Biosecurity control orders could soon be imposed to direct Australians suspected of carrying the coronavirus to remain in lockdown or be detained by medical authorities.
As COVID-19’s intensifying global spread is monitored, Australia’s top medical officers will meet on Tuesday to consider whether banning mass gatherings would help to prevent its transmission.
Human health “response zones” can be declared by authorities under existing powers, banning people from attending places like schools, shopping centres or sporting events.
Attorney-General Christian Porter said the laws were already used in a “limited and narrow” way at border points if incoming travellers are suspected of being sick.
“People will need to be mindful that we are going to have a very challenging several months and perhaps towards the end of the year,” he told reporters.
“These are likely to be activated on a scale in Australia that will affect many people.”
Chief health officers from all states and territories will consider ongoing containment and response strategies, after Australia suffered its first person-to-person transmissions in the country.
This comes after a 53-year-old doctor and a 41-year-old woman were confirmed to have contracted COVID-19 in Australia.
It’s unclear if the doctor from Western Sydney became infected at work or in a community setting, and the NSW government is working to track down anyone he’s been in contact with.
The 41-year-old woman is the sister of an infected man who had recently returned from Iran where the virus is rampant.
Mr Porter said, in reality, the quarantine laws would most likely mean an increase in people going through decontamination procedures or undergoing questioning when coming and going from medical facilities.
But he acknowledged enforcing the laws would feel “strange and foreign” to many people.
He said he understood Australians wanted their health protected in the “least invasive” and “most effective way possible.”
South Australia is already rushing through new laws allowing for the immediate detention of people suspected of having coronavirus, including possible arrest powers.
Some 10,000 coronavirus tests have been carried out in Australia so far, with 34 people returning positive results.
Health Minister Greg Hunt said people were also going to be asked to enact “social distancing” to help prevent the virus’s spread.
“Social distancing means if for example, you have been to a high-risk country or you have any symptoms … keeping distance, (and) practising strong personal hygiene,” he said.
“To make sure that we’re being careful in our personal hygiene, but caring in our conduct towards others.”
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard has told people to stop shaking hands, and instead greet people with a pat on the back.
Travel bans remain in place for foreign nationals arriving from Iran and China, but the government has indicated further travel bans are unlikely to have any effect on the spread of the disease.
Globally there have been more than 88,500 infections and at least 3000 deaths spanning 67 countries and regions.
The health emergency has seen stock markets plunge across the world, triggering fears of a global recession.
The biosecurity laws are based on a redrafting of the Biosecurity Act from 2015, which replaced quarantine provisions previously dating back to 1908.
With additional reporting from AAP.