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Australia’s federal government on Thursday urged state premiers to reopen schools as it considers how to start winding back some other restrictions on movement that have helped slow the spread of the coronavirus throughout the country.

Australia has averted the high numbers of coronavirus casualties reported in other countries around the world thanks to strict “social distancing” measures and the effective closure of its borders, including internally between states.

The daily rate of reported new infections has steadied in the low single digits, from about 25 per cent several weeks ago, for a total of about 6,500 infections, including 63 deaths.

Australia has closed restaurants, bars and stores deemed “non-essential” while using the threat of fines and even prison to stop public gatherings of more than two people in a bid to slow transmission of the flu-like illness.

However the federal government has said it wants schools to reopen, citing medical advice that children carry a low risk of transmitting the virus. Some leaders of the country’s eight states and territories - which administer schools - have departed from that policy and ordered schools shut.

The divisive issue is expected to be high on the agenda when the national cabinet, made up of state and federal leaders, formed to tackle the crisis meets later in the day, local media reported.

“We need to have a system where the schools are open, providing that form of education, but also providing the online support for those parents who do choose to stay home,” federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg told television station Nine Entertainment.

“It is a challenging issue and we want kids not to miss a year of education. The pandemic may take lots of things away from us but we don’t want it to take away our kids’ education.”

In Victoria, the country’s second most populous state where officials have told parents to keep children at home if possible, just 3 per cent of children attended school on Tuesday, the first day after the Easter break. Students in other states and territories remain on midterm vacation.

WINDING BACK

While authorities have stressed it is still too soon to lift restrictions on movement, Health Minister Greg Hunt said the government would begin talks on Thursday about how to unwind measures that had brought a “significant and now consolidated flattening of the curve”.

“That gives us the capacity to progressively, once we’ve fully stabilized where we are now, plan and then execute the pathway out,” Hunt said on Sky News.

“We went in quickly. We will step out gradually. We’re not there at the ‘step out’ yet,” he added.

Industry group the Actuaries Institute said in a news release on Thursday its modelling suggested there may have been as many as 20,000 active carriers of the illness in Australia as at April 9, three times the number of officially reported cases. The institute used data from the Australian government and the World Health Organization (WHO), among others, for its modelling.

Hundreds of the confirmed Australian COVID-19 cases and about one-third of the country’s reported deaths are linked to a single cruise ship, the Ruby Princess, which is the subject of several government and police investigations after passengers were allowed to disembark in Sydney without testing last month.

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