Road to recovery: Australia eases restrictions as coronavirus spread slows

By Colin Packham and Jonathan Barrett

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Declaring Australia was on the road to recovery with new coronavirus infections almost stamped out, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Tuesday hospitals will resume many elective surgeries and schools will be re-opened for more children.

As part of broad social distancing restrictions, Australia in March banned all non-emergency surgeries to free-up hospital beds amid expectations of a surge in coronavirus cases. Schools were also closed.

But with infection rates falling from more than 25% in mid-March to its current level of less than 1% a day, Morrison said in Canberra that Australia could relax some restrictions from next week.

"We are on the road back and I think we have already reached a turning point," Morrison told reporters on Tuesday.

Australia's Health Minister Greg Hunt said on Tuesday the easing of elective surgery restrictions was possible after authorities secured more protective and medical equipment, including a "full capacity" of 7,500 ventilators.

The expanded list of surgeries, including IVF and joint replacements, can begin next week.

The government said it would release details of a contact tracing app - designed to alert users if they come into close contact with people later diagnosed with COVID-19 - shortly. Authorities believe the tracing app needs to be put in place before many services are re-opened.


After more than a month of teaching children online, Australia's most populous state, New South Wales (NSW), said all students will begin face-to-face lessons next month.

NSW state Premier Gladys Berejiklian said students will begin to return to school on May 11 on a staggered basis in preparation for full-time schooling to re-start in July.

"It's time to turn our mind to getting our kids back into the classroom," Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

"We will have extra cleaning, extra sanitiser, extra health provisions, including forehead thermometers and also extra health equipment in our sick bays."

Australia is one of the few nations around the world to detail plans to re-open schools.

Despite sometimes conflicting advice from the federal government, which had wanted schools to remain open, children of emergency workers are among the few who have continued to go to school.

Education is run by Australia's state and territory governments.

The re-opening of schools has been a key demand of the federal government, which hopes the move will stimulate Australia's economy and allow parents to better juggle work commitments.

NSW, home to a third of Australia's population and the state that has recorded the most COVID-19 cases, reported just six new cases of coronavirus in the last day.

The southern state of Victoria recorded seven new infections, while Queensland, in the country's north-east, documented six new cases. Iron-ore rich Western Australia reported one additional infection overnight.

Nationally, Australia has recorded about 6,600 cases of coronavirus and 71 deaths.

(This story corrects national tally of coronavirus cases in paragraph 19)

(Reporting by Colin Packham and Jonathan Barrett; additional reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Lincoln Feast & Simon Cameron-Moore)