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What we know today, Monday February 15


Today’s breaking news from South Australia, the nation and abroad.

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Woodville Pizza Bar owner speaks out

The owner of the Woodville Pizza Bar – the centre of attention during Adelaide’s aborted six-day lockdown in November – has spoken out for the first time.

His business became a focus point during the Parafield cluster last year when a Spanish worker at the bar was accused by Premier Steven Marshall of “lying” to SA Health contact tracers about his employment situation, with Police Commissioner Grant Stevens saying that “had this person been truthful to the contact tracing teams, we would not have gone into a six-day lockdown”.

A major police task force, which at one point had 36 officers examining more than 400 hours of CCTV footage, was set up to investigate the circumstances of the alleged lie.

Speaking to FiveAA, the pizza bar owner – an immigrant from Iran who chose not to be identified – said the experience was “like going through hell”.

“My wife and I found it all extremely hard – all the stress and the tension,” the man said.

“We just want to pretend that it never happened, we just want to forget about it … we’re only just trying to make an honest living and keep our customers happy.

“The stories people said about us were terrible; I’ve never been in trouble for anything; I’ve never been charged with anything; I haven’t even had a speeding fine.”

His business has recently reopened for trading, while the Spanish worker will stay in Australia as he awaits his graduate visa to be renewed.

First Pfizer jabs arrive in Australia

Australia’s coronavirus vaccine rollout will begin on February 22 after the first doses of the Pfizer jab arrived in Sydney.

More than 142,000 doses are being taken to a secure location and batches will be assessed for damage and quality in the coming days.

Hunt said 60 per cent of the shipment would be given to the states to begin the process of vaccinating frontline health workers, hotel quarantine staff and aged care workers and residents.

The federal government will have about 30,000 doses available for aged care facilities.

“Today is an important day,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters today.

“It is the next step in a careful plan based on safety, and this is about protecting Australians.”

Two wards locked down after one new local COVID case in Victoria

Psychiatric wards at two Melbourne hospitals have been locked down after Victoria today recorded one new local case of COVID-19 and one in hotel quarantine.

Premier Daniel Andrews this morning confirmed Victoria’s new locally acquired case is a woman who attended a family function with a COVID-infected hotel quarantine worker on February 6.

The woman is asymptomatic and was tested four times at the weekend, returning both negative and “weak positive” results.

“Given her exposure and the variability of those results, the public health team have taken the most conservative approach and have deemed her a positive case,” Andrews told reporters.

The premier said the woman worked in a psychiatric unit at the Alfred Hospital and on psychiatric wards at the Northern Hospital in Broadmeadows, which is run by Royal Melbourne Hospital.

“Those services have had those wards locked down. Staff, all those that she may have come in contact with, they are all isolating and have been tested,” Andrews said.

“This has been a very rapid response and one that is filled with an abundance of caution but that is exactly the approach that we ought to take.”

Victoria’s COVID-19 Testing Commander Jereon Weimar said 150 primary close contacts across the two hospitals have been identified.

“The majority are staff at those facilities, a very small number of patients,” he said.

The woman is the mother of a three-year-old who tested positive to the virus on Sunday.

The child along with a woman in her 50s who tested positive yesterday attended the Coburg event on February 6.

The function was attended by 38 people including a worker at the Holiday Inn quarantine hotel at Melbourne Airport, bringing the total number of cases linked to the outbreak to 16.

There are 21 active cases in the state, after more than 25,000 Victorians submitted for testing on Sunday.

Andrews would not be drawn on whether Victorians could be confident the “circuit breaker” lockdown would not be extended beyond Wednesday.

“We are well placed right now, but right now is too early to be definitive about Wednesday evening,” he said.

Elsewhere, NSW recorded its 29th consecutive day without a locally-acquired infection today, the longest run since the pandemic began.

There were also no new cases reported out of South Australia or Queensland today.

Seven West Media joins Google News Showcase

Seven West Media has reached a long-term agreement with Google to join the tech giant’s News Showcase product, according to an announcement on the ASX this morning.

Seven, who hold 21 news titles across Australia, join a growing list of Australian publishers who have signed on to Google’s new product which launched earlier this month.

The arrangement, in which Google pays publishers to give users access to curated content (including stories behind paywalls), is Google’s preferred way of paying news publishers under the new media bargaining code proposed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC).

Seven West Media Chairman Kerry Stokes AC thanked the Prime Minister, ACCC and Treasurer for their role in the company’s new agreement with Google.

“I’d like to thank Prime Minister Scott Morrison and the Chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Rod Sims, with particular recognition of Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, who has been instrumental in the outcome of this ground-breaking agreement,” Stokes said.

“Their outstanding leadership on the implementation of the proposed News Media Bargaining Code has resulted in us being able to conclude negotiations that result in fair payment and ensure our digital future.”

More than 25 Australian publications have now joined News Showcase, with the product also live in the UK, Argentina and France.

It comes after revelations this morning that Frydenberg has spoken to the heads of Google and Facebook as he tries to make the digital giants pay for the Australian journalism they publish.

The media bargaining code will be debated in federal parliament this week after being endorsed by a cross-party committee, although its members acknowledged “the possibility that not all risks have been taken into account” and that “further refinement may be needed to the arbitration mechanism and other parts of the code so that they work in an optimum manner”.

Tech giants have been pushing back against the bargaining code but Frydenberg believes progress is being made.

“There are many eyes across the world that are focused on what Australia is doing right now,” he told ABC radio this morning.

“We have made great progress over the course of the weekend – I think we’re very close to some very significant commercial deals – and in doing so, that will transform the domestic media landscape.”

Frydenberg has spoken to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Google chief executive Sundar Pichai.

“They are very focused on what is happening here in Australia but I sense they are also trying to reach deals,” he said.

“Both the media proprietors and the digital giants recognise we have something that is workable here in Australia, something we can take forward, something that can ensure a sustainable media landscape, and something that will see journalism continue and journalists rewarded for generating original content.”

Crown CEO steps down after scathing report

Chief executive and managing director of Crown Resorts Ken Barton has stepped down from the company.

Chair Helen Coonan will assume the role of executive chairman while the company searches for a new CEO, Crown told the ASX this morning.

Barton had been under pressure to resign after being excoriated in an inquiry report.

The report’s author, former NSW Supreme Court judge Patricia Bergin, said the NSW Independent Liquor & Gaming Authority (ILGA) could not have confidence in Crown while Barton remained at the helm.

Coonan said in a statement on Monday that assuming the executive chairman role was not a decision taken lightly but the board felt the move provided leadership stability and certainty.

Crown is navigating a high-stakes negotiation with the ILGA that will determine whether it can open its casino at the Crown Sydney facility at Sydney’s Barangaroo.

“The Board is determined to maintain the momentum as Crown takes significant steps to improve our governance, compliance and culture,” Coonan said this morning.

“Working closely with the NSW Independent Liquor and Gaming Authority and regulators in Victoria and Western Australia, I will continue to lead on implementation of Crown’s ambitious reform program.”

Bergin found Crown was not suitable to hold the licence for a Sydney casino because it facilitated money laundering through bank accounts held by subsidiaries.

The ILGA is now considering the path forward for Crown and the means by which it might become suitable to hold the casino licence.

Barton pushed for those bank accounts to remain open in the face of major banks’ concerns about suspicious transactions, Ms Bergin found.

He also misled shareholders at the company’s 2019 AGM. Asked by activist shareholder Stephen Mayne about the company’s information-sharing arrangement with James Packer, who had stepped down from the board, Barton did not disclose an agreement under which Packer was receiving confidential financial information on a daily basis.

His attempts to justify his conduct at the inquiry were “even more inappropriate” and “demonstrated a serious lack of judgment”, Bergin wrote.

“Mr Barton has demonstrated that he is no match for what is needed at the helm of a casino Licensee or a close associate of the Licensee. His problems will not be cured by the appointment of people expert in the field who report to him,” Bergin wrote.

Former Howard government minister Coonan became chair of the company in January 2020.

Bergin found her “character, honesty and integrity has not been and could not be called into question”.

Auckland lockdown bursts Kiwi travel bubble with Australia

Australia has put a stop to quarantine-free travel for people arriving from New Zealand after three COVID-19 cases were recorded in Auckland, sparking a three-day lockdown from today.

In an urgent meeting on Sunday night, Australia’s medical experts declared New Zealand a red zone for an initial period of three days, starting Monday.

“All people arriving on such flights originating within this three-day period will need to go into 14 days of supervised hotel quarantine,” a statement on the Department of Health website said.

The move pops the trans-Tasman travel bubble that let people fly between Australia and New Zealand without having to spend 14 days in hotel quarantine.

Aucklanders will wake up this morning will wake up to a three-day level three lockdown ordered last night by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after three new community cases.

This is the second time the city of 1.6 million has been plunged into hard restrictions after a 51-day nationwide lockdown resulted in New Zealand eliminating the virus last year.

The rest of New Zealand has been placed at alert level two, which mandates social distancing, caps on gathering and increases mask-wearing.

It is not yet clear whether the lockdown will extend beyond midnight on Wednesday.

That’s because health authorities are yet to gain a full picture of the virus’s spread, with the three infected members of the same family – a mother, father and a daughter – not fulfilling personal contact tracing as the government would like.

Rapid test results from the family’s close contacts are likely to filter through on Monday, giving an early indication of the spread.

The snap meeting of Australia’s health officials last night was between the nation’s  Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly and the chief health officers of Victoria, NSW and Queensland.

The states will work to identify those who have recently arrived in Australia from New Zealand and assess their risk of transmitting coronavirus, the Department of Health said.

Second baby on way for Harry and Meghan

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are preparing to welcome a brother or sister for their young son Archie Mountbatten-Windsor.

The news comes after the Duchess of Sussex suffered a miscarriage in the summer of 2020, and just days after she won a privacy case against a newspaper group.

“We can confirm that Archie is going to be a big brother,” a spokesperson for Meghan and Harry said.

“The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are overjoyed to be expecting their second child.”

The couple shared a black and white picture of themselves sitting under a tree, with Harry resting his hand on Meghan’s head as she lay in his lap cradling her bump.

Meghan revealed the miscarriage in November last year in a deeply personal article for the New York Times.

“I knew, as I clutched my firstborn child, that I was losing my second.”

The couple quit their roles as senior working royals in March 2020 in a quest for personal and financial freedom, and now live in Montecito in California.

New city quarantine hotel open to guests from today

International travellers in South Australia who test positive for COVID-19 infection will be transferred to a new facility from today, with the dedicated Tom’s Court quarantine site set to open.

The 72-bed hotel in Adelaide’s CBD will predominantly house new international arrivals, but rooms will also be available should there be any further cases of community transmission in South Australia.

About 16 SA Health and 41 South Australia Police (SAPOL) staff with medi-hotel experience have been selected to work exclusively in the facility for nursing and security purposes.

COVID-19 positive patients in SA had previously quarantined on two dedicated floors at the Pullman Hotel in Hindmarsh Square.

It comes as SA Health announced that the state recorded no new cases on Sunday, leaving just three active cases in South Australia.

The government has entered a six-month agreement with the hotel, after the new facility was promised during the November COVID-19 outbreak in Adelaide, which was sparked by a guard in a quarantine hotel picking up the virus.

The Pullman Hotel will be decommissioned as a site for COVID-positive patients once Tom’s Court Hotel is up and running, with it only to serve as a standard hotel quarantine facility.

It is part of an eight-point plan put together by the state government late last year to reduce the chances of another COVID-19 outbreak from hotel quarantine.

Frydenberg defends looming JobKeeper exit

More than half a million companies and two million workers have shifted off the JobKeeper wage subsidy since the end of September, new figures released by Treasurer Josh Frydenberg show.

The struggle of many businesses especially in tourism and hospitality is expected to be a focus of federal parliament which sits for a fortnight starting today, with Labor calling for an extension of JobKeeper beyond its March end date.

However, in a pre-emptive strike, Frydenberg has released tax office data showing around 520,000 firms and 2.13 million employees have left JobKeeper since the end of September.

As of December, 1.54 million people were supported by the program, down from 3.6 million recorded in the month of September.

“With our economic recovery well underway, we have more than half a million businesses employing more than two million Australians graduating off JobKeeper,” Frydenberg said.

“These improvements have been broad-based across the country and we have seen encouraging signs across all sectors.”

JobKeeper registrations between the first phase (April to September) and second phase (October to December) were down in: retail trade (68 per cent), accommodation and food services (52 per cent), education and training (50 per cent), wholesale trade (71 per cent) and construction (48 per cent).

There were also marked falls across regions, among the most successful for JobKeeper “graduation” being: Barossa (74 per cent), Bunbury (74 per cent), Townsville (72 per cent), Launceston (69 per cent) and Coffs Harbour (69 per cent).

Frydenberg said 785,000 jobs had been created in the past seven months and the government would continue its support through tax cuts, business incentives, the JobMaker hiring credit and skills and training spending.

The Reserve Bank is expecting the jobless rate has peaked and forecasting it to reach six per cent by the end of this year and around 5.25 per cent by mid-2023.

The unemployment rate has dropped from 7.5 per cent in July to 6.6 per cent in December.

ACTU secretary Sally McManus says the education, tourism and manufacturing sectors continue to be “smashed” by the coronavirus pandemic.

“What we say is JobKeeper should be extended for those businesses that are still affected by the coronavirus, through no fault of their own,” she told the ABC on Sunday.

The support should continue “for as long as the pandemic is with us,”, she said.

Shadow treasurer Jim Chalmers says the government not only has to focus on supporting businesses through the pandemic, but deal with the broader issues of stagnant wages, underemployment and job insecurity.

“It’s not a recovery if it’s built on the back of less secure work, or weaker wages growth.”

Meanwhile, social advocacy body Anglicare Australia says its polling of service agencies across the country showed that 100 per cent of respondents said any cut to the JobSeeker dole payment will result in a national crisis.

The government is adamant that the coronavirus supplement will also end in March as scheduled, but it is considering whether it will increase the rate of JobSeeker rather than allowing it to return to $40 a day.

“The old rate of JobSeeker was frozen for decades, leaving hundreds of thousands of people trapped in poverty,” Anglicare Australia executive director Kasy Chambers says.

“When the government raised the rate last year, it righted that wrong.”

Last April, the introduction of the coronavirus supplement effectively doubled the rate of JobSeeker to $557.85 per week.

The supplement was cut in September, leaving JobSeeker recipients with $407.85 per week and then that was reduced again in December to $357.85 per week.

Chambers said the supplement lifted people out of poverty overnight.

“Our clients told us they could finally feed their families, pay the rent, and plan for their future without making devastating trade-offs,” she said.

“Cuts will undo all of that work.”

She said the results of the poll show that agencies are worried more cuts will lead to a huge surge in clients who need help.

“With wage subsidies coming to an end, more people will be surviving on JobSeeker,” she said.

“A cut in March will plunge them into poverty, at a time when they should be planning their recovery.”

US cases drop, UK reaches vaccine milestone

The average number of daily new coronavirus cases in the US has dipped below 100,000 for the first time in months, while the UK has reached a major vaccine milestone.

But experts in the US cautioned that infections remain high in the country and precautions to slow the pandemic must remain in place.

The seven-day rolling average of new infections had been well above 200,000 for much of December and went to roughly 250,000 in January as the pandemic came roaring back during the US winter.

That average dropped below 100,000 on Friday for the first time since November 4 and stayed below 100,000 on Saturday.

“It’s encouraging to see these trends coming down, but they’re coming down from an extraordinarily high place,” Dr Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, told NBC.

She added that new variants, including the more infectious UK one, will likely lead to more cases and more deaths.

The US has recorded more than 27.5 million virus cases and more than 484,000 deaths.

Meanwhile, in the UK, more than 15 million people have now had a first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed the milestone on Sunday and described it as an “extraordinary feat”.

He also said that in England, jabs have been offered to everyone in the top four priority groups, including care home residents and carers, frontline health and social workers, those over 70 and the extremely vulnerable.

Japan on Sunday formally approved its first COVID-19 vaccine and said it would start nationwide inoculations within days.

But Vietnam recorded its first coronavirus death in five months after a 53-year-old man in Hanoi died.

Vietnam is battling a significant outbreak of the virus, with over 600 cases confirmed since late January.

In Europe, Germany imposed new border controls on its frontiers with the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol province in an effort to stem the spread of more contagious coronavirus variants.

Trump ‘still liable’ despite failed impeachment vote

Donald Trump’s acquittal at his second impeachment trial may not be the final word on whether he’s to blame for the deadly Capitol riot. The next step for the former president could be the courts.

Now a private citizen, Trump is stripped of his protection from legal liability that the presidency gave him.

That change in status is something that even Republicans who voted on Saturday to acquit of inciting the January 6 attack are stressing as they urge Americans to move on from impeachment.

“President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office, as an ordinary citizen, unless the statute of limitations has run,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said after that vote.

He insisted that the court were a more appropriate venue to hold Trump accountable than a Senate trial.

“He didn’t get away with anything yet,” McConnell said. “Yet.”

The insurrection at the Capitol, in which five people died, is just one of the legal cases shadowing Trump in the months after he was voted out of office.

He also faces legal exposure in Georgia over an alleged pressure campaign on state election officials, and in Manhattan over hush-money payments and business deals.

But Trump’s culpability under the law for inciting the riot is by no means clear-cut.

He could also be sued by victims, although he has some constitutional protections, including if he acted while carrying out the duties of president. Those cases would come down to his intent.

Federal prosecutors have said they are looking at all angles of the assault on the Capitol and whether the violence had been incited.

WHO expert says COVID-19 may have started outside China

The virus that causes COVID-19 may not have emerged in China, a World Health Organisation scientist has suggested following a highly sanitised WHO inspection in Wuhan.

Professor John Watson, who was part of the WHO team that travelled to China to investigate the origins of the pandemic, said the virus’s leap from animals to humans may have occurred outside the country’s borders.

He says the pandemic most likely started with an infection in an “animal reservoir” which was then passed on to humans through an “intermediate host”.

Asked if he was sure the virus emerged in China, Prof Watson, who previously served as England’s deputy chief medical officer until 2017, said “no”.

“There are all sorts of reasons … that suggest that China is a very, very possible source for the outbreak,” he told the BBC on Sunday.

“But by no means necessarily the place where the leap from animals to humans took place.

“And I think we need to ensure that we are looking beyond the borders of China, as well as within China.”

Concerns have been raised about the WHO team’s access to vital early data from the Chinese government.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Friday that Washington had “deep concerns about the way in which the early findings of the COVID-19 investigation were communicated and questions about the process used to reach them”.

Meanwhile, the UK’s Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab also shared concerns, saying scientists needed full co-operation to get the answers they need.

Watson said the WHO team saw a “great deal” of information about the cases of the first 174 people who contracted coronavirus in China.

But he added that the team was only given access to a “certain amount” of the raw data.

“We didn’t see all of that and we didn’t see the original questionnaires that were used,” he said.

“But apart from the fact that, of course, they would have been in Chinese, one has to think about what one would have seen if one had gone to any other country in the world.”

He said the team’s visit was not a “one-off” and that the WHO sees it as “the start of a process that’s going to take really quite a while”.

China has faced claims that the Wuhan Institute of Virology could be the suspected source of the COVID-19 virus.

But the WHO team concluded it was “extremely unlikely” to have entered the human population as a result of a lab-related incident.

Prof Watson said the possibility that it may have escaped from a laboratory had not been “ruled out”.

Navalny protesters shine lights for love

Supporters of imprisoned Russian dissident Alexei Navalny have turned to a new form of protest aimed at avoiding arrest after more than 11,000 people were detained in earlier demonstrations.

The supporters joined small lighted walks or stood in front of their homes for 15 minutes on the evening of Valentine’s Day, holding torches aloft to express their solidarity with Navalny.

Photos shared by the dissident’s team showed participants in St Petersburg and Moscow holding mobile phone torches walking in small groups through the city centre or standing in their back yards on Sunday.

Many formed hearts with candles or their fingers.

The decentralised action under the motto “Love is stronger than fear” began in the far-eastern city of Khabarovsk, where darkness fell earlier than in the capital Moscow.

In Tomsk, where Navalny was the victim of a poison attack in August, someone projected the words “Love is stronger than fear” onto the wall of a high-rise building.

The demonstration is a response to the “unprecedented wave of violence and repression” by security forces at past rallies, the organisers said in the call to protest.

The peaceful initiative is intended to make it difficult for the police to take action against it. The Kremlin earlier said it had no interest in a “cat-and-mouse game” but that it will prosecute violations of the law.

Unlike the major protests at the end of January, the torchlight action was not officially banned by authorities.

Navalny was sentenced almost a fortnight ago to serve a multi-year prison term imposed in an earlier trial, which was heavily criticised internationally.

In the eyes of the judge, he had violated parole conditions while recovering from the poison attack in Germany.

with AAP and Reuters

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