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Australia tells citizens to come home, not travel abroad

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Sydney (AFP)

Australia told its citizens to return home and halt any overseas travel on Wednesday in an unprecedented move designed to choke off the spread of the coronavirus epidemic.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced what he called an "indefinite ban" on foreign travel alongside a crackdown on "non-essential" indoor gatherings of more than 100 people.

"This is a once-in-100-year-type event," Morrison said of the pandemic. "We haven't seen this sort of thing in Australia since the end of the First World War."

"We are going to keep Australia running, we are going to keep Australia functioning, (but) it won't look like it normally does," he said, girding the country for measures that will last at least six months.

Both Australia and neighbouring New Zealand urged citizens overseas to return home promptly or risk being stranded as flights to the remote South Pacific nations shut down.

Airlines in both countries have already slashed international services and New Zealand's foreign affairs ministry warned more routes were set to shut down amid widespread travel restrictions.

Australia has so far recorded more than 450 confirmed cases of coronavirus, with the numbers escalating daily. There have so far been just five fatalities.

Morrison rejected growing calls for the government to order schools to close, as has been done in other countries, saying the impact on society and the economy from such a closure would be "severe", costing "tens of thousands of jobs".

"Whatever we do we have to do for at least six months," he said, adding that among other consequences a long school closure would remove 30 percent of workers from the health industry as parents remained home with their kids.

- 'Un-Australian' -

Australia's chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, also ruled out the kind of blanket shutdown that has been imposed in parts of Europe.

"A short-term, two-to-four-week shutdown of society is not recommended by any of our experts," he said, speaking alongside Morrison. "It does not achieve anything, we have to be in this for the long haul."

The bar on foreign travel came as Australia's two main airlines slashed overseas services, with Qantas axing 90 percent of flights and Virgin Australia grounding its entire international fleet.

New Zealand's foreign affairs ministry warned more routes were set to shut down amid widespread travel restrictions.

"Many air routes will not remain commercially viable for long," it said. "The options for New Zealanders to get home are reducing dramatically."

Acknowledging it was "the first time that has ever happened in Australia's history," Morrison said the measures were needed to stop travellers from bringing more coronavirus cases into the country.

The majority of new virus cases in Australia are returning travellers or people infected by them, officials said.

The ban on indoor gatherings of more than 100 people applies to "non-essential" events and excluded public transportation, shopping sites, health facilities and schools.

The government had already banned outdoor events of more than 500 people, dealing a severe blow to spectator sports in the sports-mad nation.

Morrison also joined supermarkets in calling for an end to panic buying, which has led to empty shelves and hit the most vulnerable hardest.

"We discourage the panic purchase of food and other supplies," Morrison said.

"Stop doing it. It's ridiculous! It's un-Australian, and it must stop... We're all in this together."

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