Sydney, Australia
Reuters

Australia on Thursday banned the arrival of foreigners from South Korea, tightening its border controls in a bid to slow the spread of the coronavirus as it recorded its second death from the illness.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison also extended existing bans on foreigners arriving from mainland China and Iran and said there would be tougher screening processes for people arriving from Italy.

'"It affords the best protection and enables us to slow down the rate of transmission," Morrison told reporters in Canberra, as health officials said modelling suggests the worst case scenario is for the virus' spread to millions of people within weeks.

Coronavirus Australia empty shelves

Empty shelves are seen at a supermarket following reports of the coronavirus, at Macquarie Centre in Macquarie Park, Australia, on 2nd March, 2020, in this picture obtained from social media. PICTURE: Ammy Kwong/via Reuters.

AUSTRALIAN TOILET PAPER TRUCK CATCHES FIRE SPARKING NEW TISSUE TIZZY

A delivery truck carrying toilet paper has burst into flames in the Australian city of Brisbane, ratcheting up a sense of panic about the availability of the product generated by the coronavirus outbreak.

Shoppers have swept the shelves clean of toilet paper all week and supermarket chains Woolworths and Coles have had to limit the amount people can buy.

The government has urged people not to stockpile it and Prime Minister Scott Morrison has even tried to calm consumers worries about the tissue, as Australia's tally of coronavirus infections has climbed to 53. It has had two deaths.

The truck caught fire after its engine exploded in the suburbs of Australia's third-largest city late on Wednesday, police and firefighting services said.

The driver escaped without injury and the cargo, including toilet paper, was also largely unaffected.

The fire, nevertheless, grabbed headlines and added to growing worry about the availability of toilet paper, which Australia's chief medical officer, Brendan Murphy, tried again to ease on Thursday.

"There is no reason to denude the shelves of lavatory paper in the supermarkets," Murphy told a news conference in Canberra.

Some media have taken the opportunity to poke fun at the toilet paper panic.

The NT News, a newspaper known for its tongue-in-cheek antics, published eight blank pages in the middle of its Thursday edition saying it was giving readers what they needed.

Toilet-paper-themed hashtags like #ToiletPaperEmergency and #ToiletPaperApocalypse have been popping up on Twitter all week.

Jana Bowden, an associate professor of marketing at Macquarie University, said government calls for people not to panic-buy toilet paper might actually spur more hoarding.

"When you place restriction notices in front of consumers, and they read for the first time in their entire lives that something like toilet paper, which they've always assumed to be a basic necessity, [is restricted], you think 'that's something I can't live without, I must not live without, therefore I just stockpile'," Bowden said.

- BYRON KAYE, Reuters

Australia was one of the first countries to take a hard line approach to tackling the coronavirus outbreak, imposing border controls on visitors from the epidemic's epicentre in China just over a month ago. 

Australia has recorded 54 cases of the coronavirus, the majority of those people who contracted the disease overseas before returning home for treatment.

However, concerns are growing about the likelihood of a more rapid spread given at least five people contracted the illness locally. An eight-month-old boy, whom officials believe contracted the illness from his mother when she returned to Australia from Iran, is among the most recent cases.

Despite official attempts to quell public anxiety, the country's major grocers this week reported consumer stockpiling and social media was awash with photographs and videos of overloaded shopping trolleys. 

Several stores imposed strict limits on purchases of items, notably toilet paper, as a result.

An elderly woman who became the country's second fatality this week picked up the virus from a worker at her aged care home, making her death the first from local transmission. Health authorities have confirmed another resident at the facility has tested positive, despite not coming into contact with the infected worker.

The new travel restrictions mean that any foreign traveller who has been in China, Iran and South Korea - all countries that have reported large outbreaks of the coronavirus - within two weeks of arriving in Australia will be turned away. The bans, which include anyone who has transited through those countries, will be reviewed on a weekly basis.

Australian nationals and residents are exempt from the bans, but are required to self-isolate for two weeks on their return to Australia. 

Travellers from Italy will be given temperature checks and required to completed a detailed health questionnaire before they are cleared for entry.

Economic woes
The Australian government earlier on Thursday warned that the crisis will subtract at least half a percentage point from the country's economic growth in the current quarter.

Treasury Secretary Steven Kennedy said it was too early to determine the long-term economic toll of the epidemic, but it was clear it would have immediate and significant effects.

"At this stage we expect the virus to detract at last half a percentage point from growth in the March quarter 2020," Kennedy said, adding the forecast took into account the impact on tourism, international education and some exchange rate effects.

The estimate is in line with that made by the Reserve Bank of Australia. Treasury had forecast gross domestic product growth of 2.25 per cent to end-June 2020.

The Reserve Bank of Australia on Tuesday cut interest rates to a record low 0.50 per cent, hoping to give the $A2 trillion economy enough of a boost to continue a record 29 years of recession-free growth.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said a stimulus package expected to be announced within days will be worth billions of dollars and targeted to sectors most affected by the coronavirus.

"It is going to have a 'b' in front of it that is for sure," Frydenberg told Sky News. "The shock is very significant."