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What we know today, Wednesday April 7

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

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Morrison denies criticising EU on vaccine supplies

Scott Morrison has denied criticising the European Union despite blaming a lack of vaccine exports for Australia’s slow immunisation rollout.

The prime minister also challenged the powerful economic bloc to approve export licences for more than three million AstraZeneca doses, with the first one million destined for Papua New Guinea.

Hours before Morrison’s media conference this morning, a government spokesman said the European Commission was “arguing semantics” and had requested Australia withdraw export permit applications.

The spokesman accused the EC of standing in the way of Australia’s vaccine deliveries and welcomed any change in that approach.

The EU overnight rejected the government’s claims it had blocked the vaccines from being sent to Australia.

Morrison insists he was simply pointing out facts when he said 3.1 million doses of the AstraZeneca jab contracted to Australia were yet to arrive.

“Any suggestion that I, in any way, made any criticism of the European Union yesterday would be completely incorrect,” he told reporters in Canberra on Wednesday.

Responding to the EU’s denials, the prime minister said he would again write to officials and AstraZeneca to request the full order of 3.8 million doses.

“All I’ve simply done today is set out very clearly that 3.1 million vaccines didn’t arrive in Australia,” he said.

“That’s just a simple fact. It’s not a dispute. It’s not a conflict. It’s not an argument. It’s not a clash.”

The European Commission, which is the EU’s executive branch, insists the only export request rejection was of 250,000 doses to Australia in March.

“We cannot confirm any new decision to block vaccine exports to Australia or to any other country,” the EC’s spokesman told reporters in Europe.

Australia has administered about 855,000 vaccine doses despite the government promising four million jabs by the end of March.

Morrison remains adamant supply issues from Europe are behind the shortfall.

Cabinet minister David Littleproud on Tuesday went further, accusing the EU of badly letting down Australia.

“The arithmetic is simple on this. We are three million short because of the EU, who cut us short,” he said.

An EU official said there was no request for export to Australia under review after it emerged seven were under scrutiny, putting some shipments on hold.

There are 2.5 million doses of Australian-made AstraZeneca shots awaiting testing from the nation’s medicine regulator.

Morrison said “just throwing more money” at manufacturer CSL would not fix the issue.

Vehicle sales jump sharply in March

New vehicle sales in Australia climbed by more than 20 per cent in March as the market continued to bounce back after last year’s hit from COVID-19.

The Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries says 100,005 new cars and trucks were sold last month, 18,315 more than in March last year before the worst of the coronavirus-induced downturn.

The 22.4 per cent increase over the month put the market up 13 per cent in the first quarter of 2021 to 263,648 units.

It followed a 5.1 per cent rise in February and an 11.1 per cent improvement in January and further entrenched the turnaround for the sector after sales fell 48.5 per cent in April and 35 per cent in May last year, as Australia endured the first COVID-19 wave.

Toyota was the market leader selling 21,319 vehicles ahead of Mazda on 10,785 and Hyundai on 6852.

Toyota also had the top-selling vehicle in March, the company retailing 5319 units across its HiLux range, followed by the Ford Ranger on 3983 and the Toyota Rav4 on 3522.

The March result also revealed a sharp jump in demand for electric cars and petrol-electric hybrids with 7245 sold for the month, compared to 4936 for the same period in 2020.

Overall, Sports Utility Vehicles continued to dominate the Australian market accounting for 51,705 or more than half the sales, compared to 21,360 for passenger cars and 26,940 across light and heavy commercials.

Christine Holgate decided to quit Australia Post: PM

Scott Morrison insists former Australia Post boss Christine Holgate decided to quit but is refusing to comment on shocking allegations she was bullied out.

Holgate resigned late last year after it was revealed four Australia Post executives were gifted luxury watches for sealing a lucrative deal.

She has attacked Australia Post chairman Lucio Di Bartolomeo in a blistering submission to a Senate inquiry, accusing him of lying to parliament and humiliating her.

The prime minister said he wanted to leave the issue between Ms Holgate and Australia Post.

“Ms Holgate decided to leave Australia Post. That’s just a matter of record,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra today.

An independent investigation later cleared Holgate of any dishonesty, fraud, corruption or intentional misuse of taxpayer funds.

But the accomplished chief executive claims she was bullied out of the company, unlawfully stood down and abandoned to a media firestorm.

“To this date, I have not received any explanation why I was forced to stand down other than the minister and prime minister insisted on it and that in itself, does not have legal standing,” Ms Holgate wrote.

Morrison refused to address the perception he threw her under a bus during a stunning Question Time tirade where he called for her to go.

Labor communications spokeswoman Michelle Rowland said the allegations in the 150-page submission were staggering.

“She is clearly very aggrieved by the actions not only by the chair of the Australia Post board but also the prime minister and the minister for communications,” she told ABC radio.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg would not confirm whether the government had sought an explanation from the Australia Post chairman.

Holgate says Di Bartolomeo treated her “like a criminal” and blames him for being forced out of the top job.

“He lied repeatedly to the Australian people and to their parliament about his actions,” she wrote.

Her submission also featured emails, photos of handwritten cards and a letter from her lawyers to Di Bartolomeo.

All US adults eligible for jab on Apr 19

US President Joe Biden has moved up the COVID-19 vaccine eligibility target for all American adults to April 19, but warned that with new virus variants spreading “we’re still in a life-and-death race” with the virus.

Biden directed states to widen the vaccine eligibility to people 18 or older by April 19, two weeks earlier than the May 1 deadline he announced previously. No COVID-19 vaccine is authorised yet for children under 16, although testing is underway.

Most US states had already said they would open vaccines to all adults by that new target date.

“What we do now is going to determine how many people we’ll save or lose in the month of April and May, and June, before we get to July Fourth,” Biden said at a White House event on Tuesday.

More than 80 per cent of teachers and school staff had received at least one vaccination shot, Biden said, but noted that variants of the coronavirus were spreading and generating a rise in cases.

“We aren’t at the finish line. We still have a lot of work to do. We’re still in a life-or-death race,” Biden said.

He said that by no later than April 19, every adult 18 or older will be eligible to be vaccinated.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Biden’s announcement had confirmed for the public that “everyone is eligible around the country”.

This meant Americans no longer needed to check with state and local websites to see whether they qualified, she said.

Vaccine supplies and efficiency in getting shots into arms have increased significantly in the race to get more people inoculated as more contagious virus variants circulate.

Biden spoke after touring a vaccination site at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia.

When vaccine doses were in shorter supply, states initially limited distribution to high-risk groups, such as the elderly and frontline healthcare workers, and then gradually opened up vaccines to other age and at risk groups.

Upon taking office in January, Biden set a goal of delivering 100 million shots into people’s arms within his first 100 days in office, which is the end of April. That goal has since been doubled to 200 million.

COVID-19 has killed more than 555,000 people in the United States – the world’s highest coronavirus death toll. But more than 167 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country. Four in 10 Americans have had at least one vaccine dose, a rate far ahead of most countries.

The authorised vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech both require two doses, while Johnson & Johnson’s is a one-shot vaccine.

US vaccine distribution began haltingly under Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump.

Whyalla steelworks threat as creditors chase Gupta

There is new uncertainty over the future of the Whyalla steelworks after creditors of British businessman Sanjeev Gupta launched legal action to break up his Australian assets.

Citibank, on behalf of Credit Suisse, lodged an application in the New South Wales Supreme Court on Tuesday to wind up the operations of Gupta’s OneSteel Manufacturing which operates the Whyalla steelworks, and Tahmoor Coal Pty Ltd which operates a coal mine in NSW.

The Swiss creditors are looking to recover funds after the collapse of Greensill Capital, the main financier of Gupta’s GFG Alliance.

Successful legal action could force the Whyalla steelworks – the town’s biggest employer with around 1200 workers – into liquidation.

Gupta has told several media outlets this week that his companies are prepared to defend their position in the courts and are still operating profitably.

The court action comes as the British steel tycoon urgently tries to refinance his loan arrangements with Greensill after the supply chain financing firm went into administration last month when Credit Suisse froze more than $A13 billion worth of its funding.

Gupta has conceded his company may have been over-reliant on the troubled firm.

“Perhaps what I can say is given where we are now, on reflection, perhaps we could have moved a bit faster in terms of our refinancing effort – that is a small regret,” Gupta told the BBC earlier this week.

The British Government last week rejected a bid from Gupta for a more than $A300 million lifeline for his steel operations.

The South Australian Government has also ruled out a bailout if Gupta runs into trouble, but Treasurer Rob Lucas said $50 million offered by the previous government is still on the table for “tangible infrastructure projects” around the Whyalla steelworks, although it will not be given to Gupta for debt refinancing purposes.

Shadow Treasurer Stephen Mullighan said “every effort” must be made by the State Government to save the steelworks from collapse.

“The steelworks are vital to Whyalla and to South Australia’s economy – every effort must be made to save these steelworks, especially when our state has the highest unemployment rate in the nation,” Mullighan said this morning.

“Steven Marshall should be meeting with the federal government, developing options to assist the steelworks continue – whatever the outcome of the current court action is.”

Mourners gather for Ann Marie Smith vigil

Mourners and disability advocates gathered on the steps of Parliament House Tuesday night to mark the one-year anniversary of Ann Marie Smith’s death, vowing to ensure no other disabled person suffers the same fate.

Smith, who had cerebral palsy, died in hospital in April last year from septic shock, multiple organ failure, severe pressure sores and malnourishment while under the care of the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

Smith was stuck in a cane chair in her Kensington Gardens home for 24 hours a day.

Her former carer, Rosa Maoine, has since been charged with manslaughter, while care providers Integrity Care SA has been suspended from providing care under the NDIS.

The names of 15 disabled people who have died from abuse or neglect were read out at the vigil, where an empty cane chair marked Smith’s presence in the crowd.

People with Disability Australia President Sam Connor said she hoped the vigil would spark action.

“Annie was supposed to be cared for, Annie was funded to be cared for, and Annie didn’t have anybody who cared for her in the way that was supposed to be provided,” Connor said.

“I want to make sure we all send really clear message to government, and on this – the date of her death – that we actually commemorate her life but we also say this is never ever going to happen to another disabled person.”

Opposition NDIS spokesperson Bill Shorten told the crowd that Smith’s death was “a shame on the whole country”.

“Annie’s death was avoidable, it was preventable,” Shorten said.

“All we can try and do … is try and make sure it doesn’t happen to other people.”

Shorten told the crowd he would oppose the federal government’s plan for individual NDIS packages to be distributed and funded on the basis of independent assessments provided by companies.

Disability advocates say the changes will erode the integrity of the NDIS and undermine the ability for participants to exercise choice and control of their lives.

EU denies blocking vaccine shipments to Australia

The European Union has denied blocking shipments of 3.1 million doses of AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine from going to Australia, contradicting claims from the Australian Government that the nation’s vaccine rollout is behind schedule due to supply issues.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday said four million Australians were meant to be vaccinated by the end of March but only about 855,000 had received the jab by Monday.

Morrison said the target was missed because of supply issues resulting from three million doses being blocked from leaving Europe for Australia.

“Pure and simple,” he told reporters.

Nationals deputy leader David Littleproud said Australia had been “badly let down” by the EU.

“The arithmetic is simple on this. We are three million short because of the EU, who cut us short,” he said.

But a European Commission spokesperson said the only export request rejected out of nearly 500 received has been so far a shipment of 250,000 doses to Australia in March, which is well known.

“There was, at that point in time only one request, which had been refused, which is the well-known request to Australia but for much, much smaller quantities which dates now back quite some time and there has been no further development since then,” the spokesperson told a news conference in Europe overnight.

“We cannot confirm any new decision to block vaccine exports to Australia or to any other country.”

A European Commission spokeswoman told Reuters that while the bloc had rejected only one of 491 COVID-19 vaccine export requests since it enhanced export transparency in late January, seven requests were currently being reviewed – and therefore shipments were on hold until a decision was made.

She declined to say whether a new shipment to Australia was among those being reviewed.

But an EU official said there was no request for export to Australia under review, Reuters reported.

From January 30 to March 24, the EU exported one million doses to Australia, the commission said in a press release.

The EU has repeatedly said AstraZeneca may not be allowed to export from the EU until it fulfils its contractual obligations towards the bloc – a position that has led the company to refrain from submitting some export requests.

Morrison previously said any hold up of vaccine imports would not impact Australia’s plan and is standing by his government’s rollout strategy.

He said more locally-made doses of the AstraZeneca would be available over the coming weeks, noting the testing requirements needed for each batch.

“I don’t intend to rush the process and put people’s health at risk,” he said.

Ardern to pitch NZ travel to Australians

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will begin a billion-dollar sales pitch to Australians today, hoping for a big flow of visitors once the trans-Tasman bubble opens.

On Tuesday, Ardern announced quarantine-free flights for Australians would be allowed from April 19.

Her government’s decision brings New Zealand into line with Australia’s border settings, and means people can flow freely between the two countries for the first time since the onset of COVID-19.

Ardern posted a video on Instagram on Tuesday night, inviting expats home and Australians to visit.

“If you are in Australia – you might be a Kiwi over there, or you may have whanau or friends here, or you may just wish to visit us – come on over!” she said.

“Come and see us. New Zealand is a beautiful country and one of the things we miss the most is our ability to share it with you.

“We’d love to see you.”

The decision was approved by New Zealand Government health officials and welcomed by opposition parties, scientific experts and business groups.

The industry which stands the most to gain is tourism, which New Zealand Tourism minister Stuart Nash said contracted by 16 per cent in 2020.

Relieved Tourism Industry Aotearoa boss Chris Roberts said businesses “can now take bookings with confidence and scale up their staffing”.

“It also means marketing campaigns to the Aussies can go ahead,” he said.

Aussie tourists have always contributed the lion’s share of visitors to New Zealand.

More than 1.5 million Australians travelled to New Zealand in 2019, the last year uninterrupted by COVID-19, spending a collective $A5 billion, representing more than a quarter of NZ’s total international tourist take.

After receiving estimates the bubble could be worth up to $1.84 billion this year, Ardern will kick off her pitch to Australians on Wednesday with a round of breakfast interviews.

“The first thing that I will say is that we are safe, and we cannot underestimate how important it is in this COVID-19 world,” she said on Instagram.

“Secondly, we’re fast approaching ski season. I know that’s something that Australians love to partake in and that’s rapidly coming upon us.

“Even if you’re not a skier, I cannot begin with a list of beautiful places that we have to visit.

“It is ultimately a change of scene that so many have been looking for … now you have the option, come and see us.”

South Australian Shadow Tourism Minister Zoe Bettison called on the State Government to roll out its own marketing campaign pitching SA to incoming Kiwis.

“This Government must ensure South Australia puts its best foot forward so our State reaps the economic benefits of this tourism opportunity – that is exactly what every other state and territory will be doing,” Bettison said.

“Our State’s tourism businesses have been among the hardest hit since the pandemic, and they need every support possible to ensure they can bounce back and rebuild.”

Bettison pointed to figures from the South Australian Tourism Commission which show travellers from New Zealand injected $45 million into SA’s economy in 2019.

Festival Centre venues return to capacity

New seats will be released for upcoming shows at the Adelaide Festival Centre ­after the announcement that its theatres are returning to 100 per cent capacity.

All the AFC’s venues, which include Her Majesty’s Theatre, have been operating at reduced capacity of 50 per cent and, more recently, 75 per cent since they reopened after last year’s COVID-19 shutdown. However, SA Health’s approval of the centre’s latest COVID management plan has enabled it to fill the theatres once more, although audience members will have to wear masks to shows sold above 75 per cent capacity.

Among the first shows to release more tickets are Windmill Theatre Company’s Hiccup, opening this week, and State Theatre Company SA’s The Gospel According to Paul, which opens in the Dunstan Playhouse on April 19.

State Theatre Company SA artistic director Mitchell Butel welcomed the increased capacity, saying “there’s a real feeling of reinvigoration in the air”.

“The fact we’re returning with two of the shows we were forced to cancel this time last year – The Gospel According to Paul and Euphoria – is particularly sweet. The Gospel According to Paul is also nearly sold out.”

The DreamBIG Children’s Festival in May and the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in June will sell shows to 100 per cent capacity and release new seats in coming weeks. Several Cabaret Festival early-release shows, including the Variety Gala, sold out their initial allocation within just days of going on sale.

Adelaide Festival Centre CEO and artistic director Douglas Gautier says that as well as helping SA arts companies, the latest news will also attract more “blockbuster shows and musicals” to South Australia.

Redbacks finish Shield season winless

South Australia has salvaged something from another bottom-placed and winless Sheffield Shield season, hanging on for a draw against Victoria in what was the final game for veteran paceman Chadd Sayers.

When play was called off in the second session of the final day at Junction Oval in Melbourne, South Australia were 9-329 with Daniel Worrall (8) and Daniel Grant (5) the not out batsmen.

With a lead of 297, it was enough to convince both captains to pull the pin.

Already locked in for the wooden spoon – the fourth consecutive last-place finish for the Redbacks – before the final match, the visitors looked set for some more pain as they slipped to 4-52 and a lead of just 20 runs on day three.

But opening batsman Henry Hunt showed he could be one of the players worth building around as he brought up his second century of the season.

The 24-year-old was eventually out on what became the last ball before the lunch break, bowled by Scott Boland (3-61).

Hunt had been well-supported by Jake Lehmann (62) who ticked along to his half-century just before lunch.

SA captain and regular Test team member Travis Head, who did his bit for the Redbacks with 869 runs at 68.69 this season, said his side had their moments in matches and some bad luck but couldn’t go on with the job when needed.

“Ultimately I want to win every game of cricket I possibly can,” said Head, who will now play County cricket for Sussex.

“It has been disappointing this year to contribute, but not to contribute to wins, and it has been frustrating to play.”

Victorian spinner Jon Holland was named man of the match for his game haul of 9-172 including 4-90 in the second innings.

Redbacks veteran Chadd Sayers was farewelled with a guard of honour at the end of the game, marking his retirement with figures of 1-37.

The 33-year-old leaves the game as the third-highest wicket-taker in Redbacks Shield history with 320 first-class wickets to his name – only behind spin bowlers Clarrie Grimmett and Ashley Mallett.

The right-arm fast bowler, who played his first game for the Redbacks in 2011, was named the Shield Player of the Year for the 2016/17 season after taking 62 wickets – the third-highest single-season tally in Shield history.

He also in 2014 became the first Redbacks player in nearly four decades to take a hat-trick when he dismissed Queensland’s top three batsmen – Joe Burns Ben McDermott and Peter Forrest – in consecutive deliveries.

Only 10 South Australian bowlers have ever achieved the feat.

Sayers played his one and only test for Australia during the infamous ball-tampering tour of South Africa in 2018. He finished with match figures of 2-146 and the wickets of AB de Villiers and Kagiso Rabada.

Elsewhere in sport, Adelaide Crows backman Daniel Talia has been sidelined for eight to 10 weeks as he undergoes foot surgery.

It comes after the 29-year-old made a full recovery from knee surgery undertaken at the end of last AFL season, only to experience foot soreness over the last two weeks – revealed to be an inflamed tendon.

The club said the surgery gives Talia the best chance to make a comeback in the second half of the season.

-With AAP and Reuters

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