp up in the months ahead,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

The federal government said the latest funding package would include the A$500 million announced last week to support the costs on the health system from the virus outbreak.

It will include free video consultations for people in self-isolation and quarantine.

“We are ensuring people can access essential care in a way that reduces their potential exposure to infection,” Health Minister Greg Hunt said.

The package will be in addition to a multi-­billion-dollar economic stimulus package the government says will be announced on Thursday.

Sky News, citing government sources, said the stimulus package was expected to be worth as much as A$20 billion and would include one-off cash payments of about A$500 to pensioners, people claiming unemployment benefits and small businesses.

The Prime Minister’s office declined to comment on the Sky News report.

Ratings agency S&P said Australia’s coveted “AAA” credit rating was not under immediate threat from a likely technical recession while a widely expected fiscal stimulus package was unlikely to strain the country’s credit worthiness.

Reserve Bank of Australia Deputy Governor Guy Debelle said on Wednesday the full impact of the coronavirus outbreak on Australia’s economy was still uncertain but the combined effect of fiscal and monetary policy would support activity in the meantime.

Australia also extended its travel ban for Italy from 1800 local time (0700 GMT) on Wednesday, after Italy expanded a lockdown to cover the entire country to contain the spread of the virus.

Australia has already barred entry to those arriving directly from mainland China, South Korea and Iran, except for its citizens and permanent residents, citing a need to stop the spread of the virus.

Australia has recorded 112 cases of the coronavirus as of 11am local time on Wednesday, up from 100 the previous day, the health department said. Three people have died from the disease in the country.

Reporting by Renju Jose in Sydney; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and Lincoln Feast

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