Australian officials are investigating whether an alleged illegal social gathering of health workers is behind a spike in coronavirus cases in Tasmania.
Tasmania Premier Peter Gutwein said on Tuesday there has been a 50% spike in the state’s Covid-19 cases since Thursday, even as the rate of reported new infections continued to significantly slow across the rest of the country.
At least 6,366 cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed in Australia and 61 people have died.
The virus has killed more than 117,000 people worldwide and more than 1.8 million are infected.
Local media reported that Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Brendan Murphy, referred to an “illegal dinner party” of medical workers in Tasmania as responsible for the rise in cases to 150 during a video briefing with New Zealand officials. The CMO has since walked back on his comments.
“Brendan was commenting on a rumour,” Gutwein told reporters on Tuesday.
“At this stage our contact tracing has not identified a dinner party of health workers. However, I accept that this is a serious allegation.
“I’ve asked the Tasmania Police to investigate this matter, and that will be started today.”
Murphy released a statement to take back claims medical staff at the centre of an outbreak around the Tasmanian town of Burnie had attended a dinner party, the ABC reports.
“This morning … I referred to suggestion that a dinner party may have been the source of some of the transmission in the north-west Tasmania cluster of cases,” he said.
“Whilst this possibility had previously been mentioned to me following initial investigations, I am now informed that the contact tracing has not confirmed that such a dinner party occurred.”
The probe came as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed the government expects unemployment to double from the current 5.1% to 10% by the end of June, which would mark the first time it has hit double digits since 1994. That equates to around 700,000 people without jobs, the Treasury said.
However, Morrison rejected suggestions the jobless rate could soar as high as 20%. Unemployment would have peaked at around 15% without government support measures such as a $130 billion package to keep people in work, aid for universities, and free child care, he said.
“We came into this crisis - which is a dual one, a health crisis and an economic crisis - in pretty strong shape,” Morrison said on Channel Nine’s Today show.
“But it is still a big blow. I don’t want to lessen that in terms of how we speak of it. It’s a serious impact on our economy, it’s impacting people’s livelihoods and it’s heartbreaking.”
Officials cautioned that recent Covid-19 case numbers may have been thinned out by lower testing over the four-day Easter holiday weekend.
Morrison said it was still too early to consider lifting social distancing requirements or allowing businesses to reopen.
Most Australians must stay at home unless they have a medical appointment, are going grocery shopping or taking exercise, and cannot meet in groups of more than two.
“No country has found their way out of this yet and Australia is in a better position than most ... we want to keep it that way,” Morrison told Channel Seven’s Sunrise program, adding that officials were looking at ways to help restart the construction, manufacturing and agriculture industries.