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What we know today, Thursday January 14

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Today’s breaking news from South Australia, the nation and abroad. The Queensland Government is seeking a national quarantine overhaul, and has suggested moving returned international travellers from CBD medi-hotels to disused, regional mining camps.  

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Four from Brisbane hotel linked to SA

Four recent travellers to South Australia may have quarantined at Brisbane’s Grand Chancellor Hotel, now shut down over a COVID-19 scare.

SA Health said earlier today that two people who were at the hotel and later travelled to South Australia were no longer in the state.

It said checks were still being made to confirm if two more people from the hotel had recently arrived in SA via Victoria.

Later this afternoon, SA Health confirmed one person had arrived in South Australia via Victoria and was now in quarantine.

“Upon further investigation, one of the two people believed to have left the state remains in South Australia and is also currently in quarantine,” the department said.

The information comes after the Grand Chancellor was shut down when six people linked to the quarantine facility tested positive for the more contagious UK coronavirus strain.

A cleaner and her partner, who are among the six, were contagious while in the community and triggered a three-day lockdown in Brisbane last weekend.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has now proposed a national network of outback quarantine camps to protect Australians from the UK variant.

Palaszczuk says it’s clearly too risky to quarantine travellers in capital cities anymore.

Queensland is instead looking to order people to quarantine in vacant regional mining camps.

SA Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier said if any people who stayed at the Grand Chancellor were found to be in South Australia, they would be required to return to quarantine.

“We do know that this is one of these new variants of concern and we know that it is more transmissible and we don’t want to take any chances,” she told reporters on Wednesday.

Issues over the hotel cases prompted South Australia to keep quarantine restrictions in place for all travellers from Greater Brisbane.

South Australia reported no new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, leaving the state with 11 active infections, all returned travellers in hotel quarantine.

Queensland seeking national quarantine overhaul

The Queensland government wants international arrivals to quarantine in remote regional mining camps to protect the population from the UK strain of coronavirus, and Premier Anastacia Palaszczuk will raise the issue with National Cabinet when it next meets on January 22 in the hope that other jurisdictions may adopt the model.

The move comes after Brisbane’s Grand Chancellor Hotel was shut down when six people linked to the quarantine facility tested positive for the highly contagious COVID-19 variant.

A hotel cleaner and her partner, who are among the six, were contagious while in the community, triggering a three-day lockdown in Brisbane last weekend.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk says it’s too risky to quarantine returned travellers who may have the UK strain in the middle of Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

The government is instead looking to order people in quarantine in disused mining camps in regional Queensland.

“We are looking at alternative plans to hotel quarantine that is based right in the midst of CBD where you have a whole lot of staff that come in from all around, you have airports, people flying in and out of airports,” she told reporters today.

“This is a rational option and if we are dealing with a strain, which is up to 70 per cent more infectious, I think we need to be really serious about it.”

She noted the Northern Territory’s Howard Springs facility was working well and there was no reason similar systems couldn’t be implemented in other jurisdictions.

“I’m going to put this forward as an option to the federal government … and we’ll be having those discussions, so we’ll look forward to those discussions over the next few days,” Palaszczuk said.

“But also, too, I do want to discuss it at National Cabinet, that will be held on Friday week. I hope the AHPPC advice will also go to National Cabinet.

“It’s a matter for state and territories, but I think with this new strain we have to put all options on the table, and these are sensible rational options.

“Howard Springs works very well in the Northern Territory, and there’s no reason why we couldn’t do something similar here in Queensland or if not around the country, but of course, that’s the metaphor other jurisdictions.”

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard has already rejected the call to move hotel quarantine to regional areas, citing transportation and medical transfer risks.

“There’s strong views held in our public health team it makes sense to continue to have the hotel quarantine arrangements we currently have,” Hazzard told reporters today.

“If they were moved into the regions, first of all, there are challenges around the transportation of people who have come from overseas … being in a bus for an hour or two to whichever region may be considered.

“There’s also another critical factor, and that’s if we do get people who deteriorate, we want them to be able to transferred to a major tertiary hospital as quickly as possible.”

Queensland Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young said four people had tested positive for the virus in hotel quarantine in the 24 hours to 9am on Thursday.

None are linked to the Grand Chancellor cluster, with two men from the US and a couple from South Africa.

Dr Young is confident contact-tracers had found every person that the cleaner and her partner had contact with when they were out in Brisbane last week while contagious.

The official investigation into the Grand Chancellor cluster has not identified any wrongdoing by any staff or guests.

Victorian Premier Dan Andrews today confirmed that 18 people have entered Victoria after quarantining at the Brisbane Grand Chancellor.

Andrews said health authorities are in the process of contacting and isolating this group, while hinting that close contacts of those 18 people may have to isolate as well.

Tasmania has also ordered 14 people who recently returned from the hotel to quarantine.

Ten of these people are on a catamaran named Bucco Reef.

Authorities say the crew are completing their quarantine on the vessel.

Pucovski out, Harris in for Gabba test

Victorian opener Will Pucovski has been ruled out of the fourth and final test between Australia and India at the Gabba tomorrow, unable to pull up from a shoulder injury sustained while fielding on day five at the SCG.

Pucovksi will be replaced at the top of the order by Victorian teammate Marcus Harris, whose last appearance for Australia was at the 2019 Ashes series in England.

Australian captain Tim Paine confirmed Harris will open alongside David Warner, who has overcome fitness concerns related to a groin injury he picked up in November.

“[Pucovski] tried to train this morning, didn’t quite come up,” Paine told reporters.

“He’ll have a bit of work to do with our medicos to see where he goes from here.

“Marcus Harris will come in, open the batting and we’re looking forward to seeing what he can do.”

Paine described Harris as a “no fuss, very good player”.

“He’s been working his backside off in our hub,” Paine said. “He deserves his opportunity.

“He’s a really relaxed type of character, so he’s one we certainly enjoy having him in and around our group.”

Trump first US president to be impeached twice

Donald Trump has become the first US president to be impeached twice, after a majority of members in the US House of Representatives voted to remove the president from office for inciting insurrection.

Of the 433 House members present, 231 voted to impeach, 197 voted to acquit, while five were not present.

All 221 Democrats present voted to impeach, while 10 Republicans – including third ranking House Republican Liz Cheney – also voted to remove the president from office.

Ten is the highest number of members from a president’s own party to vote to impeach in US history.

However, the Senate’s top Republican rejected Democratic calls to reconvene the Senate for an immediate trial, all but ensuring Trump will not be ousted before his term ends next week.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed on Twitter a Washington Post report that McConnell had informed the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, he is not willing to bring the chamber into emergency session to consider removing Trump from office following House impeachment.

The vote to impeach comes a week after a pro-Trump mob swarmed the US Capitol in a deadly attack shortly after the Republican president delivered an incendiary speech to thousands of supporters and repeated false claims of an election stolen from him due to widespread voting fraud. The mob interrupted the formal certification of Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in the November 3 election.

The House debated a single article of impeachment formally charging Trump with inciting insurrection.

“We know that the president of the United States incited this insurrection, this armed rebellion against our common country,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told her fellow lawmakers.

“He must go. He is a clear and present danger to the nation that we all love.”

Pelosi said Trump has engaged in a “war on democracy,” and that the “insurrectionists” and “domestic terrorists” who stormed the Capitol were “sent here by the president.”

No US president ever has been removed from office through impeachment. Three – Trump in 2019, Bill Clinton in 1998 and Andrew Johnson in 1868 – previously have been impeached by the House but were left in power by the Senate.

Republicans made speeches urging the House not to impeach Trump in the interest in promoting national healing, with some accusing Democrats of recklessness.

Lawmakers remained on edge after last week’s violence, and large numbers of National Guard troops wearing fatigues and carrying rifles were stationed outside and inside the building.

Trump urged his supporters not to launch new demonstrations as some are threatening, with the FBI reporting that “armed protests” are planned in all 50 state Capitols from January 16 through to Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20.

“In light of reports of more demonstrations, I urge that there must be NO violence, NO lawbreaking and NO vandalism of any kind,” Trump said in a statement.

“That is not what I stand for, and it is not what America stands for. I call on ALL Americans to help ease tensions and calm tempers.”

SA border opens to regional NSW amid Queensland chaos

The South Australian border opened this morning to residents in regional New South Wales, with incoming travellers having to undergo “surveillance” COVID-19 testing on day one, five and 12 of their stay in SA.

Travel restrictions remain for residents of Greater Sydney, the Blue Mountains, Wollongong and the Central Coast, although Premier Steven Marshall said authorities “will continue to look at those on a daily basis”.

The move comes after NSW reported just one new locally acquired COVID-19 case in the 24 hours up to 8pm on Tuesday: a close contact of a case linked to the 28-person Berala cluster.

There are currently 191 active cases in the state.

NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said they will need “at least” three more weeks to stamp out the COVID-19 clusters around Greater Sydney.

“It would take at least three, maybe four weeks, and so I need the community to be on track with us,” Dr Chant told reporters yesterday.

“As an epidemiologist, we like to see around two incubation periods before we assess that we are free of the disease … there are multiple factors.”

South Australian authorities have said they will not reopen to border to Greater Sydney until it records 14 days of no community transmission.

Meanwhile, there has been no change to SA’s border restrictions on residents from Greater Brisbane, with the Commonwealth keeping their hotspot declaration for the area after six people at Brisbane’s Hotel Grand Chancellor tested positive for COVID-19.

Queensland authorities moved yesterday to close the medi-hotel, forcing 129 returned travellers to restart their 14-day quarantine and a further 476 workers and guests into isolation as they await test results.

Queensland Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young described the source of the six cases as an “epidemiological mystery”.

“There are two parts to this that we need to address: the incident response and the epidemiological mystery behind the source,” Dr Young said.

“There is no evidence at this stage that the hotel or any of its staff have done anything wrong,”

Marshall said he understood the frustration surrounding SA’s closed border to Brisbane, but insisted authorities are “not in a position” to lift current restrictions.

“There are still some worrying concerns there, there is still more testing to be done from people who have been released from the hotel quarantine situation, and from some people who’ve been working in that hotel quarantine situation,” Marshall said.

“Until Queensland get that information back, we’re not in a position to lift that restriction, but we’re hopeful it can be done in the coming days.”

There are currently 12 active COVID-19 cases in South Australia, with the state’s coronavirus total at 590.

Google hiding news content during ACCC code row

Tech giant Google is removing Australian news content from its search results in “experiments” affecting around one per cent of Google search users in Australia.

Some internet users have reported that Google searches for Australian news organisations are only showing old content or the news outlet’s Wikipedia and social media pages, while the outlet’s site and its latest stories have disappeared.

In a statement to The Guardian, a spokesperson for Google admitted the search platform was “running a few experiments that will each reach about one per cent of Google Search users in Australia to measure the impacts of news businesses and Google Search on each other”.

The spokesperson said the experiments would end in February.

The move comes as Google lobbies against a media bargaining code set out by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which the federal government says will ensure digital platforms – namely Google Search and Facebook NewsFeed – share the benefits they obtain from using Australian-sourced news content.

While the code encourages news businesses and digital platforms to negotiate outside of the code, it sets out a process for independent arbitration if the two parties cannot reach an agreement.

The code also includes a provision which would require Google to give “14 days advance notice of deliberate algorithm changes that impact news media businesses”.

Google is opposed to new laws, with Google Australia managing director Mel Silva writing an open letter last week claiming the code would “fundamentally damage Google Search”.

“If the code became law today, it would break the way Google Search works undermining the benefits of the internet for millions of Australians, from small business owners across the country, to literally anyone trying to find information online,” Silva said.

The code is currently being scrutinised by a Senate committee which is due to report on February 12, before the laws are voted on in parliament.

Meanwhile in the US, Google is suspending all political advertisements on its platforms until at least January 21 – the day after President Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration – with the tech company saying it is “extremely vigilant” about enforcing its policy against ads that promote hate or incite violence.

In an email sent to advertisers, the company said the suspension came “following the unprecedented events of the past week”, and would “temporarily pause all political ads in addition to any ads referencing impeachment, the inauguration, or protests at the U.S. Capitol”.

Australia’s human rights record marred by HRW report

Australia’s global reputation on human rights has been marred by the government’s failure to address longstanding abuses against First Nations people, Human Rights Watch says in its annual report.

The New York based rights group also highlighted the misuse of police powers during COVID-19 lockdowns, excessive restrictions on movement and the government’s continued mistreatment of asylum seekers.

“In 2020 the global Black Lives Matter movement refocused attention in Australia on systemic racism and inequality against First Nations people, particularly high death rates in custody, and overrepresentation in prisons,” Australia director at HRW Elaine Pearson said.

“Australian federal and state governments need to urgently prioritise reforming longstanding policies that discriminate against First Nations people,” she said in a statement.

In 2020 at least seven Indigenous people died in custody in Australia where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise 29 per cent of the adult prison population, but just 3 per cent of the national population, the HRW report said.

“Reducing incarceration rates requires systemic reforms including repealing punitive bail laws and mandatory sentencing laws, decriminalising public drunkenness, ending over-policing of indigenous communities and raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14,” the report said.

HRW noted that in June the Western Australian parliament took a positive step by passing a law to reduce the practice of jailing people for unpaid fines, which disproportionately affects indigenous people and people on low incomes.

The HRW report labelled the federal government’s offshore processing of asylum seekers “punitive, cruel, and unlawful”.

“The Morrison government continues to reject New Zealand’s offers to take some of the 290 people remaining in Papua New Guinea and Nauru; 208 have been recognised as refugees and 23 have asylum claims pending.”

HRW also noted that police efforts to enforce pandemic curfews and lockdowns raised concerns over freedom of expression and the misuse of police powers.

“A spate of cases of racial abuse and attacks against people of Asian descent were reported across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic,” its report said.

“Australia has done very well in containing COVID-19, but some police practices during Victoria’s COVID-19 lockdown threatened basic rights,” Pearson said.

HRW’s 761-page World Report 2021 reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries.

Second year of pandemic ‘could be even tougher’: WHO

The second year of the COVID-19 pandemic may be tougher than the first given how the new coronavirus is spreading, especially in the northern hemisphere as more infectious variants circulate, the World Health Organisation is warning.

“We are going into a second year of this, it could even be tougher given the transmission dynamics and some of the issues that we are seeing,” Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergencies official, said during an event on social media.

The worldwide death toll is approaching 2 million people since the pandemic began, with 91.5 million people infected.

The WHO, in its latest epidemiological update issued overnight, said after two weeks of fewer cases being reported, some five million new cases were reported last week, the likely result of a letdown of defences during the holiday season in which people – and the virus – came together.

“Certainly in the northern hemisphere, particularly in Europe and North America we have seen that sort of perfect storm of the season – coldness, people going inside, increased social mixing and a combination of factors that have driven increased transmission in many, many countries,” Ryan said.

The warning comes as the US recorded a total of 4327 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, a new daily record.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, warned: “After the holidays, in some countries the situation will get a lot worse before it gets better.”

Amid growing fears of the more contagious coronavirus variant first detected in Britain but now entrenched worldwide, governments across Europe on Wednesday announced tighter, longer coronavirus restrictions.

That includes home-office requirements and store closures in Switzerland, an extended Italian COVID-19 state of emergency, and German efforts to further reduce contacts between people blamed for failed efforts, so far, to get the coronavirus under control.

“I worry that we will remain in this pattern of peak and trough and peak and trough, and we can do better,” Van Kerkhove said.

She called for maintaining physical distancing, adding: “The further, the better … but make sure that you keep that distance from people outside your immediate household.”

Scientists describe ‘ecological Ponzi scheme’ in scathing paper

The world faces a ghastly future, threatening the survival of all species, unless urgent and decisive action is taken to slow climate change and biodiversity loss, an international group of 17 leading scientists says.

The group has looked at 150 studies to produce a “perspective paper”, published yesterday, which outlines future trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption and planetary toxification.

It says all these events are tied to human consumption and population growth and demonstrate the near certainty that these problems will get worse over the coming decades, with negative impacts for centuries to come.

Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University says no political or economic system, or leadership, is prepared to handle the predicted disasters.

“Stopping biodiversity loss is nowhere close to the top of any country’s priorities, trailing far behind other concerns such as employment, healthcare, economic growth, or currency stability,” he said.

“Humanity is running an ecological Ponzi scheme in which society robs nature and future generations to pay for short-term economic enhancement today.”

The study’s lead author Professor Corey Bradshaw of Flinders University in Adelaide said humanity was causing a rapid loss of biodiversity and, with it, the earth’s ability to support complex life.

But he said most people had difficulty grasping the magnitude of the losses and the dangers ahead.

“In fact, the scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its life forms is so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts,” he said.

“The problem is compounded by ignorance and short-term self-interest, with the pursuit of wealth and political interests stymieing the action that is crucial for survival.”

Professor Dan Blumstein from UCLA said the scientists were choosing to speak boldly and fearlessly because “life literally depends on it”.

“What we are saying might not be popular, and indeed is frightening,” he said.

“But we need to be candid, accurate, and honest if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face in creating a sustainable future.”

Another scientific study published yesterday in Environmental Health Perspectives showed increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels can inflict structural damage on the lungs of young mice.

The study examined the impact of a carbon dioxide concentration of 900 parts per million (ppm) on mice.

The earth’s current C02 concentration is around 400 ppm.

Although mice are better able to tolerate higher C02 levels due to their burrowing habits, the study found the 900 ppm concentration had a “direct impact” on the mice’s lung functioning.

“The lung damage included altered alveoli, which is the critical part of the lung that helps with gas exchange – meaning they could have had more difficulty breathing,” the study’s lead author Associate Professor Alexander Larcombe said.

“We also saw some changes in the actual physical structure of the lungs and both of these changes meant the lungs weren’t functioning as they should.”

Larcombe urged for more research into the phenomenon, given the earth’s C02 levels are projected to rise to 800 ppm “within our lifetimes”.

Triumphant de Minaur claims fourth ATP title

After missing last year’s Australian Open in despair, in-form Alex de Minaur says he has goosebumps thinking about returning to Melbourne Park as the country’s top men’s hope in 2021.

The 21-year-old tennis excitement machine has opened his season in style, claiming the first ATP trophy on offer for the year – and his fourth overall – with title glory at the Antalya Open in Turkey.

De Minaur was leading Alexander Bublik 2-0 in Wednesday night’s final when the Kazakh retired injured just seven minutes into the match.

The world No.23 dropped only one set for the week in a promising build-up to the rescheduled Open starting on February 8.

“I mean, it’s massive. At the start of the year that’s what you need,” de Minaur said after backing up his semi-final win over second-seeded world No.16 David Goffin in a somewhat anticlimactic title decider

“Look, you never know what was going to happen. I knew I had put in a great pre-season, I was ready to compete.

“I just think I gave myself the best possible chance to go deep into this tournament and I’m happy how it finished.

“I got four matches – and today – so very happy with my level and I had some quality wins.”

De Minaur missed his home slam last year with an abdominal tear, the “reward” for a heroic singles and doubles campaign that helped Australia to the ATP Cup semi-finals.

“It was a bittersweet moment last year so hopefully a year later I can come back stronger and hopefully have a great Aussie summer,” he said.

“I’m really looking forward to going back home and playing in front of a home crowd, that’s for sure.”

The high-energy Davis Cup star hated playing without fans in 2020 and is thrilled that crowds will be at 50 per cent capacity in Melbourne.

“It’s exciting. I’m looking forward to it. It’s probably going to give me goosebumps once I walk out there,” de Minaur said.

“Especially (given) I’m fortunate enough to play in front of my home crowd, so that’s going to be special.

“I can’t wait to bring out all this energy I’ve built up for a while now. It’s not the same playing without a crowd and hopefully I can get fired up and get the crowd going.”

– with AAP and Reuters

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