Australia opens up domestic life further as China dispute lingers

People fish following the easing of restrictions implemented to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19), at Darling Harbour near the city centre in Sydney, Australia, May 18, 2020.
PHOTO: Reuters

MELBOURNE/SYDNEY - Australian officials announced a raft of plans on Wednesday to speed up the resumption of public life to boost the ailing economy amid a diplomatic spat with major trading partner China.

The government is also talking with Australian universities about allowing the return of some international students, a sector that contributes more than A$30 billion (S$27 billion) to domestic coffers.

New South Wales, the country's most populous state, will allow people to resume recreational travel from next month, effectively reopening tourist regions on its southern coast that were badly damaged by huge bushfires before the epidemic.

"We will play our part as the largest state, traditionally the economic powerhouse of the nation, to make sure we generate as much economic activity as possible in a safe environment," NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said.

"We want people to enjoy themselves, to feel free, but at the same time please know that nothing we do is the same during a pandemic."

Australia has reported just over 7,000 infections, including 100 deaths, and has completed around 1.1 million tests among its population of 25 million. Health Minister Greg Hunt said just 11 new cases were logged over the past 24 hours.

Australia's states and territories are implementing a three-step federal government plan to unwind lockdown measures that have been in place for two months, but the staggered pace means different restrictions around the country at any point in time.

South Australia state said it planned to move more quickly to phase two, allowing more people to enjoy eating and drinking in restaurants and bars. Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania, which have all reported low numbers of cases, are keeping state borders closed.

The resumption of business and social life across the country comes amid a dispute with China over Australia's leading role in the push for a global inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.

China this week supported a comprehensive review by the World Health Organisation (WHO), but has been angered by what it views as a more targeted inquiry pushed by Australia.

China has attacked Australia's lobbying for an inquiry as "political manoeuvring".

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Beijing last week banned some major Australian meat exporters, citing labelling breaches, and this week placed hefty anti-dumping and anti-subsidy tariffs on barley imports from Australia.

"We would be disappointed if there was any process of conflating these issues," Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio.

The Chinese embassy in Canberra on Tuesday derided as "a joke" the Australian assertion the WHO resolution, first proposed by the European Union, was a vindication of its push for a global review.

An editorial in China's Global Times newspaper on Wednesday cited an anonymous comment made in a Weibo post that referred to Australia as a "giant kangaroo that serves the dog of the US"

The disagreement could affect universities' plans to lure back pupils. Chinese students account for almost 40 per cent of Australia's international higher education population.

Smartphone app

In Victoria, the country's second-most populous state, health authorities revealed they were using a controversial smartphone contact tracing app for the first time to track the movements of an infected person.

Almost 6 million Australians have downloaded the Covid-safe app, still short of the 40 per cent of 18 million smartphone users the government has said would make it an effective tool, amid privacy concerns about the use of the data.

Authorities have said the use of the app is restricted to state health officials but have so far provided limited detail on its use.

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