VIRUS LATEST
* More than 120,000 cases worldwide - with 66,000 people recovered and a death toll of 4300
* New Zealand has had five cases of the virus, with victims on road to recovery
* Hollywood actor Tom Hanks and wife Rita Wilson have been diagnosed
* The NBA has suspended its season after a Utah Jazz player was diagnosed

Taking dramatic action today, American President Donald Trump announced he is sharply restricting passenger travel from 26 European nations to the United States and moving to ease the economic cost of a viral pandemic that is roiling global financial markets and disrupting people's daily lives.

"To keep new cases from entering our shores, we will be suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days," Trump said during a rare Oval Office address to the United States, adding it would come into effect from 11:59pm Friday.

However Homeland Security officials later clarified that, outlining the specifics of restrictions that would apply to travellers.

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After days of playing down the threat, Trump blamed Europe for not acting quickly enough to address the novel coronavirus and claimed that US clusters were "seeded" by European travellers.

"We made a lifesaving move with early action on China," Trump said. "Now we must take the same action with Europe."

President Donald Trump speaks in an address to the nation from the Oval Office at the White House about the coronavirus. Photo / AP
President Donald Trump speaks in an address to the nation from the Oval Office at the White House about the coronavirus. Photo / AP

However Trump said the restrictions won't apply to the United Kingdom, and there would be exemptions for "Americans who have undergone appropriate screenings." It also wouldn't apply to cargo.

He said the US would monitor the situation to determine if travel could be reopened earlier.

"From the beginning of time, nations and people have faced unforeseen challenges—including large-scale and very dangerous health threats," Trump said in the address.

"This is the way it always was and always will be. It only matters how you respond."

The State Department followed Trump's remarks by issuing an extraordinary global health advisory cautioning US citizens to "reconsider travel abroad" due to the virus and associated quarantines and restrictions.

Trump spoke after days of confusion in Washington and in the face of mounting calls on the president to demonstrate greater leadership. At times, though, his remarks contributed to the uncertainty.

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While Trump said all European travel would be cut off, Homeland Security officials later clarified that the new travel restrictions would apply only to most foreign nationals who have been in the "Schengen Area" at any point for 14 days prior to their scheduled arrival to the United States.

The area includes France, Italy, German, Greece, Austria, Belgium and others, and the White House said the zone has the highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases outside of mainland China. The restrictions don't apply to legal permanent residents, immediate family of US citizens or others "identified in the proclamation" signed by Trump.

And Trump misspoke when he said the prohibitions would "not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo, but various other things."

The official proclamation released after Trump spoke made clear it applies to people, not goods and cargo.

New Zealand impact

In New Zealand, Health Minister David Clark said there were no plans currently to ban travel from Europe to New Zealand, but it was a dynamic environment and he was getting daily updates from an expert advisory group.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said every country had a different situation and the there had been a community outbreak in the US - but there had only been transmissions within families in New Zealand.

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Health Minister David Clark reacts to the US travel ban on Europe. Video / Derek Cheng

He said there would clearly be an economic impact of Trump's travel ban, and the Government would continue to work on the details of its package to help businesses, more of which is expected to be announced next week.

Clark said that travel from Italy had already reduced to a trickle, and anyone arriving from there was required to self-isolate - which was the best advice on how to stop the spread of Covid-19.

He said the fact that the WHO had declared a pandemic emphasised the seriousness of the situation, mentioning that Tom Hanks had tested positive and reiterating the need to follow advice such as washing hands and sneezing into elbows.

"There's a couple of things today which will just remind people of the importance of taking this seriously ... If you're feeling at all unwell, don't go out to events. If you're washing your hands regularly, you are keeping your friends and loved ones safer than if you're not."

The Government has already announced $11 million to help tourism, including targeting North America, and Robertson said that the US travel ban would make the domestic aspect of that tourism package much more important.

Foreign Minister Winston Peters said New Zealand already has more stringent travel restrictions than most other countries.

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But he said the US ban would have "huge implications".

Read more:
Latest updates: No further cases in NZ for fifth day in a row

"There's cancellations of meetings between countries, conferences between countries. They're all on hold and we'll just have to deal with it as we get on top of the problem."

Peters' trip to the Pacific has already been cancelled, at the request of two Pacific countries.

Asked to describe Trump's announcement of the travel ban, Peters said he wasn't interested in taking "pot shots from this far away".

"The Americans have acknowledged where they think their concerns lie."

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Air New Zealand flies daily non-stop from Los Angeles to London, a service which shouldn't be affected by the Trump ban.

The LAX-to Heathrow service will, however, end this October at the same time non-stop Auckland to New York services are scheduled to begin.

Confronting a pandemic

The Oval Office address was an abrupt shift in tone from a president who has repeatedly sought to downplay the virus.

Many Americans shared a similar mindset in recent weeks, but the gruelling events of Wednesday changed the mood: Communities cancelled public events nationwide, universities moved to cancel in-person classes, and families grappled with the impact of disruptions to public schools.

The number of confirmed cases of the infection topped 1000 in the US - to 1135 with 38 deaths - and the World Health Organisation declared the global crisis is now a pandemic.

Donald Trump's response comes as officials race to confront a viral pandemic that is roiling global financial markets and disrupting people's daily lives. Photo / AP
Donald Trump's response comes as officials race to confront a viral pandemic that is roiling global financial markets and disrupting people's daily lives. Photo / AP

Even as Trump spoke from behind the Resolute Desk, the pandemic's ferocious rewriting of American daily life continued. The National Basketball Association suspended its season, and Oscar-winning actor Tom Hanks announced that he and his wife, Rita Wilson, had tested positive for Covid-19. The first confirmed case on Capitol Hill was reported in a legislative staffer.

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After Trump spoke, the White House cancelled a planned trip by the president to Nevada and Colorado this week, "out of an abundance of caution." Trump's re-election campaign also postponed a planned March 19 event in Milwaukee that was set to feature the president.

Potential spread

After a week of mixed messages and false starts, and as government officials warned in increasingly urgent terms that the outbreak in the US will only get worse, Washington suddenly seemed poised to act.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough.

For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus.

According to the World Health Organisation, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

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Congress' attending physician told staff there could be 70 million to 100 million coronavirus cases in the US That's on par with other estimates.

A Harvard official has estimated that 20 per cent to 60 per cent of adults will get the virus, noting it's "a pretty wide range."

Congress, for its part, unveiled a multibillion-dollar aid package Wednesday that was expected to be voted on by the House as soon as Thursday.

"I can say we will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now," Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, said in testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee.

He said the virus is "10 times more lethal than the seasonal flu."

S&P 500 futures went from a loss of about 0.4 per cent before Trump spoke to a decline of 1.5 per cent afterwards. The decline in the futures market followed a steep 4.9 per cent drop in regular trading Wednesday.

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Read more:
NZ market plunges further after Trump suspends Europe travel

Wall Street investors are increasingly concerned that the Trump administration and other governments won't be able to do enough to prevent the virus outbreak from causing significant damage to the global economy.

After Trump's address, Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced a series of moves, including restrictions for 60 days on travel by servicemembers, Defense Department civilians and their families to, from and through the four counties currently designated by the Centers for Disease Control as the highest risk Covid-19 counties — China, Iran, South Korea and Italy.

Community spread

In his remarks, Trump focused more on the threat of travel continuing to bring in illness when, in fact, in parts of the country there is "community spread" — meaning people who don't have a known travel exposure are becoming infected.

He left unaddressed testing, the backlog that is hampering efforts to learn just how many Americans already are infected.

Watch below: The World Health Organisation declares a pandemic

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And while he warned the elderly to avoid risky crowds, advised nursing homes to suspend visitors and told sick people to stay home from work, he didn't address one of the biggest concerns — whether hospitals are equipped to handle the sick or will be overwhelmed.

Georgetown University public health expert Lawrence Gostin tweeted in reaction to Trump's speech, "Most of Europe is as safe as US," and Covid-19 "is already here; germs don't respect borders."

Trump himself at 73 is considered at higher risk because of his age and has repeatedly flouted the advice of public health experts, who have advised the public to stop hand-shaking and practice social distancing.

But that didn't stop him from calling on fellow citizens to help combat the virus' spread.

"For all Americans, it is essential that everyone take extra precautions and practise good hygiene. Each of us has a role to play in defeating this virus," he said.

Financial relief

Trump said he was also directing agencies to provide unspecified financial relief for "for workers who are ill, quarantined or caring for others due to coronavirus," and asked Congress to take action to extend it.

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Trump said the US will defer tax payments for some individual and business filers for three months to lessen the impacts of the virus outbreak.

He said the Small Business Administration will also make low-interest loans available to businesses to help them weather the storm.

"This is not a financial crisis," he said. "This just a temporary moment of time that we will overcome together as a nation and as a world."

Trump also reiterated his call on Congress to pass a cut to the federal payroll tax in order to stimulate the economy, though that proposal was dismissed by many lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

He remained silent on his previous calls to provide assistance to industries hard-hit by the pandemic like airlines and cruise ships.

President Donald Trump speaks as there are 1135 confirmed cases of the coronavirus across the US, with 38 deaths. Photo / AP
President Donald Trump speaks as there are 1135 confirmed cases of the coronavirus across the US, with 38 deaths. Photo / AP

On Capitol Hill, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi unveiled an economic assistance plan that was gaining bipartisan backing.

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Central to the package is free coronavirus testing nationwide and emergency funding to reimburse lost pay cheques for those self-quarantining, missing work or losing jobs amid the outbreak.

The draft legislation would create a new federal emergency sick leave benefit for people with the virus or caring for a coronavirus victim. It would provide two-thirds of an employee's monthly income for up to three months. Facing a likely surge in unemployment claims, the package would also give states money for the newly jobless.

It would provide additional funding for food and nutrition benefits for pregnant women, mothers and young children.

It also would up money for "meals on wheels" and food for low-income elderly people.

"Right now we're trying to deal with the direct impact of the virus on individual citizens," said House Budget Committee Chairman John Yarmuth, D-Ky. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, whom Trump tapped to negotiate with Pelosi, urged Congress "to pass legislation quickly."

"This is a little bit like a hurricane, and we need to cover these outside of normal expenses," Mnuchin said.

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The administration had floated several other strategies, including the rare idea of declaring a national disaster that could potentially unlock funding streams, according to a person unauthorised to discuss the planning and granted anonymity.

But Trump ultimately opted against taking that step today.

-AP