People who deliberately cough on health workers or abuse them amid the coronavirus threat face the risk of life in jail, Health Minister Greg Hunt has warned.
Mr Hunt said he had learned of “troubling” incidents in recent days where health workers had been abused or threatened with the deliberate transmission of the deadly virus.
He said the federal government’s legal advice was that deliberately transmitting COVID-19 was an offence anywhere in Australia.
“The most serious of these offences may carry maximum penalties up to imprisonment for life if somebody was to take a step that led to the death of a healthcare worker,” he said on Wednesday.
It was also an offence to make someone fear raid they would catch the virus – such as by coughing on them.
“Interestingly, two people have been charged in the ACT for precisely this type of behaviour,” Mr Hunt said.
“And the same will occur in other jurisdictions as well.”
He refused to say how many reports there had been of health workers being threatened.
Mr Hunt’s comments came at a media briefing with deputy chief medical officer Michael Kidd and Australian Medical Association chief Tony Bartone. All three urged Australians to keep seeing doctors for regular health checks during the coronavirus crisis.
The update came as the national coronavirus toll rose to 50 on Wednesday, with the death in Adelaide of a 62-year-old woman who had been a passenger on the Ruby Princess cruise ship.
Dr Bartone said one pathology provider had told him business fell 40 per cent during March.
“That is very worrying when you consider, especially, the diagnosis of internal cancers or skin cancers or other important conditions that need to be managed,” he said.
“We are putting all of that at risk because the community is fearful … about whether they should be accessing care at a time when they think that their doctor, their health provider, is overrun with the needs of providing for COVID-19.
“Healthcare doesn’t take a holiday. Cancer doesn’t take a holiday. Neither does heart disease, neither does stroke.”
Elsewhere, Mr Hunt said the federal government had flatly rejected the idea of trying to use herd immunity beat the coronavirus pandemic.
“Herd immunity is 60 per cent of the population, on the best advice that we have,” he said.
“[That’s] 15 million people. If there is a 1 per cent loss of life, that would be a catastrophic loss of human life.”
Under such figures, that would mean 150,000 Australians dead from COVID-19.
Instead, on Wednesday afternoon, Australia had fewer than 6000 cases of coronavirus and a falling number of new infections.
Mr Hunt said Australia’s stringent measures to restrict the spread of the virus – including shutting national and state borders and quarantining arrivals in hotels – were starting to have an effect.
“Now we’re in the suppression phase where we are doing everything we can to track down and to wipe out community-to-community transmission,” he said.
Mr Hunt described it as a “happy challenge” that people were beginning to look to when coronavirus restrictions might end.
Earlier on Wednesday, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said it was possible some bans in that state might be eased as soon as May 1 – although all would be reviewed on a monthly basis.
Mr Hunt said restrictions would be examined regularly.
“But for the time being, we need to consolidate, to suppress the virus, and to win that battle and the more successful we are, the faster we will then be able to take measures,” he said.