Grand Prix cancelled, Dutton has virus

Katina Curtis, AAP Senior Political Writer
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COAG MEETING SYDNEY

The government advises against mass gatherings as major events are cancelled to combat coronavirus

Major events have been cancelled, sport's being played without spectators, mass gatherings are discouraged and Australians are urged not to go overseas as the country takes unprecedented action to stem the spread of coronavirus.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton became the highest profile Australian virus patient but declared he was feeling fine after testing positive on Friday.

While Mr Dutton was being admitted to hospital in Queensland, prime minister Scott Morrison advised people not to go ahead with non-essential, organised gatherings of more than 500 people starting from Monday.

This weekend's Australian Formula One Grand Prix had already been cancelled on Friday morning, while Australia's cricketers played New Zealand in a one-day match at an empty SCG.

The NSW Royal Agricultural Society was the first organisation to heed the advice against mass gatherings and cancelled Sydney's Easter Show which was due to start in three weeks, while a host of conferences and music and cultural festivals around the country were called off.

The NRL will play its games without spectators from round two next week, while the AFL announced it will start its season next week also at empty grounds.

After initially saying he would still be going to see his NRL team Cronulla play their season opener against South Sydney on Saturday night, Mr Morrison changed his mind on Friday night.

A spokesperson said he did not want his attendance to be misinterpreted.

Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy says the advice against gatherings - not an outright ban - should help Australia get ahead of the curve of community transmission, which was not yet widespread.

"All the international evidence suggests that if you have some community transmission, the way in which it can be spread more rapidly is in very large events," he told reporters after the Council of Australian Governments meeting on Friday.

"You might only have one or two people at a very large event who might be carrying the virus, and the chance of it being spread at those large events accelerates the rate of progression of this virus."

But Prof Murphy called for calm.

"The risk to the Australian community in general still remains low," he said.

The department of health had not updated its figures on Friday, still declaring Australia had 156 cases, despite the states reporting many more cases.

While 24 people have recovered, Mr Morrison says half of the 156 cases are close to being cleared.

Three Australians, aged 95, 82 and 78, have died.

Asked about the timing of the gathering restrictions starting on Monday, after a weekend of large sporting events, Prof Murphy said that was his recommendation and it could have been "one or two days either side".

Mr Morrison said the move was part of a "stepped response".

"We are not of great concern right now in terms of where those gatherings might be today, but in the weeks ahead this will change," he said.

"The fact that I would still be going on Saturday speaks not just to my passion for my beloved Sharks, it might be the last game I get to go to for a long time. That's fine."

The suggested restrictions don't extend to things like daily work, schools, university lectures, parliament, public transport or airports.

Mr Morrison, premiers and chief ministers will form an unprecedented "national cabinet" with weekly meetings to keep on top of slowing the spread of coronavirus.

The prime minister sought to reassure Australians their leaders were working together "to keep you safe and try to disrupt your daily life as little as necessary".

A spokesman for the prime minister's office said no other cabinet member needed to be tested after Mr Dutton's diagnosis because they had not had direct contact with him in the 24 hours before his test.

The government has stepped up its travel advice, telling Australians to ditch all overseas travel plans unless absolutely essential.

His government has unveiled at $17.6 billion stimulus package to help businesses weather the impact with the potential to spend more if needed.

The Australian share market staged a dramatic recovery on Friday from its morning losses of as much as 8.1 per cent to finish 4.4 per cent higher.