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What we know today, Wednesday December 23


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

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Parafield cluster officially over as 18 travellers file compensation claims

South Australia is all set for a COVID-normal Christmas despite the ongoing outbreak in New South Wales, as health authorities formally declared the Parafield cluster over today.

The cluster – which emerged in November from a Peppers Hotel security guard and infected 33 people – has not spread in the community since November 24, marking two incubation cycles of the virus.

With no new local COVID-19 cases today, SA Health has “officially” declared the end of the cluster which prompted the state’s aborted six-day lockdown last month.

The milestone comes as authorities eased one last round of restrictions this morning, with masks no longer mandatory for workers at personal care services such as hairdressers, beauty salons and tattoo parlours.

Mask mandates are also no longer in place for staff and visitors in health and aged care settings.

Meanwhile, state health minister Stephen Wade has confirmed 18 travellers from NSW have filed for compensation following a border bungle earlier in the week which saw 550 people wrongly told to self-isolate for 14 days.

SA Police say 500 of these travellers have been released from isolation, while 35 have been asked to continue their quarantine.

Another 30 people, who had arrived by road and were turned back, have been allowed into SA having presented at the border again.

Wade said the government “sincerely regret(s)” the hardship caused by the misstep, but hoped the public would “understand the context” authorities are working in.

“We sincerely regret the inconvenience that many people experienced, and we apologise for it … also we’ve been working hard to try and remediate where we can,” Wade said.

“I hope people would understand the context that we’ve got SA Health and SA Police teams who have been working extremely hard to carry out complex protocols.

“They were very keen not to delay the response, they were very keen to make sure that we were as safe as we could be.”

Wade also said all compensation claims would be judged on a “case-by-case basis”, and would not be part of a larger scheme given the “one off” nature of the miscommunication.

“I think it’s important to appreciate we are not establishing a compensation scheme here, we are responding to an event,” he said.

“We are not in the practice of compensating for COVID-19 restrictions, but this is a one off event where our miscommunication has impacted on people, we have indicated that we will consider requests for ex gratia payments on a case by case basis.”

Wade directed those seeking compensation to get in contact with the SA Health exemptions email or to ring the SA Health COVID information line.

There are currently three active COVID-19 cases in SA, all of whom acquired the virus overseas and are in hotel quarantine.

Prawn recall just days before Christmas

A major supermarket chain has issued an urgent recall of prawns, just days before Christmas.

Woolworths has ordered a total recall for its own-brand 1kg bags of Cooked & Peeled Cocktail Prawns.

Its website says the recall is due to “potential microbial contamination”.

It lists affected states as South Australia, Victoria, Northern Territory and Western Australia.

The prawns originate from Thailand.

“Any consumers concerned about their health should seek medical advice and should return the product to the place of purchase for a full refund,” the company says.

“Woolworths apologises to their customers for any inconvenience caused by this recall and if further information is required about the recall they are invited to call our Toll-free Customer Service number: 1800 103 515.”

The Food Standards Australia website says the product “may cause illness if consumed”.

NSW records eight new local cases, as Christmas plans revealed

Christmas in Sydney’s coronavirus-hit northern beaches has been partially salvaged to allow households to welcome up to five visitors from Thursday.

NSW recorded eight new locally-acquired cases of COVID-19 in the 24 hours to 8pm on Tuesday, with seven connected to the so-called Avalon cluster which now totals 97 infections.

The eighth case is a contact of an infected quarantine nurse. A further eight cases involved returned overseas travellers in hotel quarantine.

The tally of eight local COVID-19 cases came from almost 42,000 tests.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced a four-tier system for Christmas gatherings across NSW would be implemented from Thursday until December 27, when the current restrictions will be re-imposed.

Restrictions for regional NSW will remain unchanged, while up to 10 people and unlimited children aged under 12 will be permitted to gather on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day across greater Sydney.

The northern beaches, meanwhile, will be split into two for Christmas restrictions.

Residents north of the Narrabeen Bridge, where most COVID-19 cases have been acquired, will be allowed to host up to five people in their homes – however they must only be people from the local area.

On the southern end of the peninsula, in suburbs such as Manly, up to 10 people will be permitted to gather, but locals may not leave the area. They are only permitted to welcome other locals.

“The less mobility there is, the less risk of the virus being transmitted throughout the community further,” Berejiklian told reporters.

“Whilst we appreciate the modest changes we’ve made over the next three days, we also accept and respect the fact that many families and individuals may choose not to take up that opportunity.”

NSW Health has also issued fresh health alerts for venues around Sydney and the regional towns of Orange and Gundagai after they were visited by people with COVID-19.

The venues affected include the Paddington Alimentari restaurant in the eastern suburbs and Charlie & Franks cafe at St Leonards on the north shore.

Other venues visited by a person with COVID-19 include shops on the northern beaches at Mona Vale, Newport and Avalon and a swim school and playground at Warriewood.

The entire northern beaches local government area is currently in lockdown under a public health order that’s due to expire at 11.59pm on Wednesday.

Thousands of people around the state are self-isolating and will continue to do so over the festive period.

All state and territory borders are currently closed to people travelling from parts of Sydney.

Finding cheap fuel a step closer for South Australians

A company has been named to oversee a trial of real-time fuel price monitoring in South Australia.

Attorney-General Vickie Chapman this morning announced Informed Sources had won the bid to oversee the two-year trial beginning in the new year.

“Informed Sources has been involved in the petroleum industry for more than 30 years and are the minds behind the smartphone app MotorMouth, which already provides information to consumers on petrol pricing,” Chapman said.

“They are also responsible for undertaking a similar role with the Queensland government’s petrol price monitoring trial.”

Chapman said fuel retailers would be required to register for the trial in February, with the data to be made available to app developers.

She said motorists should be able to access real-time accurate information through apps and websites by the end of March.

Government reveals sweeping new legislation targeting online abuse

Australian adults will get greater protection from online bullying and attacks by internet trolls under a proposed federal government law.

The draft of the online safety bill released today is the first legislation to address the cyber abuse of adults in the world, the government says.

It will allow Australia’s eSafety commissioner to order the takedown of abusive material, especially if online platforms don’t respond in a timely manner to a legitimate complaint.

“The internet has brought great social, educational and economic benefits,” communications minister Paul Fletcher said.

“But just as a small proportion of human interactions go wrong offline, so too are there risks online.”

The proposed adult cyber-abuse laws would apply to “seriously harmful content” and “appropriately” balance the importance of freedom of speech, Mr Fletcher said.

Under the legislation, online platforms like Twitter and Facebook would be expected to remove abusive material within 24 hours of receiving a notice from the eSafety commissioner.

The commissioner would have the power to unmask persons behind anonymous or fake accounts used to abuse others or exchange illegal content.

They would also have the power to block websites in response to online crises, such as terrorism events.

The government is asking for community feedback on the bill by February 14 next year.

‘No evidence that it’s under control’: Biden responds to cyber attack

President-elect Joe Biden says he had seen no evidence that a massive cyber attack against the United States is under control and warned that the breach will not go unanswered once he takes office on January 20.

The hacking spree uncovered last week breached at least half a dozen US government agencies and left thousands of American companies exposed.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said it appeared to have been carried out by the Russian government.

“It is a grave risk and it continues. I see no evidence that it’s under control. I see none. Heard of none. Defense Department won’t even brief us on many things. So I know of nothing that suggests it’s under control,” Biden told reporters in Wilmington, Delaware.

Biden, the Democratic former vice president, faulted Republican President Donald Trump for stripping US defences against cyber attacks, saying: “This assault happened on Donald Trump’s watch, when he wasn’t watching.”

Biden, who defeated Trump in a November election, said his administration will take meaningful steps to respond to the breach, but gave no details.

The incoming White House chief of staff said on Sunday that Biden’s response to the hacking campaign would go beyond sanctions. Ron Klain said Biden was mapping out ways to degrade the capacity of foreign actors to engage in cyber attacks against the United States.

Options being mulled by the Biden administration to punish Moscow for its alleged role include financial penalties and retaliatory hacks on Russian infrastructure, people familiar with the matter have told Reuters.

The Kremlin denies any role in the hacking.

Rush to test vaccines against UK variant

Drug firms including BioNTech and Moderna are scrambling to test their COVID-19 vaccines against the new fast-spreading variant of the virus that is raging in Britain.

Ugur Sahin, chief executive of Germany’s BioNTech, which with partner Pfizer took less than a year to get a vaccine approved, said on Tuesday he needs another two weeks to know if his shot can stop the mutant variant of the virus.

Moderna expects immunity from its vaccine to protect against the new strain and is performing more tests in coming weeks to confirm, the company said in a statement to CNN.

The mutation known as the B.1.1.7 lineage may be up to 70 per cent more infectious.

It has sown chaos in Britain, prompting a wave of travel bans that are disrupting trade with Europe.

The main concern is that the new variant is 40 to 70 per cent more transmissible.

Sahin said there are nine mutations on the virus.

While he does not believe any are significant enough to skirt the protection afforded by BioNTech’s vaccine, which was approved by the European Union on Monday, he said another 14 days or so of study and data collection are needed before offering a definitive answer.

“Scientifically it is highly likely that the immune response by this vaccine can also deal with this virus variant,” he said.

“The vaccine contains more than 1,270 amino acids, and only nine of them are changed (in the mutant virus). That means that 99 per cent of the protein is still the same.”

Britain’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said on Saturday vaccines appeared to be adequate in generating an immune response to the new strain.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday it will convene a meeting of members to discuss strategies to counter the mutation.

WA border to open Christmas Day

Western Australia will resume quarantine-free travel with South Australia from Christmas Day, Premier Mark McGowan has confirmed.

Subject to no further outbreaks, WA authorities will move SA into the “very low risk” category at 12:01 am on December 25, allowing SA travellers to enter the state without quarantining provided they complete G2G permit applications and undergo a health screening upon arrival.

However, Christmas Day travel from Adelaide to Perth will not come easy, with the cheapest remaining tickets for the first direct flight between the two capitals going for more than $1100 and not arriving in Perth until 2 pm.

“For many South Australians that won’t be ideal, but we think that’s the right approach,” McGowan told Perth radio 6PR yesterday.

“That follows with our very cautionary and precautionary approach to dealing with COVID.”

The Christmas Day border-opening comes despite South Australian Premier Steven Marshall calling on his WA counterpart to open up earlier.

“I hope we can open up to WA very soon – I think it’s time for Mark McGowan to lift that border restriction with our state,” Marshall said on Thursday, December 10.

There are currently no restrictions on Western Australians travelling into South Australia.

WA has reimposed a hard border to NSW, restricting entry to anyone without special exemptions.

Having urged NSW to enforce harsher lockdown measures, McGowan said it was very positive the state had recorded just eight new local cases on Tuesday.

“I’m very pleased for NSW and very pleased for all the people who were at risk,” he said.

“I think the shutdown of that northern beach area was a good decision and I think that would have helped. They’re not out of the woods yet but it’s really very positive.”

New possibilities for carbon-neutral flight: study

A team of researchers at the University of Oxford have discovered a new method of producing carbon-neutral jet fuel – potentially raising the prospects of net zero emissions flights in future.

The study, published today in Nature Communications, outlines an experimental process whereby carbon dioxide emissions can be extracted from the atmosphere and mixed with an inexpensive iron-based catalyst to produce jet fuel.

The process of reverse engineering emissions into fuel – otherwise known as the “organic combustion method” – has long been discarded by the aviation industry since the process typically requires energy-intensive processes and expensive and inefficient catalysts.

While the study only collected results from a laboratory-scale experiment, the authors claim their new-iron based catalyst – made of iron, manganese and potassium – can be expanded to industrial scale.

“This catalytic process provides an attractive route not only to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions but also to produce renewable and sustainable jet fuel,” the authors said.

“The recycling of carbon dioxide as a carbon source for both fuels and high-value chemicals offers considerable potential for both the aviation and petrochemical industries.

“It also represents a significant social advance; thus, instead of consuming fossil crude oil, jet aviation fuels and petrochemical starting compounds are produced from a valuable and renewable raw material, namely, carbon dioxide.”

With the aviation industry accounting for 12 per cent of global transport emissions and unable to electrify at scale like ground transport, the search for sustainable fuel sources is only set to increase.

While any new fuel production process will have to compete with already existing sustainable alternatives like biofuel, the study’s authors are confident their newfound method offers a long-term solution to the aviation sector’s emissions problem.

“This … is the vision for the route to achieving net-zero carbon emissions from aviation; a fulcrum of a future global zero-carbon aviation sector,” the authors said.

“These advances highlight carbon dioxide recycling and resource conservation as an important, pivotal aspect of greenhouse gas management and sustainable development.”

EU-UK seek way out of Brexit impasse

Leaders and negotiators from the European Union and the United Kingdom have intensified their battle to get a trade deal over the New Year’s Day finish line.

Nine months of talks have dwindled to just a few days to find a compromise on how to continue trading with as few obstructions and tariffs as possible, after Britain left the EU on January 31.

A transition period runs out at the end of the year.

“We are really in a crucial moment and we are giving it a final push,” EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said.

“In 10 days, the UK will leave the single market.”

Over the past few days, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have been drawn more and more into the talks, seeking to unblock negotiations on the last major stumbling block – EU fishing rights in UK waters.

The rights have been shared among all EU nations in recent years, but with the Brexit departure the United Kingdom regains control over some of its waters.

If Britain insists on keeping the fishing rights for itself it could see itself punished with tough seafood export tariffs and other measures.

Officials said the EU could live with a cut of up to 25 per cent in quotas while Britain wants it to be significantly more.

The sides are also bickering over a transition period, which Johnson wants to limit to three years while the EU is pushing for seven.

On Monday, Johnson insisted it did not really matter whether or not an agreement is reached, saying Britain would “prosper mightily” even if the talks collapsed.

The stalemate has left the overall talks inconclusive, with businesses on both sides clamouring for a deal.

A failure to reach a post-Brexit arrangement is likely to lead to more chaos on Britain’s borders with the EU at the start of 2021, when new tariffs would add to other impediments to trade enacted by both sides.

Carey stranded for Strikers clash

Alex Carey will be among the first group of players to miss Big Bash games after failing to beat border closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The Adelaide Strikers confirmed on Tuesday captain Carey and quick Harry Conway will miss tonight’s clash with Brisbane.

Melbourne Stars batsman Nic Maddinson will also miss Boxing Day’s grand-final rematch against the Sydney Sixers for the same reason.

The trio were in Sydney for the Australia A tour match against the Indians until December 14, which falls into the window of the outbreak.

Cricket Australia made an effort to fly other players involved in that match out of Hobart early on Sunday night, in a bid to beat the border closure.

That group included Hobart’s Ben McDermott and the Melbourne Renegades’ Will Sutherland.

However, given the Strikers were playing the Sixers in Hobart until late Sunday night, they were unable to get to Queensland before the border closed at 1 am Monday.

Maddinson, meanwhile, was on leave from the Stars and therefore could not arrange travel into Queensland on time.

It’s believed the Strikers and Stars tried to get exemptions for the players but were unable to do so.

It means Carey and Conway will stay in home isolation in Adelaide to rejoin the team for the clash with Perth Scorchers on December 28.

Meanwhile, young gun Oliver Davies announced himself on the big stage last night with a quickfire 36 to help Sydney Thunder to a seven-wicket BBL win over the Perth Scorchers.

In his Big Bash debut, Davies whacked 36 from 21 balls and hit three sixes as the Thunder chased down Perth’s 5-152 with three balls to spare in Canberra.

South Australian Callum Ferguson top scored with 61 from 53, while veteran all-rounder Ben Cutting chipped in with 29 and the winning runs.

The win moves the Thunder into fourth position above the Strikers, who now sit fifth with just one win from three games.

– with AAP and Reuters
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