March 25, 2020 / 12:19 AM / 13 days ago

Australia warns of impending health system crisis amid surge in coronavirus cases

* Australian leaders frustrated with social distancing breaches

* Leaders warn hospital system could be overwhelmed

* New restrictions limit wedding, funeral attendance numbers

* Half of total cases recorded in state of New South Wales

* Cruise ship represents single biggest source of infection

By Renju Jose and Jonathan Barrett

SYDNEY, March 25 (Reuters) - Australia is grappling with an accelerating number of coronavirus infections that political leaders warned on Wednesday could start overwhelming intensive care units, as case numbers across the country surged past 2,250.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said on Wednesday that if the same long queues appearing outside offices of the main welfare agency, Centrelink, started occurring at hospitals, there would be fatal consequences.

"If this gets away from us, our health system will be overrun and people won't just be queuing for Centrelink payments, they'll be queuing for heart, lung machines and ventilators and intensive care beds and we know what that means - you cannot queue for intensive care," Andrews said in Melbourne.

Australian leaders have become increasingly frustrated with apparent breaches of social distancing measures that saw thousands flock to beaches and pubs in recent days before new restrictions were implemented.

Andrews said a 500-strong squad of Victorian police were checking on thousands of people who have returned from overseas to make sure they are obeying isolation orders.

New curbs announced late on Tuesday on non-essential businesses are pushing the country closer to the stricter lockdown measures imposed in parts of Europe.

The latest restrictions limit the number of people attending a wedding to five - the couple, the celebrant and two witnesses - while funerals will be limited to 10 guests.

Around half of the more than 2,250 COVID-19 cases recorded in Australia are in the state of New South Wales, the country's most populous, which includes the overnight addition of two young children, with a two-month old boy and a seven-year old girl testing positive.

Case numbers in the state rose by more than 200 overnight, authorities said.

There have been eight deaths linked to the virus across the country, mostly in New South Wales.

One passenger from the Ruby Princess, a cruise ship that docked in Sydney last week, is among the casualties. The Carnival Corp's vessel has proven to be the biggest single source of infections in Australia, with more than 130 passengers and crew subsequently testing positive to the virus.

The national cabinet, dubbed the 'war cabinet', will meet again on Wednesday to consider responses to the pandemic in its third meeting this week.

Reporting by Renju Jose and Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Michael Perry

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