SYDNEY, March 13 (Reuters) - The Australian Formula One Grand Prix was cancelled on Friday and a cricket series between Australia and New Zealand was ordered to be played behind closed doors as Australian authorities intensified efforts to contain the coronavirus.
Australia has recorded 126 infections and three deaths from the flu-like disease but authorities expect this to increase significantly in the coming weeks with the arrival of the southern hemisphere winter.
The sports-mad country’s two most popular sports, rugby league and Australian Rules football, are beginning their seasons with games that typically draw tens of thousands of spectators, raising the risk of contagion.
The federal government has not formally ordered such events to be cancelled but there are growing calls from senior health experts for Australia to follow the lead of other countries with more severe outbreaks to ban mass gatherings.
Organisers of the Australian Grand Prix cancelled Sunday’s race after Victoria state’s chief medical officer said it could proceed only without spectators.
Australia’s one-day cricket series against New Zealand, due to start on Friday at the Sydney Cricket Ground, would go ahead without fans in attendance because of the coronavirus threat, Cricket Australia said.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said the Australian Rules football league season may need to be suspended. The country’s biggest and best-attended football code is due to begin its season on March 19.
“I understand this is deeply frustrating. There is going to be a lot of disruption, a lot of inconvenience. These are difficult times,” he told reporters.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison met state leaders on Friday to discuss a stimulus spending package designed to reinforce the health sector, support small businesses and people on welfare, and prevent Australia’s first recession in nearly 30 years.
Morrison on Thursday said his government will inject A$17.6 billion ($11.1 billion) to spur an economy hammered by the coronavirus outbreak.
The package has done little to clam investors, with the country’s share market down more 10% since the announcement.
Australia has taken a hardline approach to curtailing the spread of coronavirus, banning foreigners from arriving from China, Iran and South Korea for several weeks at least.
The ban was extended on Thursday to cover Italy, though Morrison has ruled out extending the restrictions to cover the European Union as a whole.
$1 = 1.5916 Australian dollars Reporting by Colin Packham and Renju Jose in Sydney; Editing by Stephen Coates