Australia

Scott Morrison stands firm on keeping schools open during COVID-19 crisis

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House on Wednesday. Source: AAP

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced that schools will remain open as the Australian public is urged to implement social distancing to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has resisted calls for schools to be closed across the country due to the coronavirus pandemic despite banning indoor gatherings of more than 100 people.

In a far-ranging press conference on Tuesday morning, Mr Morrison said the health advice was that schools should remain open to avoid losing 30 per cent of health care workers who would need to care for their children. 

"That will put people's lives at risk. Let's keep our heads as parents when it comes to this," he said.

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"There is a national public interest here in keeping schools open and our advice is that is not being done at the detriment to the health of any child."

Closing schools now would mean they would have to remain closed for at least six months, Mr Morrison said, resulting in severe disruption to the education sector.

He also compared the decision to Singapore, which hasn't closed-down schools but has so far managed to avoid a significant spike in cases.

But commentators were quick to point out that while Singapore's schools remained open, students were undergoing daily health checks and temperature screenings and being sent home if they showed symptoms - measures that have not been implemented in Australia. 

Hassan Vally, an epidemiologist and associate professor in public health at La Trobe University, told SBS News a decision to close schools would likely have a number of "unintended consequences" that the government would have to take into account.

"You want to be very careful about making that decision [to close schools] and only making that decision when it's absolutely necessary," he said.

"If you had no other considerations and an unlimited health workforce, then yeah you would shut down everyone for two weeks or a month."

According to the United Nation's educational arm, UNESCO, 102 countries have introduced nation-wide school closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, impacting approximately 850 million students.

A number of Australian parents have already begun voluntarily removing their children from school as the number of cases surpassed 450 on Wednesday, but Mr Morrison said he had no qualms about continuing to send his two daughters to school.

"I am telling you that, as a father, I'm happy for my kids to go to school," he said.

"There is only one reason your kids shouldn't be going to school and that is if they are unwell."

Earlier this week, a number of independent schools in Victoria announced their decision to halt face-to-face classes and move teaching online contrary to the advice of health authorities. 

Australian doctors also called for an immediate nation-wide school shut down for three to four weeks in an open letter sent to Health Minister Greg Hunt last week and released publicly on Tuesday.

The letter, started by Western Australian GP Hemant Garg and signed by more than a thousand doctors, said: "It seems that there is consensus amongst the medical community that the appropriate action to take in this setting is to immediately undertake widespread measures to reduce the rate of transmission of this virus within the wider Australian population."

Dr Vally said to close schools now would be a "big deal" which means it would be difficult to justify returning to normal operations if warranted later down the track. 

More than 196,000 COVID-19 cases have so far been confirmed across the world. Of these, approximately 80,000 have recovered and more than 7,800 have died.

As of Wednesday morning, only people who have recently returned from travelling overseas or have been in contact with a confirmed COVID-19 case and experienced symptoms within 14 days are advised to be tested.

Coronavirus symptoms can range from mild illness to pneumonia, according to the Federal Government's website, and can include a fever, coughing, sore throat, fatigue and shortness of breath.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor, don’t visit, or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

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