Thousands of medical students could be sent to the front line as Australia bolsters a coronavirus army to combat a potential second wave of infections.
Paid positions have been created for almost 3800 final-year medical students to help doctors and nurses fighting the pandemic in hospitals.
Friday’s announcement came as the Australian death toll rose to 93 with the death of another resident at Sydney’s Newmarch House on Thursday. It was the 13th virus fatality at the aged-care home.
“The coronavirus has had a devastating impact on all our residents and families, as well as our staff, over the last three weeks”, Anglicare said on Friday.
Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory and the ACT had no new virus infections on Thursday. Some states are beginning to ease restrictions, offering many Australians a return to some old freedoms for the first time in weeks.
From Friday, NSW residents are allowed two visitors. From midnight Queenslanders will be able to enjoy the outdoors and shop for non-essentials.
South Australia is yet to announce its relaxed measures but is reportedly considering reopening outdoor dining and beer gardens.
Australia is in an enviable world position having virtually quashed community transmissions with only 10 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday.
With just 34 coronavirus patients in intensive care, the nation is prepared for future outbreaks with nearly 5000 ventilators.
Ten million testing kits are about to arrive in the country as states carry out testing blitzes to stay ahead of localised outbreaks.
But Australia continues to take a cautious approach to lifting restrictions as overseas countries with much higher infection and death rates relax strict measures.
US President Donald Trump said he would not extend social distancing rules when they expire this week.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said medical students were ready, willing and able to help Australia’s healthcare system.
“[They] will free up senior doctors and nurses to treat COVID-19 cases,” he said.
Medical Deans Australia and New Zealand welcomed the announcement, saying it would help students continue their studies as the virus risked knocking a year off their education.
“No student, no future. If you don’t have students progressing through university, you don’t get doctors graduating,” the organisation’s president, Professor Richard Murray, said.
“That has a big impact on our ability as a nation to look after people, let alone at a time when we may be facing a higher level of need as a result of COVID-19.”
He said deployment would depend on need in each state and territory.
Students will help healthcare workers, bolster triage roles, help GPs and provided support for specific response units.
Defence force infections
Five defence force officers who contracted coronavirus in the Middle East have been flown home to Australia.
Personnel serving in the region were tested after local contractors became infected with the virus.
The five Australians are all asymptomatic.
Four returned to Australia on Friday morning on a routine defence force flight. They were taken to Royal Darwin Hospital for assessment.
The fifth, who recently completed their deployment, previously returned to Australia and is in mandatory quarantine in Brisbane.
Some small freedoms
Pubs and restaurants will reopen across the NT on May 15, while golf, tennis, fishing or swimming with other people will be allowed from Friday.
The initial stage of easing restrictions will also lift the ban on outdoor weddings and funerals.
The ACT has no active cases, while the NT has just three.
- From Friday, NSW will allow a maximum of two adults and their children to visit other homes.
- Victorian coronavirus restrictions will be reassessed on May 11 when the state of emergency ends.
- From midnight Friday, Queensland will permit family picnics and weekend drives, national parks will reopen and people can shop for clothing and shoes. Residents can travel 50 kilometres from their homes.
- WA has already relaxed the two-person limit on non-work activities, including picnics, boating, hiking, camping. Group exercise can include up to 10 people, as can weddings and funerals.
Australians continue to download and register the coronavirus tracing app, with 3.31 million signed up by Friday.
Dealing with China
Former foreign minister Julie Bishop has called for “quiet diplomacy” to resolve the dispute over an international investigation into COVID-19.
Ms Bishop’s comments come as conservative MPs have blasted mining magnate Twiggy Forrest for inviting a Chinese diplomat to a ministerial press conference unannounced.
Ms Bishop said it was time for a change of approach.
“I think we should scale down the rhetoric, more calm and quiet diplomacy, so that we can understand more about this virus, how it got into human populations and whether decisions could have been taken that would have prevented its spread,” she told the ABC.
However, she said China had a responsibility to support an independent global investigation if it did not intend to carry out its own inquiry to help the rest of the world learn what happened.
Australian National University’s Andrew Carr said attempts by Australia to rebuke China could distract from calls for an inquiry into COVID-19’s origins.
Dr Carr said the spat was relatively minor but Australia shouldn’t let the issue slide.
A serious inquiry into coronavirus’ origins could help counter conspiracy theories and racist attacks.
But Australia was well positioned to manage how diplomats inside Australia are supposed to act, he said.