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What we know today, Tuesday February 23

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Today’s breaking news from South Australia, the nation and abroad. Controversial MP Craig Kelly has quit the Liberal Party to become an independent and sit on the crossbench.

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Craig Kelly quits Liberal Party

Controversial MP Craig Kelly has quit the Liberal Party to become an independent and sit on the crossbench.

The Sydney-based politician told his colleagues of the decision at a party room meeting at Parliament House in Canberra on Tuesday.

“To be able to speak frankly and fearlessly, I need to do that from the crossbench rather than from the government benches,” he told Sky News today.

“If I’m to speak out and use my voice the best I can, this is the best decision for myself and the people I represent.”

Kelly has shared coronavirus misinformation throughout the health crisis and had faced being disendorsed by the Liberal Party ahead of the next federal election.

The politician had been accused of blocking people from his Sydney electorate on his Facebook page when they questioned the information he shared, which later saw him booted from the social media site.

Earlier this month Prime Minister Scott Morrison distanced himself from Kelly over the issue.

It took months for Morrison to make a public statement condemning the Hughes MP, who had been promoting two unapproved drugs on his since-removed Facebook page.

He has also long questioned the science behind climate change.

Kelly threatened to quit the Liberals ahead of the 2019 election when he faced a challenge to his seat from within the NSW branch but was saved by Mr Morrison.

Senior Labor MP Linda Burney says Kelly has been a “thorn in the side” of the Liberals for some time.

“The government has the slimmest of majorities in the parliament now,” she said.

Kelly has assured the government he will continue supporting it on votes in the House of Representatives.

Two new COVID cases in SA

South Australia has recorded two new cases of COVID-19: both returned travellers who tested positive in a medi-hotel.

Today’s cases are a woman in her 60s and a man in his 50s, and there are now four active cases in the state.

There were 3993 tests carried out in the state yesterday.

Second round of Pfizer vaccines arrive in Aus

More doses of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine have arrived in Australia as the early stages of the jab rollout continue.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese and Greens leader Adam Bandt have received their first dose of the vaccine in Canberra, in a bid to boost public confidence.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already received the Pfizer vaccine and says he hasn’t had any side effects.

“Just a bit of a sore arm like you get after any vaccine,” he said.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has confirmed another 166,000 doses of Pfizer have landed while another 120,000 will arrive next week.

Frontline health and hotel quarantine workers across the country have begun receiving the vaccine, along with aged and disability care residents and staff.

SA business back JobKeeper extension

South Australian businesses have backed an extension of the JobKeeper program, especially for those sectors reliant on international tourism and special events.

A survey conducted for Business SA found 68 per cent of companies want the scheme to continue past its March 28 cut off.

The call comes despite just 30 per cent of local businesses qualifying for the payments in the March quarter this year.

“Business SA encourages the state and federal governments to consider all options available to continue some form of safety net for business owners and their employees whose livelihoods remain under threat,” Chief Executive Martin Haese said.

The survey also pointed to strong business confidence in SA despite the pre-Christmas losses sparked by November’s shutdown because of the Parafield cluster of COVID-19 cases.

While the lockdown lasted just three days, it had a serious impact on retail trade in the lead-up to the holiday season.

“The confidence wave in South Australia continues to build despite ongoing uncertainty around COVID-19,” Haese said.

“To record a jump in confidence in a quarter marred by a hard lockdown and increased restrictions on businesses for much of December, these results are a testament to the resilience of South Australian business owners.

“South Australian consumers are also showing great confidence and supporting their local businesses with almost one in three businesses forecasting trade to be better than their pre-COVID levels through the March quarter.”

However, Haese said a group of SA businesses still remained materially impacted by ongoing COVID-19 restrictions with 15 per cent reporting their turnover remained down by more than 50 per cent.

Melbourne travel restrictions on track to ease

A decision on lifting South Australia’s remaining COVID-19 travel restrictions with Melbourne has been pushed back until tomorrow but Police Commissioner Grant Stevens says all being well, it is expected to approve the easing of measures from Thursday.

“All the indications are that we will be able to relax those restrictions, Stevens told reporters yesterday afternoon.

“Exactly what that stepdown will look like will be decided at the transition committee.

“It may be a requirement for testing or it may be a complete release.”

The state’s transition committee was due to meet today but that meeting has been pushed back until Wednesday.

Under the existing arrangements, people coming from the Greater Melbourne area are not permitted to enter SA.

Exemptions are provided to returning local residents, people relocating permanently and essential travellers.

People from regional Victoria can come to SA and can transit through Melbourne Airport, provided they are in the terminal for less than two hours and wear a mask.

Stevens said the transition committee will also look at possible changes to local coronavirus restrictions, including those impacting large gatherings and events.

It comes as the COVID-19 vaccination program got underway in Adelaide yesterday with the commissioner joining Premier Steven Marshall and Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier among the first to get the Pfizer vaccine.

SA has received 4000 doses, with 3000 to be distributed from the Royal Adelaide Hospital and 1000 from the Flinders Medical Centre.

The state’s 1700 frontline workers will be targeted first, including 500 staff at Adelaide Airport, more than 1000 people who work in Adelaide’s quarantine hotels and 50 people involved in transferring arrivals.

At the Flinders Medical Centre, staff working in the emergency department, the respiratory ward, the intensive critical care unit and the COVID-19 testing clinic will be prioritised.

From there, SA will vaccinate people considered at most risk of getting the disease and at most risk of severe complications if they become infected with another 8000 doses to arrive during the next three weeks.

US passes 500,000 COVID-19 deaths

The United States has crossed the staggering milestone of 500,000 COVID-19 deaths just more than a year since the coronavirus pandemic claimed its first known victim in California.

The country had recorded more than 28 million COVID-19 cases and 500,054 lives lost as of Monday afternoon, according to a Reuters tally of public health data, although daily cases and hospitalisations have fallen to the lowest level since before the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.

About 19 per cent of total global coronavirus deaths have occurred in the United States, an outsized figure given that the nation accounts for just four per cent of the world’s population.

“These numbers are stunning,” Dr Anthony Fauci, a top infectious disease adviser to President Joe Biden told ABC News’ Good Morning America program.

“If you look back historically, we’ve done worse than almost any other country and we’re a highly developed, rich country.”

The country’s poor performance reflects the lack of a unified, national response last year, when the administration of former president Donald Trump mostly left states to their own devices in tackling the greatest public health crisis in a century, with the president often in conflict with his own health experts.

Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris are set to commemorate the huge loss of life due to COVID-19 later on Monday during an event at the White House that will include a speech by the president, a moment of silence and a candle lighting ceremony.

CFS work into night to control Pewsey Vale fire

More than 100 CFS firefighters and water-bombing aircraft worked into the night to control a grass fire near Eden Valley.

The fire started at Pewsey Vale about 5pm yesterday. Volunteer firefighters were supported by six aircraft and eight local farm firefighting units who worked with crews on the ground to contain the fire by 9pm preventing it from spreading to nearby towns.

The CFS aircraft made 16 drops, which helped to slow the fire that was burning in hilly and difficult to access terrain.

CFS crews patrolled the fireground overnight to monitor flare-ups. More crews will be on the ground this morning.

The fire burnt through about 20 hectares. Large trees in the area are expected to burn for several days and members of the public are asked to avoid the area.

The fire may continue to cause a lot of smoke in the area, particularly towards Rowland Flat and Tanunda and members of the community are urged to close all doors and windows and stay indoors if needed.

Crime Scene Officers will attend the scene this morning.

An observational aircraft will be dispatched to again assist ground crews from the sky.

Meanwhile, a man has died following a crash at Tarlee yesterday.

Emergency services were called to Horrocks Highway at Tarlee about 3.40pm after reports a car left the road and crashed into a tree.

The driver and sole occupant of the vehicle, a 23-year-old man from Norwood, died at the scene.

Horrocks Highway was closed to traffic while Major Crash Investigators examined the scene, but it has since reopened.

Government under pressure as sex assault complaints reach four

The Morrison government is facing intense scrutiny over how it handles sexual assault complaints after a fourth woman came forward alleging misconduct.

Three women have come forward after Brittany Higgins alleged she was raped by a former Liberal Party staffer man, who was a fellow ministerial adviser, in 2019.

Defence Minister Linda Reynolds is under pressure over how she handled the allegation, made when Higgins was employed by her.

In Question Time, Senator Reynolds refused to answer a series of questions about a meeting with a federal police assistant commissioner about the alleged rape.

“What we discussed in those meetings is not my story to tell,” the minister said.

“I have always, and I continue, to respect her privacy and her story.”

Higgins said she was disgusted with that excuse.

“My privacy has been breached at every turn in this process,'” she told News Corp.

“I don’t think she’s ever respected my privacy, so her sudden concern for it now, I find patently false.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is maintaining his staff didn’t tell him about the allegation until days after media raised questions with his office.

“I look forward to the police progressing this matter and any other matters that may be related to this in terms of any other alleged offences, in relation to this individual,” he told parliament.

Greens leader Adam Bandt asked if the man accused of the assaults held a lobbyist pass or attended parliament after being sacked as a ministerial adviser.

The prime minister said records would be checked.

Labor’s upper house leader Penny Wong lashed the government’s response to Higgins.

“She wasn’t being treated as a human being. She wasn’t being treated as a rape survivor and she wasn’t being treated as a victim of a grave crime,” she told parliament.

“She was being treated as a political problem.”

Senator Wong said Morrison’s words rung hollow while there was no culture of accountability.

“We know that at best, Mr Morrison runs a government where the culture is don’t ask, don’t tell when it comes to serious criminal allegation,” she said.

“At worst, Mr Morrison himself is part of the cover-up.”

Britain plots path out of lockdown

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set out a phased plan to end England’s COVID-19 lockdown, offering a “cautious” approach to try to prevent a return to wholesale restrictions that have hobbled the economy.

Johnson, under pressure to allow more freedoms for millions stuck at home and offer hope to shuttered businesses, said the first stage would prioritise schools returning on March 8 when only minimal socialising outdoors would be allowed.

The so-called road map would then pass through four stages, with five weeks in between, and the final step – when most restrictions would be lifted – not starting until June 21 at the earliest.

“There is therefore no credible route to a zero-COVID Britain or a zero-COVID world. And we cannot persist indefinitely with restrictions that debilitate our economy, our physical and mental wellbeing and the life chances of our children,” Johnson told parliament.

“And that is why it is so crucial that this road map is cautious but also irreversible. We’re setting out on, what I hope and believe, is a one-way road to freedom.”

With almost 130,000 fatalities, the UK has suffered the world’s fifth-highest official death toll from the pandemic and its economy has seen its biggest slump in about 300 years.

With one of the strictest lockdowns and one of the world’s fastest vaccine roll-outs, the country may be seen as a test case for governments hoping to reopen economies and return life to some kind of normalcy.

Even with encouraging data after more than two months of domestic vaccinations released on Monday, the British government’s cautious approach highlights how slow a process it will likely be for many countries.

Johnson said the fast start to the vaccine roll-out plus a sharp fall in infections now allowed him to set out a cautious easing of England’s tough lockdown, which started on January 5.

Court orders Trump to hand over tax returns

The US Supreme Court has paved the way for a New York City prosecutor to obtain former president Donald Trump’s tax returns and other financial records as part of a criminal investigation in a blow to his quest to conceal details of his finances.

The justices without comment rebuffed Trump’s request to put on hold an October 7 lower court ruling directing the former Republican president’s long-time accounting firm, Mazars USA, to comply with a subpoena to turn over the materials to a grand jury convened by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, a Democrat.

“The work continues,” Vance said in a statement issued after the court’s action.

Vance had previously said in a letter to Trump’s lawyers that his office would be free to immediately enforce the subpoena if the justices rejected Trump’s request.

A lawyer for Trump did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Supreme Court had already ruled once in the dispute, last July rejecting Trump’s broad argument that he was immune from criminal probes as a sitting president.

Unlike all other recent US presidents, Trump refused during his four years in office to make his tax returns public.

The data could provide details on his wealth and the activities of his family real estate company, the Trump Organization.

NZ crush Australia in T20 series opener

Australia has floundered in their T20 cricket series opener against New Zealand, falling 53 runs short of the victory target in Christchurch last night.

Devon Conway was the hero for the hosts, posting an unbeaten 99 off 59 balls, narrowly missing the chance for a last-ball hundred as New Zealand posted 5-184.

In reply, Australia’s top order crumbled before limping to 131 all out, starting the five-game series with a dispiriting loss.

Out-of-form skipper Aaron Finch (1), first-gamer Josh Philippe (2), Matthew Wade (12) and Glenn Maxwell (1) were all out caught in the opening five overs.

Veteran fast bowlers Trent Boult (2-22) and Tim Southee (2-10) ran a wrecking ball through Australia, leaving them at 4-19.

Mitch Marsh (45) posted his top T20 score and Ashton Agar (23) found some success but there was no making up lost ground.

Ish Sodhi cleaned up as Australia tried to make a fist of it, finishing with 4-28.

Compounding the defeat was the feeling that it could have been so different for Australia.

Finch’s side showed no signs of post-quarantine sluggishness, winning the toss and pegging New Zealand to 3-19 early.

Daniel Sams claimed Martin Guptill and Kane Williamson on just his third T20 international outing, with Jhye Richardson bowling opener Tim Seifert.

Enter Conway, and exit Australia’s hopes.

The match was the first of Australia’s T20 tour of New Zealand, and a major occasion in Christchurch.

On Monday, the city marked 10 years since the devastating 2011 earthquake which killed 185 people.

A minute’s silence was held before the game, the first under lights at the newly developed Hagley Oval.

The series now moves to Dunedin’s University of Otago Oval for a clash on Thursday afternoon.

with AAP and Reuters

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