School holidays could be extended across Australia to help slow the spread of the coronavirus, while Health Minister Greg Hunt has warned a letter claiming imminent closures in Victoria is “a fake”.
The Morrison government has confirmed the April holidays could be extended to keep schools closed as the spread of the virus increases in the community.
Contingency plans are being put in place now.
The advice came as Today Show host Karl Stefanovic clashed with the Prime Minister over the schools’ confusion. In their exchange, Scott Morrison said Stefanovic was “not a doctor” and the PM would prefer to deal with facts.
Mr Morrison also revealed his own two daughters went to school on Monday.
“As a parent, I have to say to you, PM, I find this confusing and I find it disturbing – that it’s almost OK for our kids to be in an area where there’s more than 500 kids,” Stefanvoic said.
“That’s not the medical advice, Karl,” the Prime Minister responded.
“You’re not a doctor and neither am I. My kids are going to school. I trust the medical advice of those who are responsible for the medical health of our nation. They don’t consider these things idly; they consider them very carefully.”
Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said he understood it was a worrying time for parents, but the best current medical advice was to send children to school.
“There are two main reasons why we’re doing that – because the advice is saying if we shut them now, then children would be at home. In many cases, they’d have to be looked after by grandparents or the elderly, and that could pose a risk to them,” he said.
“Also, we need the workforce at the moment. We want to make sure that we’ve got our nurses, our allied health workers, our doctors working, and we need our kids at school.
“There might come a stage where the medical advice says, ‘Maybe the school holidays need to be extended for a week’. There might be other measures that need to be put in place.”
Asked if public school closures were “inevitable” in coming weeks, the Prime Minister said only that – for now – expert advice was that they remain open to help nurses and teachers go to work.
“At some stage, if that’s the advice, then that certainly will happen,” Mr Morrison said.
“But I should stress, that is not the advice at the moment. And different schools are doing different things. Some of them are moving towards remote learning and things like that. But the advice from all of the states, which is consensus advice from the states and territories health officers, chief medical officer, is that it’s not something that’s been recommended.
“In fact, as I outlined yesterday, at a time like this, that could cause more problems for the involved. And children and younger people, I should stress, the medical advice is that they are the least at risk, unless there are very serious other health issues that they might have.
“The vulnerable are those who have other health issues, the elderly, and that’s, they’re the ones that I have most in my mind. And for the rest of us, about eight or 10 of us who will contract this virus, it will be a mild illness. That’s good advice.”
Mr Morrison said the elderly and vulnerable would be helped by “commonsense, the sensible social distancing measures, not hand-shaking, coughing into our handkerchiefs or our elbows, and washing their hands, and being careful about our contact with the elderly, and the 1.5 metres where that’s practical to do so”.
“It’s not going to be practical everywhere, these things aren’t absolute,” he said. “But they’re just putting them into place sensibly wherever you can.”
But calls for students to remain 1.5 metres apart were rubbished by Stefanovic as impractical.
“Even my 14-year-old daughter said ‘dad, we are a lot closer than that at school’,” he said.
“I’m sorry but the level of discrepancy in the advice is mind-blowing. Which is it – 1.5 metres? Or is it OK to be 30 centimetres apart?”
In another concerning development on Monday, the Morrison government confirmed it had referred to police a fake letter claiming Victorian schools are to close.
“There is a forged letter circulating on social media purporting to be from myself and the Victorian Minister [Jenny] Mikakos,” Mr Hunt said.
“This letter is a fake and falsely asserts school closures. Schools remain open, with the unanimous support of the states and Commonwealth. The matter is being reported to the police.”