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Australia bans overseas travel and indoor meetings to curb virus

Universities exempt from restrictions on meetings, but many are asking staff to work from home

Prime minister Scott Morrison has declared a national “human biosecurity emergency” in response to the Covid-19 virus, banning overseas travel and restricting non-essential indoor gatherings to 100 people.

“Do not go overseas—that is a very clear instruction,” Morrison said at a media conference in Canberra. “For those of you thinking about going overseas for the school holidays [in April], don’t.”

Morrison said schools would remain open, following advice to the government from health experts.

“Whatever we do, we have to do for at least six months. The disruption that would occur from the closure of schools around this country—make no mistake—would be severe.”

Universities are on a list of institutions that are exempt from restrictions on indoor meetings, but many are asking staff to work from home until at least the end of March.

However, a Queensland law academic has suggested that employers must be aware of their legal obligation to provide a safe workplace, and that includes home offices.

Robin Price, a lecturer in employment relations at Central Queensland University’s school of business and law in Brisbane, says there are several workplace health and safety issues involved in asking staff to work from home.

“If you’re an employee and you’re working for someone, they have a duty of care for your health and safety,” she told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

“Have you got an ergonomic chair and how good is your screen? If you sit there all day, are you likely to have a repetitive strain injury?”

She said that most larger companies were likely to have a working from home policy that outlined measures required to verify the safety of a home office. 

However, many smaller companies are being forced to develop these policies at short notice in response to government regulations around self-isolation measures to contain the virus.

Price said that one option may be for employers to develop a checklist for staff to verify that they are working in a safe environment. In Australia, this would include ensuring a safe way to evacuate during a fire, as well as making sure a home office was equipped with a smoke detector or fire alarm.