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Leave now: Australia tells cruise ships to depart as coronavirus cases rise

SYDNEY — Two cruise ships were ordered to leave Australian waters on Thursday, after a liner that docked in Sydney Harbour last week became the primary source of infection for the country’s coronavirus outbreak.

While remaining well below the levels seen elsewhere in the world, the number of cases in Australia is starting to pick up speed, rising to nearly 2,800 infections and 12 deaths nationally.

Cruise ships have become a flashpoint after 147 of 2,700 passengers who were allowed to disembark from Carnival Corp’s Ruby Princess later tested positive for COVID-19, a blunder that has highlighted official tensions in the handling of the crisis.

State authorities have clashed with the federal government over who was responsible for the oversight, adding to tensions and conflicting public advice over matters including virus testing and school closures.

Some state leaders have also flagged they are willing to push for tougher restrictions on social activities if Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government does not move fast enough.

“Because of the lack of consistent messaging, because people had been flouting the earlier advice regarding social distancing measures, we need to move further and quickly to ensure that what we’re seeing around the world doesn’t mimic and occur on front doors,” Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone told reporters.

The discrepancies echo similar tensions elsewhere. In Brazil, state governors on Wednesday defied President Jair Bolsonaro’s call that strict restrictions be lifted. Bolsonaro, who has described the coronavirus as a “little flu” had called for schools and businesses to reopened.

In Australia, The Ruby Princess outbreak sparked anger over why passengers, more than a dozen showing flu-like symptoms, were cleared to disembark without basic health checks.

The West Australia state government on Thursday said that nobody would be permitted to disembark the German-operated MV Artania after seven of 800 foreign passengers on board tested positive for COVID-19 unless there was a “life threatening emergency”.

“This ship needs to leave immediately,” Premier Mark McGowan said. “Our position is clear, we are not going to have a Sydney Harbour fiasco on our watch.”

Germany’s Phoenix Reisen, owner of the Artania was not immediately available for comment.

McGowan said a second cruise ship, the MSC Magnifica, which was refused permission to dock in Perth earlier this week, was headed out of Australian waters. MSC Cruises declined to comment on the destination of the vessel, which it has said has no unwell passengers.

Western Australia is preparing Rottnest island, a former prison island turned tourist attraction, to quarantine some of the 800 Australians on board a third cruise ship, the British-operated Vasco de Gama. More than 100 other passengers, from Britain and New Zealand, will be quarantined on the ship when it docks on Monday.

Ship owner Britain’s Cruise & Maritime Voyages said it was carrying no unwell passengers or staff.

JOB LOSSES

With the number of COVID-19 cases rising quickly, Australia has introduced a series of restrictions, including the forced closure of pubs, restaurants and cinemas.

Long queues have continued to spool around welfare offices across the country, while more than a quarter of a million Australians registered for financial help on Wednesday, according to the government services minister.

Further job losses are also expected, with some economists expecting Australian unemployment rate to double this year to more than 11%.

Flight Centre on Thursday said a third of its 20,000 strong workforce faced temporary or permanent redundancy, while retail tycoon Solomon Lew’s Premier Investments Ltd temporarily closed all stores in Australia.

(Reporting by Swati Pandey, Renju Jose, Colin Packham and Byron Kaye. Writing By Kate Lamb and Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Jane Wardell)