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What we know today, Tuesday March 16

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

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SA to continue with AstraZeneca vaccine

South Australia will continue administering the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine despite the halt placed on the program in a number of major European countries.

The state has already taken delivery of several thousand doses and is initially using it to bring the vaccine rollout to regional and remote communities.

Premier Steven Marshall says the advice from health authorities supports its continued use.

But he says if that changes SA will suspend the program.

“We’ll continue to listen to the advice of the experts,” he told reporters today.

“If the health professionals say that we need to move away from it, that’s exactly and precisely what we’ll do. At this point in time, the strong advice is to continue with the AstraZeneca rollout.”

While the World Health Organisation continues to back the vaccine, countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway suspended its use after some patients developed blood clots.

Germany, France and Italy have now joined that list, and Nationals Senator Matt Canavan this morning said Australia should also stop giving the AstraZeneca jab.

But Marshall said it should also be noted the United Kingdom had administered millions of doses without any major incidents.

SA is also administering the Pfizer vaccine but mainly to frontline health workers.

SA Health reported two new COVID-19 cases today, both from returned travellers quarantining in a medi-hotel.

There are now 12 active cases of coronavirus in South Australia.

Minister under fire as women’s momentum grows

Australia’s minister for women has defended her no-show as thousands marched across the country to demand action from leaders on gendered violence.

Marise Payne declined to attend Canberra’s March4Justice rally outside Parliament House on Monday.

A small delegation of protesters was invited to meet with Senator Payne and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, but the offer was rejected.

While both leaders refused to attend the protest, about 15 coalition MPs and senators went outside to hear the speeches.

Senator Payne said the “optics” of potentially being booed by the crowd played no part in her decision and the offer for a meeting still stands.

“Throughout the year we meet hundreds and hundreds of people,” she told the ABC’s 730 program on Monday night.

“I don’t normally attend marches. The prime minister does not normally attend marches.

“But we are very, very willing to engage on the issues.”

Payne has committed to “take up” demands raised as part of the rally’s petition including an investigation into gendered violence and the full implementation of the 55 recommendations of the 2020 Respect@Work report.

A total of 35 protests were held across Australia, including in every capital city and many regional centres. An estimated 100,000 people nationally attended marches, calling for independent investigations into all cases of sexual harassment and assault.

In Adelaide, thousands of people wearing black and brandishing signs filled Victoria Square and marched down King William Street.

The protests supported a national march in Canberra, where a petition was delivered calling on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to act on gendered violence against women, including female Members of Parliament and staff.

The prime minister said he respected the organisers’ decision, outlining to parliament actions to stop violence against women his government had already announced.

Morrison said the march was a “triumph of democracy”.

“Not far from here such marches, even now, are being met with bullets, but not here in this country,” he said.

Also inside parliament, Liberal MPs acknowledged more needed to be done to stamp out workplace sexual harassment.

“I refuse to accept that an acceptable response to all of this is to suck it up, toughen up, move on,” WA MP Celia Hammond said.

Former Liberal staffer Brittany Higgins, who alleges she was raped by a colleague in a ministerial office in 2019, was a headline speaker at the Canberra event.

Her case triggered the movement and an independent review into parliament house’s workplace conduct.

“We fundamentally recognise the system is broken, the glass ceiling is still in place and there are significant failings in the power structures within our institutions,” Higgins said.

More European nations suspend AstraZeneca vaccine

Australia is standing by the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine despite a growing number of Europe’s biggest nations putting it on hold amid safety concerns.

Germany, France and Italy say they will stop administering the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine after several countries reported possible serious side-effects.

Denmark and Norway stopped giving the shot last week after reporting isolated cases of bleeding, blood clots and a low platelet count.

Iceland and Bulgaria followed suit and Ireland and the Netherlands announced suspensions on Sunday.

But Australia’s chief medical officer Paul Kelly says the vaccine chosen as Australia’s mainstay is safe and effective.

Most Australians will receive the AstraZeneca vaccine for COVID-19, the first doses of which have been imported, but most will be made by CSL in Melbourne.

The moves by some of Europe’s largest and most populous countries will deepen concerns about the slow roll-out of vaccines in the region, which has been plagued by shortages due to problems producing vaccines including AstraZeneca’s.

Germany warned last week it was facing a third wave of infections, Italy is intensifying lockdowns and hospitals in the Paris region are close to being overloaded.

France said it was suspending the vaccine’s use pending an assessment by the EU medicine regulator due on Tuesday.

The World Health Organisation earlier on Monday appealed to countries not to suspend vaccinations against a disease that has caused more than 2.7 million deaths worldwide.

“As of today, there is no evidence that the incidents are caused by the vaccine and it is important that vaccination campaigns continue so that we can save lives and stem severe disease from the virus,” WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said.

The United Kingdom said it had no concerns while Poland said it thought the benefits outweighed any risks.

AstraZeneca’s shot was among the first and cheapest to be developed and launched at volume since the coronavirus was first identified in central China at the end of 2019 and is set to be the mainstay of vaccination programs in much of the developing world.

NSW urges states to back off on border restrictions after mystery case

Gladys Berejiklian is urging other state leaders not to introduce border restrictions on NSW in response to the latest community transmission of COVID-19, saying it would be an “overreaction”.

The plea comes after genomic testing showed a security guard who worked at the Sofitel hotel in Sydney on March 6 had the same highly-contagious UK strain of the virus as a returned traveller at the hotel.

The case ends NSW’s 55-day run with no community cases and comes just one day after all of Australia’s interstate borders were fully opened for the first time in almost a year.

Health authorities are trying to work out the source of the man’s infection, as the infectious traveller did not open his hotel room door nor leave his room while the guard was on shift.

NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant said authorities had reviewed CCTV footage from the night the guard worked.

The guard – who has already received his first dose of the Pfizer vaccine – had no symptoms and had followed the required protocols, Chant said.

“We haven’t been able to find an exact source, an explanation for how this person became infected,” Chant told reporters on Monday.

“We are testing everyone who worked, co-workers who worked with this gentleman to just check there is not someone else who may have been an intermediary that transmitted to this gentleman.”

Quarantine has been extended for those staying on the 11th floor of the hotel, while 167 staff who worked at the Mantra Hotel in Sydney where the man worked an overnight shift on March 12 have also been contacted.

Berejiklian said that while every community transmission caused “sleepless nights”, there was no need for premiers to “overreact” to the latest case.

She urged state governments across Australia to “give us a chance to demonstrate our capacity to get on top of this” and show how the vaccine rollout is working.

“There is no evidence of widespread transmission,” Berejiklian said.

“(It) dashes confidence everywhere if people can’t rely on borders staying open.

“I’m not suggesting there is no risk, there always is, but … please assess the risk against the facts, and at the moment there is one case of a guard.”

Gas strategy questioned following summer renewables surge

Renewable energy sources contributed six times more power to Australia’s electricity grid over the 2020-21 summer than gas, according to new research which calls the federal government’s gas expansion plan into question.

The Climate Council says 30 per cent of energy in the National Electricity Market during the 2020-21 summer came from renewables while less than five per cent came from gas power generation.

The council said demand for gas power dropped by more than a third in the 2020-21 summer compared to the previous summer, while demand for renewable energy generation lifted by 20 per cent.

Climate Council senior researcher Tim Baxter said renewables were outperforming gas power stations in Australia and should be prioritised.

The federal government is planning for a gas-based economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic and invested $53 million in the October budget on new projects across Australia’s gas supply chain.

Reducing the price of gas and increasing supply is central to the government’s plan, even flagging direct support if private companies do not choose to invest.

Labor’s draft policy platform also backs gas as a key part of achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and supports new gas projects.

Baxter said such policy positions were misguided.

“Our existing gas power stations are struggling to compete with clean, reliable and affordable energy and storage,” he said in a statement.

“As the sunniest and one of the windiest places on the planet, Australia should be cashing in on its renewable advantage and, in doing so, rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions … it’s a win-win.”

Some seven gigawatts of renewable energy capacity was installed in Australia in 2020, driven by a boom in household solar uptake.

Myanmar imposes martial law as body count mounts

Myanmar security forces have shot dead six people taking part in anti-coup protests, media and witnesses say, as the military junta impose martial law in districts of the main city Yangon which give commanders wide powers to crush dissent.

Supporters of detained elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi took to the streets again despite the killing of dozens of protesters on Sunday in the bloodiest day since a military coup on February 1 ignited mass demonstrations across the country.

Marches took place on Monday in the second city Mandalay and in the central towns of Myingyan and Aunglan, where police opened fire, witnesses and media reported.

“One girl got shot in the head and a boy got shot in the face,” an 18-year-old protester in Myingyan told Reuters by telephone.

“I’m now hiding.”

The Myanmar Now media outlet reported three people were killed in Myingyan and two in Aunglan while a journalist in Mandalay said one person was shot dead there after a big protest had passed off peacefully.

The deaths bring the total toll from the protests to about 140, based on a tally by rights group Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) and the latest reports.

A junta spokesman did not answer calls requesting comment.

State broadcaster MRTV reported martial law had been imposed in several districts of Yangon, Myanmar’s commercial hub and former capital, and Myanmar Now said it had also been imposed in several parts of Mandalay.

The martial law announcement stated that military commanders in Yangon would take over administration of districts, including the courts, MRTV said.

The courts martial had the authority to hand down the death sentence or long prison terms for a range of offences.

These included treason and dissent, obstructing the military or civil service, spreading untrue information and crimes related to unlawful association.

The army said it took power after its accusations of fraud in a November 8 election won by Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) were rejected by the electoral commission.

It has promised to hold a new election but has not set a date.

The military has ruled Myanmar for most of the years since independence from Britain in 1948 and had cracked down hard on previous uprisings before agreeing to the latest attempt at a transition to democracy, now derailed.

Navalny held in Russian prison camp

Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has been taken to a Russian penal camp, six weeks after being sentenced in a court ruling that was criticised internationally.

He is being held in the Vladimir region about 100km east of Moscow where he is under constant surveillance, a message posted on his Instagram account said on Monday.

“But if you take it with humour, it is possible to live,” he wrote in this post that was accompanied by a photo of himself with a very short haircut.

Although he believes the numerous media reports about torture in the camp, he has not observed any violence so far, the 44-year-old wrote.

At the end of last week, it became known that Navalny had been taken away from a pre-trial detention centre but there had been no sign of life from him for days after that.

On Monday, the opposition leader’s lawyers said they waited for hours outside the camp for information but received none.

Over the weekend, numerous users on social networks called for information about his whereabouts under the hashtag “Where is Navalny”.

At the beginning of February, Navalny was sentenced to several years in prison for violating parole conditions in an earlier criminal case – he was at the time recovering from a poison attack in Germany.

 – with AAP and Reuters

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