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What we know today, Monday December 21


Welcome to your serving of the day’s breaking news from South Australia, the nation and abroad.

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SA authorities to consider compensating wronged travellers

South Australian authorities will consider compensating hundreds of people who travelled from Sydney overnight and were wrongly turned back or forced into quarantine.

There was mass confusion and chaos at Adelaide Airport and at road border checkpoints last night, with travellers arriving before the midnight deadline told to return to Sydney or begin 14 days of quarantine.

South Australian Police Commissioner Grant Stevens apologised for the “breakdown in communication” that has seen Christmas plans ruined for many families.

He said about 100 people had returned to Sydney after being wrongly turned back at road checkpoints before the midnight deadline, while another 550 from the road checkpoints and airport were incorrectly forced into quarantine.

Health Minister Stephen Wade also apologised for the mistake and said the Government would consider calls for compensation on a “case by case basis”.

“If people believe they are entitled to compensation they can make contact with SA Health,” he said.

“I regret the inconvenience to people whose plans were disrupted due to the misunderstanding. I certainly apologise for that.”

Amid growing concerns about Sydney’s cluster – which today grew to 83 confirmed cases – Premier Steven Marshall announced new restrictions yesterday afternoon – declaring they would come info force from midnight.

People from the northern beaches are now banned from entering SA, while anyone from greater Sydney, the Central Coast and City of Wollongong must quarantine for 14 days and get tested on days one, five and 12 of their quarantine.

People from regional NSW don’t need to quarantine but they need to get tested.

But after hundreds of people arriving by road and air well before the midnight cut-off were last night forced into quarantine, deputy chief public health officer Dr Michael Cusack this morning told ABC Radio Adelaide they were required to quarantine.

However less than half an hour later, Stevens told FIVEaa that was wrong.

“If they came across the border before midnight they don’t have to quarantine,” he said.

“It’s a very unfortunate set of circumstances and we can only apologise to the people who were given the wrong information.

“There is no excuse. It has affected people’s Christmases and we are very sorry about that.”

Passengers took to social media last night to report the chaos and waits, as people made the dash from Sydney to Adelaide to try to beat the strict new quarantine restrictions imposed from midnight.

Police have also reintroduced road border checkpoints and set up testing stations at four main entry points from NSW – Oodla Wirra, Yamba, Wentworth and Pinnaroo.

SA Pathology staff have been stationed Adelaide Airport to test people flying in from NSW.

Sydney’s outbreak has grown to at least 83 confirmed infections, with 15 more people testing positive today.

Announcing the new restrictions yesterday, Premier Steven Marshall said: “We know this is going to significantly affect Christmas travel plans, so we don’t take these decisions lightly, but in this instance we believe that this is the best way that we can protect South Australia from any seeding into our state.” 

South Australia recorded no new cases today.

Yesterday the state recorded three new cases – all recently returned overseas travellers who tested positive on day one of their hotel quarantine.

NSW cluster rises by 15 new cases

NSW has recorded 15 new locally-acquired cases of COVID-19 amid a record virus testing haul of more than 38,500.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian said all the cases recorded in the 24 hours to 8pm on Sunday were connected to Sydney’s northern beaches cluster, taking the size of that cluster to at least 83.

The new cases emerged from the tests, which was the highest number conducted in the state in one day on record.

“The government is monitoring the situation almost on an hourly basis. We will consider our position in relation to what Christmas and the next few days look like beyond Wednesday … it’s an ongoing brief,” Berejiklian said today.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard earlier expressed his regret  Sydney residents were facing “a COVID Christmas” after a raft of restrictions were imposed just days before December 25.

The government has imposed a number of restrictions on the Sydney region, including the Blue Mountains, Central Coast and Illawarra-Shoalhaven, which will remain in place until midnight on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, two people have been fined for visiting Manly on the northern beaches on Sunday without a lawful excuse.

“(It’s) very disappointing that after nine months of people living with these restrictions, they still want to run the gauntlet,” NSW Police Minister David Elliott told Seven Network.

Today, more health alerts were issued for gyms, cafes, restaurants, a nursery and a sports centre across Freshwater, Mona Vale, Newport and Warriewood on the northern beaches as well as Double Bay in Sydney’s east.

NSW Labor said the NSW government should make face masks mandatory on public transport, backed by a number of epidemiologists.

Hazzard said while everyone in Sydney should be wearing masks when shopping, on public transport or when out in the general community the government had no plans to make it mandatory.

“If we have bus drivers having to act like police … there is already a level of anxiety for them and we don’t want to put them in a situation where they will be policemen and possibly getting into the sorts of fights that might happen,” he told ABC TV.

Every state and territory has now moved to block Greater Sydney residents from freely entering.

Yesterday, northern beaches residents were put in lockdown until midnight on Wednesday and no-one can enter the region without a lawful excuse.

They are permitted to leave their homes for five basic reasons: to seek medical care, exercise, grocery shop, work or for compassionate care reasons.

Since Sunday people in Greater Sydney, the Blue Mountains, Central Coast and Illawarra-Shoalhaven can have a maximum of 10 in their homes and patrons need to maintain a four-square metre distancing at venues.

Up to 300 people are permitted at places of worship and hospitality venues, while singing and chanting at indoor venues is banned and dance floors are only allowed at weddings.

People are also being urged to avoid visiting any vulnerable friends, relatives or aged-care facilities until Christmas Eve.

Border bans separate families at Christmas

Plans for Christmas reunions have been dashed around the country after states and territories moved to shut their borders to visitors from Sydney and surrounds.

Australians are waiting to see if the NSW government’s strategy to “go hard, go early” on a coronavirus outbreak in Sydney’s northern beaches area pays off.

Residents of NSW now face restrictions entering every other state and territory as the outbreak continues to grow, now at 83 confirmed cases.

And people planning to travel to NSW to visit friends and family for Christmas have had their plans dashed.

Health authorities say the next 48 hours will be critical after the NSW government locked down the northern beaches area until midnight on Wednesday and resurrected a small set of restrictions for Greater Sydney to contain the spread.

Former federal health department secretary and chair of the global Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Jane Halton says NSW made the right choice to “go hard, go early, go household’.

But it could get worse before it gets better.

“If they discover it leaked into other places I have no doubt they will apply further restrictions and that is what they should do,” Halton told Nine’s Today program this morning.

“This is why they are asking people to be cautious to not go out, to limit the number of people and gatherings.”

Western Australia reimposed a hard border with NSW on Saturday.

People travelling from greater Sydney and the Central Coast will not be able to enter other states from today. If they do, they will have to undergo 14 days of hotel quarantine in most states, or quarantine at home in South Australia and the ACT.

Only those from Greater Sydney will have to quarantine for two weeks on arrival in Tasmania.

Greater Sydney stretches from the Hawkesbury, Hornsby and the northern beaches regions in the north, to the Blue Mountains in the west, and the Wollondilly, Campbelltown and Sutherland regions in the south.

There is a 24 hour grace period for Queensland and Victorian residents returning home, with authorities allowing them to quarantine inside their own houses.

Acting National Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly on Sunday defended the way states and territories responded in restricting interstate travel.

“It’s unfortunate that this is happening but we need to put safety and health concerns at the forefront,” he said.

“Those on the northern beaches of Sydney, my heart goes out to you. This is a tricky time in the lead-up to Christmas but please stay the course.”

Vic quarantine bungle report released

No individual made the decision to hire private security guards to oversee returned travellers in Victoria’s hotel quarantine, the final report into the bungled program has found.

Victoria’s second wave of coronavirus, which resulted in more than 18,000 new infections and 800 deaths, can be traced back to security guards working at the Rydges on Swanston and Stamford Plaza hotels.

In the inquiry’s final report, tabled in parliament today, retired judge Jennifer Coate concludes the evidence heard at the inquiry “did not identify that “any one person decided to engage private security in the program”.

She said the decision to hire the guards was not made at a ministerial level, effectively clearing Premier Daniel Andrews, former health minister Jenny Mikakos and senior government ministers Martin Pakula and Lisa Neville.

“Enforcement of quarantine was a crucial element of the program that the premier had committed Victoria to adopting, but neither he nor his ministers had any active role in, or oversight of, the decision about how that enforcement would be achieved,” the report reads.

However, the report also found there was no consideration as to whether security guards were the right cohort to guard the hotels, rather than police or Australian Defence Force personnel.

“Not one of the more than 70,000 documents produced to the inquiry demonstrated a contemporaneous rationale for the decision to use private security as the first tier of enforcement, or an approval of that rationale in the upper levels of government,” it found.

The role performed by security guards in the program was “ill-defined from the beginning and was, ultimately, a role not suited, without close monitoring and extensive and continued training, to the cohort of guards that was engaged”.

Coate said the security guards were a “largely casualised workforce in an environment where staff had a high likelihood of being exposed to the highly infectious COVID-19”.

“This, of course, had flow-on impacts in terms of the spread of the virus,” she wrote.

Ms Mikakos and two senior public servants have already resigned over the hotel quarantine scandal.

Cheaper power bills on the way for South Aussies

South Australians could be paying $200 less for their yearly power bills in three years’ time.

All jurisdictions – except the ACT – in the National Energy Market are poised to see lower electricity prices by 2023, driven by cheaper gas and renewable sources like solar and wind.

The forecasts are contained in the Australian Energy Market Commission’s latest electricity price projections, released on Monday.

In the ACT, bills are expected to decrease over the next two years before increasing in the 2022/23 financial year, driven by rising transmission and distribution costs.

The net result is that a typical consumer bill for the ACT will increase about two per cent or $45 between now and 2023.

South Australians are likely to see a huge drop in their bills by 2023, with electricity costs to be about $200 less than now.

Victorians are also set to save, with their electricity bills expected to drop by $170 over the next three years.

A big increase of new power sources coming online, particularly wind farms, as well as lower gas prices, are to thank for prices going down.

Tasmania is running entirely on green energy after an additional wind turbine was recently connected to the grid.

It resulted in the island state reaching its goal of 100 per cent renewable power two years ahead of schedule.

Electricity bills on the Apple Isle are poised to be $70 less in 2023 than this year, due to lower wholesale and environmental costs.

NSW households are expected to pay about $30 less in 2023 than now.

The analysis occurred before major announcements from NSW and Victoria on boosting renewables.

AEMC chief Benn Barr said that in any case, prices in 2023 would still be lower than today.

“But it is important to stress these are projections not predictions,” he said.

“Trends can change sharply in response to new policies and sudden market changes.”

The main factors in electricity bill prices are wholesale, network and environmental costs, which are all falling.

It’s the second year in a row environmental costs have been flagged to drop.

AEMO says ultimately electricity bills are dependent on household power use and people should shop around for the best deal.

The projections don’t include Western Australia and the Northern Territory as they have their own electricity systems and are not part of the National Electricity Market.

Skills availability and COVID restrictions among key challenges for state’s regional companies

South Australia’s biennial regional business survey, released today, found skills availability, coronavirus restrictions and digital infrastructure as the top key challenges for the state’s regional companies, following the 2019/20 bushfires and coronavirus pandemic.

About 402 respondents from across nine regions participated in the Business SA, Chamber of Commerce and Industry South Australia report – The Regional Voice.

The key issue for both individual business respondents and regions overall was skills availability, followed by COVID-19 restrictions.

Labour costs rounded up the third spot for individual businesses while a lack of population growth was number three across the regions.

The report said the shortage of skilled workers and professionals was due to limited community infrastructure and access to necessary services, as well as being able to attract highly skilled people.

Business SA CEO Martin Haese said despite the impact of the bushfires and coronavirus, regional businesses were “relatively confident about the future” and had rebounded “quite substantially” since the shutdown.

– Jessica Bassano

Dan Christian puts Strikers to the sword

The Adelaide Strikers went down by 38 runs to the Sydney Sixers last night, as veteran Dan Christian hit the second fastest half-century in Big Bash League history and nabbed a breakthrough with the ball.

The all-rounder’s brutal 50, which included five sixes, came off just 15 deliveries as the Sixers posted 5-177 at Blundstone Arena on Sunday night.

He returned to pick up Phil Salt with his third ball and nip a promising Strikers’ start in the bud.

Christian came to the crease with the Sixers 3-58 at the start of the 12th over after they struggled early on a nippy pitch.

He hit 22 off one over by debutant Liam Scott, who was subbed in as an X-factor player at the 10-over mark.

Christian fell to a top edge off Wes Agar one ball after notching his milestone.

Only Chris Gayle’s half-century off 12 balls in BBL05 has been faster.

“Knowing we still had a few guys in the sheds, I went out and played some shots,” the 37-year-old Christian said.

“It was a bit of a gamble but it paid off.

“I feel like I’m in a good place. As long as your eyes don’t go, and mine haven’t yet, I feel like having that extra year experience again … you can tend to see what’s coming.”

Adelaide’s chase got off to a quick start courtesy of Salt and Jake Weatherald, who paired up for 52 inside five overs.

But Christian broke the stand and finished with 1-25 as the Strikers limped to 7-139.

Seamer Dan Worrall had the ball talking early for the Strikers after they elected to field, taking 2-12 off four straight overs that included 18 dot balls.

For the second time in as many matches, Adelaide opted to substitute out English spinner Danny Briggs.

Under new rules this summer, teams can replace a member of their starting XI at the 10-over mark provided they have not batted or bowled more than one over.

Briggs had sent down one over for a respectable five runs and could have dismissed James Vince had wicketkeeper Alex Carey nailed a simple stumping.

His replacement, Scott, went for 28 off his two overs as Christian took the long handle to the attack.

Coach Jason Gillespie said the decision to replace Briggs was made to bolster the side’s batting on a deck not offering much for spin.

“We’ll look back on it to see if we could have done anything different but we’re comfortable with the decision,” he said.

“We knew what (Christian) was coming in to do, to tee-off, and it went his way.

“That changed the momentum of the game, it was a fantastic knock.”

Europe limits UK travel after new lockdown

Several European countries have placed new restrictions on travel to and from the United Kingdom due to concern over a new strain of the coronavirus that is spreading rapidly there.

Belgium said it would close its borders to trains and planes coming from the UK, while the Netherlands and Italy also suspended flights.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced on Saturday that the new virus strain had led to spiralling infection numbers.

The UK government tightened its COVID-19 restrictions for London and the southeast, disrupting the Christmas holiday plans of millions of people.

Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said the ban on incoming travel from Britain covers flights and Eurostar train services, and will take effect for at least 24 hours from midnight on Sunday, broadcaster VRT said.

Belgium was also in touch with neighbour France over road transit passengers from Britain, VRT said.

In Italy, Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio announced plans to halt flights to and from Britain.

“Our priority is to protect Italy and our compatriots,” he said.

The Netherlands banned flights carrying passengers from the UK from Sunday and the restrictions will remain in place until at least January 1, the Dutch government said.

It is monitoring developments and considering additional measures regarding other modes of transport.

Germany could impose restrictions on flights from Britain and South Africa – which has also detected a new coronavirus strain – a health ministry official said.

Austria is also planning to ban flights from the UK, the APA news agency said, citing the country’s health ministry.

Spain said that in response to the moves by some of its European Union partners, it had asked the European Commission and the European Council for a coordinated community response to the situation.

Otherwise it would act unilaterally to defend its interests and citizens, the Madrid government said.

Like other countries in Europe, Britain is battling to contain new waves of the virus. It reported 27,052 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, taking the total over two million, and 534 more deaths, taking the official toll to more than 67,000.

In addition to the measures announced for England, the United Kingdom’s other nations, whose response to the pandemic differs from that of England at times, tightened restrictions.

Scotland has imposed a ban on travel to the rest of the United Kingdom.

US closes in on $900m virus-relief deal

US officials are optimistic they will pass a $US900 billion ($A1.2 trillion) coronavirus aid package after senators struck a late-night compromise to clear one of the final hurdles, a dispute over Federal Reserve pandemic lending authorities.

Congressional leaders plan to attach the coronavirus aid package, which includes $US600 ($A787) direct payments to individuals and a $US300 ($A393) per week unemployment compensation supplement, to a $US1.4 ($A1.8) trillion spending bill funding government programs through to September 2021.

Sources briefed on the matter told Reuters on Sunday the deal was expected to grant US airlines $US15 billion ($A20 billion) in payroll assistance that will allow them to return more than 32,000 workers to their payrolls by March 31.

The deal would also include $US1 billion ($A1.3 billion) for rail service Amtrak, $US14 billion ($A18 billion) for public transit systems and $US10 billion ($A13 billion) for state highways, one of the sources said.

The senators face a funding deadline of midnight on Sunday local time, risking a government shutdown without action.

Republican Senator Pat Toomey had insisted on language that would guarantee that the central bank could not revive emergency lending programs after December 31, when they expire under the CARES Act COVID-19 relief legislation passed in March.

Republicans had said the programs are an unnecessary government interference in private business that politicises the Federal Reserve, while Democrats accused their rivals of trying to tie the Fed’s hands in order to limit President-elect Joe Biden’s options for boosting the flagging economy after he takes office on January 20.

“I do have optimism that it’ll pass,” House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy said in an interview on Fox News.

“I am very hopeful that we get this done today.”

The Senate adjourned a rare Saturday session with a call from Republican leader Mitch McConnell to avoid last-minute disagreements that could delay new funding.

“I believe there is going to be a deal. There are always sticking points, but the big one was resolved last night,” Republican Senator Mitt Romney told CNN on Sunday.

“They’re working out some additional points. But I think it’s going to get done. It’ll get done before Christmas.”

In the 11 months since the first cases were documented in the United States, COVID-19 has killed more than 316,000 Americans, by far the most in the world, and put millions out of work, with unemployment rising.

President Donald Trump, whose administration has largely left negotiations up to congressional leaders, complained early on Sunday morning that a deal had not been reached.

“Why isn’t Congress giving our people a Stimulus Bill? It wasn’t their fault, it was the fault of China,” Trump said on Twitter. “GET IT DONE, and give them more money in direct payments.”

Rockets target US Embassy in Baghdad

At least three rockets have targeted the US Embassy in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone, Iraqi security officials said, sparking fears of renewed unrest as next month’s anniversary of the slaying of an Iranian general draws near.

The embassy’s C-RAM defence system was used to destroy the rockets mid-air, three Iraqi security officials said, with damage caused to property and parked cars.

It was not immediately clear if there were any casualties. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

The C-RAM system was installed by the US over the summer as armed groups stepped up rocket attacks targeting the embassy and its premises.

The US withdrew some staff from its embassy in Baghdad earlier this month, temporarily reducing personnel ahead of the first anniversary of the Washington-directed killing of Iranian General Qassim Soleimani outside Baghdad’s airport on January 3.

Officials said the decision stemmed from concerns about a possible retaliatory strike.

Soleimani’s killing sparked outrage and led Iraq’s parliament to pass a non-binding resolution days later calling for the expulsion of all foreign troops from Iraq.

The frequency of rocket attacks have frustrated the Trump administration, with Iranian-backed militia groups blamed for orchestrating the assaults.

In September, Washington warned Iraq that it will close its embassy in Baghdad if the government fails to take decisive action to end attacks on American and allied interests in the country.

Nepal heads to surprise election in 2021

Nepal’s president has dissolved parliament at the request of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s cabinet and announced general elections will be held in April and May, more than a year ahead of schedule.

The move on Sunday plunges the Himalayan country into political turmoil as it battles the coronavirus pandemic.

Nepal has seen revolving-door governance since street protests restored multi-party democracy in 1990.

President Bidhya Devi Bhandari’s office said in a statement the next vote will be held on April 30 and May 10, as recommended by the cabinet following an emergency meeting.

Oli, 68, pushed for a fresh mandate after the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) accused him of sidelining his party in government decisions and appointments.

He had led an alliance with former Maoist rebels to a landslide victory in 2017.

NCP central committee member Bishnu Rijal said the the prime minister had lost support from the majority in the parliamentary party.

“Instead of seeking a compromise within the party, he chose to dissolve parliament,” Rijal said.

Oli aide Rajan Bhattarai said the prime minister had acted in response to the backlash from his party, which had also asked him to consider quitting as its president.

Politicians and others said the ruling party should have tried out other political combinations to run the country instead of calling an untimely election when its tourism-dependent economy has been battered by the pandemic.

Dozens of protesters gathered near the prime minister’s office, calling the move unconstitutional.

Coronavirus infections have reached 253,772, with 1788 deaths, in the country of 30 million people.

Former diplomat Dinesh Bhattarai was among the critics of Oli’s move.

“PM Oli chose to betray the people’s mandate for stability, development and dignity,” he tweeted.

– with AAP and Reuters
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