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What we know today, Tuesday May 11


A man has tested positive for COVID-19 in Melbourne after completing 14 days of hotel quarantine in South Australia.

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WHO warning as India hits new COVID high

India’s coronavirus crisis is showing little sign of easing, with the seven-day average of new cases at a record high and international heath authorities warning the country’s variant of the virus poses a global concern.

India’s daily coronavirus cases rose by 329,942, while deaths from the disease are up by 3876, according to the health ministry.

The nation’s total coronavirus infections are now at 22.99 million, while fatalities have risen to 249,992.

India leads the world in the daily average number of new deaths reported, accounting for one in every three fatalities reported worldwide each day.

The country’s seven-day average of new cases is at a record high of 390,995.

The World Health Organization said a coronavirus strain first identified in the country last year was being classified as a variant of global concern, with some preliminary studies showing it spreads more easily.

“We are classifying this as a variant of concern at a global level,” Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO technical lead on COVID-19, told a briefing in Geneva on Monday.

“There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility.”

Nations around the globe have sent oxygen cylinders and other medical gear to support India, but many of the country’s hospitals are still struggling with a shortage of the life-saving equipment.

Eleven people died late on Monday in a government hospital in Tirupati, a city in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, due to a delay in the arrival of a tanker carrying oxygen, a government official said.

“There were issues with oxygen pressure due to low availability. It all happened within a span of five minutes,” M Harinarayan, the district’s top bureaucrat said late on Monday, adding the SVR Ruia hospital now had sufficient oxygen.

Adding to the strain on medical facilities, the Indian government has told doctors to look out for signs of mucormycosis or ‘black fungus’ in COVID-19 patients as hospitals report a rise in cases of the rare but potentially fatal infection.

The disease, which can lead to blackening or discolouration over the nose, blurred or double vision, chest pain, breathing difficulties and coughing blood, is strongly linked to diabetes.

SA Health checking possible medi-hotel COVID transmission

Health authorities are scrambling to discover whether a Melbourne man who tested positive to COVID-19 after serving 14 days in a South Australian medi-hotel was infected during his quarantine.

Victoria’s Health Department issued an alert this morning saying the man returned to his home in Melbourne’s northern suburbs on May 4 after quarantining in South Australia following his arrival from overseas.

He stayed at the Playford medi-hotel, before returning to Victoria and later developing symptoms on Saturday, May 8.

He was tested on Monday and returned a positive result this morning.

Health Minister Stephen Wade told reporters this afternoon the SA Government was “working on the hypothesis that there has been transmission in the hotel”.

Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier said: “It’s probably most likely that there has been a transmission in the Playford Hotel.”

She said the man’s room had been adjacent to “another traveller who was a positive case” – who only tested positive on Day 9 of his quarantine and who was then transferred out of the Playford to the Government’s dedicated COVID facility at Tom’s Court.

“There’s a number of potential hypotheses here and we’re working through all of those,” Spurrier said.

Read the full story here

NDIS expected to surpass cost of Medicare

Spending on the National Disability Insurance Scheme is expected to overtake the cost of Medicare within the next three years.

Budget estimates are expected to show the NDIS costing more than $30 billion in 2024-25, almost $10 billion more than previous estimates.

Tuesday night’s federal budget will contain additional funding for the disability support scheme.

But the government is looking at ways to make the NDIS more affordable.

“We need to ensure that it continues to remain sustainable,” Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told reporters.

“But under the coalition, we are deeply committed to the NDIS and we’ll always ensure that it is fully funded.”

The government is set firm on introducing independent assessments for all NDIS participants – despite widespread opposition – in order to cut costs.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said the program was growing faster than ever expected, with record numbers of participants joining the NDIS.

“That’s why as a government we are honouring our commitment to fully fund it, managing the program for those record participants,” Senator Birmingham said.

“But of course, we will manage it as carefully as possible to make sure it’s sustainable for the future, too.”

The NDIS supports 450,000 people but that is expected to grow to 530,000 within a few years.

The average payment per participant has also grown significantly, with the Commonwealth’s share of the costs on an upward trajectory.

Tasmania close to final election result

Tasmania is nearing a final election result, with the distribution of preferences to decide whether the incumbent Liberals will govern in majority.

The party appears likely to gain a 13th seat required for a majority in the 25-member lower house following the poll on May 1.

Distribution of preferences began on Tuesday morning, with all eyes on the Hobart-based electorate of Clark where two Liberal candidates and two independents are jostling for two in-doubt seats.

Under Tasmania’s Hare-Clark voting system, five MPs are elected in each of the state’s five electorates.

Tasmania’s electoral commissioner Andrew Hawkey expects a result in Clark to be known on Wednesday evening or Thursday morning.

“The last postals and some interstate (ballots) have come in. Clark is most likely goIng to be the first one completed,” he told AAP.

Liberal Premier Peter Gutwein is confident of governing in majority and has pledged to step down in the event of a hung parliament.

Scholl signs on with Adelaide

Winger Lachlan Sholl has signed a contract extension with Adelaide, becoming the latest player to re-commit to the AFL club.

Sholl has signed a fresh deal tying him to the Crows until the end of the 2024 season.

The 16-gamer, who twice has been nominated for the AFL’s Rising Star award, had been secured until the end of the 2022 campaign.

But the 21-year-old has joined nine teammates including Rory Laird, Brodie Smith, Reilly O’Brien, Fischer McAsey, Shane McAdam and Harry Schoenberg in signing contract extensions this year with the 14th-placed Crows.

“I’m am excited by what the future holds … it’s a great environment to be part of,” Sholl said in a statement.

Steel city’s plea for hydrogen hub funding

The embattled steel city of Whyalla is urging the federal government to choose it to become one of four regional hydrogen hubs to be funded in tonight’s federal budget.

The federal government will invest $540 million in clean energy technologies in the upcoming budget which they say will create 2500 jobs and drive down Australia’s emissions through practical technology.

A total of $276 million will go toward four hydrogen hubs across the country, with another $264 million allocated for carbon capture projects.

GFG Alliance had planned to build a 280MW solar farm near Whyalla and 100MW Playford Battery near Port Augusta to help power its vision for ‘green steel’ production at the Whyalla Steelworks.

But the company, which has been under financial pressure in recent months following the collapse of its main financier Greensill Capital, last week engaged Ernst & Young to explore the sale of the projects.

On the eve of the Federal Government’s Budget, City of Whyalla’s Mayor Clare McLaughlin last night called for confirmation from the Morrison Government on Whyalla’s inclusion as one of our nation’s proposed ‘Hydrogen Valleys’.

“The Federal Government’s ambitious goals and investment to bring the cost of clean hydrogen, green steel, energy storage and carbon capture to commercial parity is critical to our city’s future, and aligns with the green vision of both the city and our main employer, GFG Alliance,” she said.

“We strongly urge the Federal Government to commit further to Whyalla as one of the Hydrogen Hubs for our nation. We are well positioned – both geographically and with key road, port, airport and rail infrastructure in place – to support our nation’s push towards net zero emissions.”

McLaughlin said Whyalla also has available land next to the Santos facility at Port Bonython – which already has a deep-water port, gas fractionation plant and a diesel storage facility – that would be a perfect location for a Hydrogen Hub.

“Transforming our heavy industry to a low-carbon future is essential for the long-term prosperity of our city,” she said.

“We believe the decarbonisation of heavy industry presents an exciting opportunity for Whyalla to diversify its economy and support the development of new technologies that will deliver significant economic benefit to state and the national GDP.”

Election day referendum on SA shopping hours

The State Government has announced plans to hold a referendum on shop trading laws to coincide with next year’s election.

The referendum would aim to settle years of bickering about South Australia’s rules around trading hours, which are among the most conservative in Australia.

It will be the first in SA in 30 years and only the tenth in the state’s history.

The government says it will this week introduce to State Parliament a new Referendum (Retail Trading) Bill 2021 seeking Parliament’s approval to put the following question to electors on March 19 next year:

“Do you approve the Retail Trading Bill 2021?”

A majority ‘yes’ vote at the referendum will be binding, resulting in the bill being submitted for the Governor’s assent and becoming law, regardless of which party is elected to form government.

Treasurer Rob Lucas said the referendum was a ‘bold but necessary’ move to ensure South Australians finally had their voices heard on this popular, long-awaited reform.

“Now is the time to let the people decide, once and for all, whether they want the freedom to shop, trade and work when and where they choose without our confusing, outdated laws stopping them,” he said.

“We know that sensible shop trading hours reform has overwhelming public support.”

“In the same way referenda have been held here in the past on a range of issues, from whether the state introduces fair elections, daylight saving, or promote and conduct lotteries to what hour pubs should close, which gave rise to the so-called 6 o’clock swill, South Australians deserve to be able to decide.”

Lucas said urgent reform was also critical to support local businesses struggling to respond to the rapidly changing needs of consumers in a post-COVID world.

“The rise of online shopping, flexible work hours and working-from-home arrangements demand our laws keep-up with the changing times and reflect the modern society in which we live,” he said.

Climate activists plot budget day disruption

Climate activists are plotting a budget day protest to block Commonwealth cars from driving politicians into Parliament House.

Global environmental movement Extinction Rebellion plans to blockade the entrances of Canberra’s Comcar depot this morning, disrupting MPs and Senators’ trips to work.

It said members are willing to risk arrest to highlight the need for Tuesday’s federal budget to include proportionate measures to address climate change.

“We must treat the climate and ecological emergency in the way that we treated the coronavirus emergency,” the group said.

“It must be a central priority of the budget and of all government decision making.”

Blind grandmother Sam Noonan said she would lock herself onto the Comcar enclosure out of fear for the planet her children and grandchildren would inherit.

“The government must declare a climate emergency and produce a budget and plans for an emergency transition. Before it’s too late,” she said.

Clinical psychologist Jane Morton is another willing to risk arrest.

“This should be a climate emergency budget,” she said.

“Our disruptive action aims to sound the alarm and pressure our political representatives to act.”

In the lead up to the budget, the federal government has committed to a $565 million plan for low emissions technology partnerships, $263 million for carbon capture and storage, and $275.5 million to set up regional hydrogen hubs.

But the activists believe Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg’s self-described “jobs budget” is taking Australia “ever closer to the brink”.

Advocates cautiously welcome aged care, mental health funding boosts

Australia’s mental health and aged care systems will receive record funding in the federal budget but experts have warned the packages may only begin to claw back ground after years of funding shortfalls.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg will hand down his third budget today with major spending expected across government services.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has been tight-lipped on reports the aged care package could be almost $18 billion over four years.

He said it would be a fundamental line in the sand after a damning royal commission report called for radical changes across the troubled system.

South Australian aged sector specialist project and development managers TRICE made one of the more than 5000 submissions to the Royal Commission in a bid to defend the human rights of older Australians.

It said the specific needs of older people and their diversity have been ignored for too long.

TRICE principal Project Manager Matt Cleave said new ways needed to be developed to drive the best social results and fair commercial outcomes for those investing in accommodation and living options for older people.

“Not only do we need to rethink ageing and models of care, but we also have to rethink community building and residential property development to evolve and change to meet the needs of Australia’s ageing population,” he said.

“A new approach should start with customers having direct control of any federal funding so that they can develop individual responses to service needs.”

The Royal Australasian College of Physicians says the royal commission showed successive government cuts created a $10 billion annual funding shortfall.

Mental health advocates have also long implored the federal government to dramatically increase funding.

Leading psychiatrist Patrick McGorry said the federal government was spending $3.6 billion annually on an issue that affected five million Australians every year.

“No governments anywhere in the world have understood the scale of the issue,” he told the ABC.

Economists are expecting a budget deficit of around $155 billion for the 2020/21 financial year, smaller than the $197.7 billion shortfall estimated in December’s mid-year budget review.

Similarly, the deficit for 2021/22 is expected to have shrunk to $80 billion from $108.5 billion.

“The massive improvement reflects the faster than expected recovery in the economy,” St George economist Matthew Bunny said.

“The labour market has bounced back faster than expected, meaning the government has spent less than predicted on income support payments.”

Travel incentive for virus vaccination

Health Minister Greg Hunt has promoted access to international travel when borders reopen as an incentive for Australians to roll up their sleeves for coronavirus jabs.

The Morrison government is creating a three-principle path for reopening, including travel bubbles, immunisation and potential changes to quarantine rules.

Hunt said global medical evidence about the impact of vaccination on transmission would guide any changes.

“There’s near-universal prevention of serious illness, hospitalisation and loss of life,” he told reporters in Canberra.

“There is a high prevention of infection and re-transmission, but clearly not universal.”

He said a progressive opening would be important for hope and understanding across Australia.

“Is travel an incentive for people to be vaccinated? Absolutely,” the health minister said.

Singapore and Pacific nations are likely to be the next countries with New Zealand-style green lanes allowing quarantine-free travel to and from Australia.

“It is foreseeable that there will be lesser requirements on those who are coming into Australia if they have been vaccinated,” Hunt said.

“That’s a very important incentive, and a point of hope, and a pathway to normalisation.”

Senior coalition minister Simon Birmingham said Australia’s border closure was the most important factor in keeping the virus out of the country.

Despite the budget’s 2022 assumption, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the international border would only open when safe to do so.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese criticised the government for having mixed messages on when borders were likely to open.

He also lashed the coalition for abrogating responsibility to Australians stranded in India under a travel ban, which has jail and fines tied to it, set to expire on Saturday.

“First to lock them out and then to lock them up,” Albanese told a caucus meeting.

More than 2.6 million vaccinations have been administered across Australia, while a further 351,000 Pfizer doses have also arrived from overseas for medical regulators to test.

Cash motivation for US fuel supply attack

The group suspected of a ransomware attack that crippled the leading US fuel pipeline operator says in a news release that its goal is to make money and not to create problems for society.

The group calling itself DarkSide is the prime suspect in the digital extortion attempt against Colonial Pipeline, a firm responsible for funnelling fuel to a huge chunk of the country’s east coast.

The ransomware outbreak prompted the company to shut down its network, potentially causing extraordinary disruption as petrol deliveries dry up.

The terse news release posted to DarkSide’s website on Monday did not directly mention Colonial Pipeline but, under the heading “About the latest news,” it noted that “our goal is to make money, and not creating problems for society”.

The statement did not say how much money the hackers are seeking.

Colonial Pipeline did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the hackers’ statement.

The resulting shutdown has disrupted fuel supply across the eastern United States, triggered isolated sales restrictions at retail pumps and pushed benchmark petrol prices to a three-year high.

US lawmakers urged stronger protections for critical US energy infrastructure, and the White House has made restarting the fuel network a top priority and organised a federal task force to assess the impact and avoid more severe disruptions.

Hugging and pints back on in England

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has given the green light to cautious hugging and the serving of pints inside pubs after months of strict restrictions as he set out the next phase of coronavirus lockdown easing in England.

The government announced a four-step plan in February for the gradual easing of social restrictions, with the next phase due to come into force next week.

Johnson said that the government would allow families and close friends to make their own choices on social contact but urged people not to throw caution to the winds and said physical distancing must continue in workplaces, shops and restaurants.

“This unlocking amounts to a very considerable step on the road back to normality and I am confident that we will be able to go further,” Johnson told a media conference.

“We are announcing the single biggest step on our road map and it will allow us to do many of the things that we’ve yearned to do for a long time”

Under Step 3, from May 17 people will be permitted to meet up indoors for the first time in months in groups of up to six people or two full households together.

Pubs, cafes and restaurants will be able to host customers indoors, also for the first time in months and subject to certain rules.

Other indoor entertainment like cinemas and sports venues will also be able to resume activity.

The reopening will apply to England only, with the semi-autonomous governments of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales setting out their own rules.

According to Johns Hopkins data, the United Kingdom has the fifth highest death toll in the world from the coronavirus with 127,609 fatalities.

Two-thirds of adults in the UK have had a first vaccine and one-third have had both doses.

On Monday, the country’s chief medical officers also lowered the COVID-19 alert level, meaning that an epidemic is in general circulation but transmission is no longer high or rising exponentially.

In a statement, the medical officers said distancing and the rapid vaccine rollout had helped to bring coronavirus cases and daily deaths down sharply.

“However COVID is still circulating with people catching and spreading the virus every day, so we all need to continue to be vigilant,” they said.

“This remains a major pandemic globally.”

– with AAP and Reuters

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