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What we know today, Thursday May 13

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Telstra has been fined $50 million for exploiting vulnerable Indigenous customers by signing them to mobile phone contracts they did not understand and could not afford.

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Telstra fined $50m for dodgy sales tactics

Telstra has been fined $50 million for exploiting vulnerable Indigenous customers by signing them to mobile phone contracts they did not understand and could not afford.

Sales staff at five stores in South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory signed 108 Indigenous people up to post-paid contracts between January 2016 and August 2018.

Federal Court Justice Debra Mortimer on Thursday ordered the telco giant pay $50 million for unconscionable conduct, making it the second-biggest penalty imposed under Australian consumer law.

Many of the Indigenous people signed up did not speak English as their first language, and had limited financial and literacy skills to understand the contracts.

Justice Mortimer said this lack of understanding was exploited by Telstra staff, who took advantage of Indigenous people’s cultural propensity to express agreement as a means of avoiding conflict.

Many were unemployed and relied on government benefits. In some cases, they were misled to believe they would receive phones for free and sold unnecessary add-ons they did not want.

Credit assessments were manipulated so people who would not have otherwise passed Telstra’s financial approvals process were able to enter into contracts.

Each customer ended up owing $7400, on average.

One ended up more than $19,000 in debt, another was worried they’d be jailed for missing payments and one used their superannuation to cover their phone bill.

Telstra last year admitted unconscionable conduct. The $50 million figure was agreed between the telco and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, but still required court approval.

ACCC chair Rod Sims said Telstra executives failed to act quickly enough to stop these illegal practices when alerted to them.

“We expect much better behaviour from large businesses like Telstra,” Sims said.

“But all businesses in Australia have a responsibility to ensure sales staff are not breaching consumer law by manipulating or tricking consumers into buying products or services they do not need or cannot afford.”

Telstra chief executive Andy Penn said the company was continuing to remediate customers.

“I am deeply and personally disappointed that we have let you down. We should have listened more carefully. We should have been more attuned to what was happening. We should have picked this up earlier,” he said.

“This brings an end to what has been a deeply challenging and disappointing chapter in our history and one in which we are already taking steps to fix.”

Tex to miss Eagles clash

Crows forward Taylor Walker will be rested for Adelaide’s game against the West Coast Eagles in Perth on Sunday.

The Crows say the decision is part of a “long-held management plan” for the 31-year-old to ensure he can “perform for the duration of the season”.

The former club captain was held goalless in the Showdown on Saturday but sits second in the Coleman Medal standings with 27 goals.

Adelaide’s full side for round nine will be confirmed Saturday evening.

The Crows sit 14th on the AFL ladder with three wins and five losses.

NSW float plan to return international students

A NSW government plan to bring international students back to university campuses this year has ruffled feathers in Victoria.

Under the plan before the NSW Department of Premier and Cabinet, overseas students would be quarantined in Sydney using purpose-built housing.

The news comes despite Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg saying Australia’s borders will remain closed for the foreseeable future and ongoing pressure to bring home stranded Australians.

Morrison said the Commonwealth was aware of the ambitious proposal.

“They’re still a long way from landing this I should stress,” he told Sydney radio 2GB on Thursday.

“But it’s something that we’re encouraging of but it’s got to be done safely and we’ve got to be able to do it in a way that doesn’t risk the great success we’ve had.”

Acting Victorian Premier James Merlino is intrigued by the report.

“How can NSW proceed with that?” he told reporters.

Victoria had “very clear advice from the Commonwealth is that … any incoming flights, require Commonwealth approval”.

Last month Victoria made a proposal that 120 people per week, such as international students and workers for major events – return to the state.

“If it’s the case that the Commonwealth doesn’t require that approval. You know, we are ready to go, but I found that report very very interesting,” Merlino said.

NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet is hoping international students will be back in lecture halls and tutoring sessions by the second semester.

“This is about finding a way to bring students back but not at the expense of the weekly cap of Australian citizens arriving back in NSW,” he told The Australian.

“If we don’t address this issue then I believe we’ll have an industry on its knees and one that will look elsewhere.”

The international student market is worth $14 billion a year to the NSW economy.

Record number of solar panels installed in Australia

Australia has confirmed its status as a world leader in solar energy with one-in-four households now boasting solar panels on their roof.

A record number of rooftop solar panels were installed on the nation’s roofs last year.

Clean Energy Regulator data analysed by the CSIRO shows more than 362,000 solar photovoltaic installations were carried out in 2020 under the Small-scale Renewable Energy Scheme.

That’s an increase of 28 per cent since 2019 and the majority were for residential properties, followed by commercial and industrial properties.

CSIRO Chief Executive Larry Marshall said there was a strong appetite for science-led innovation in Australia.

The uptake of solar globally has been strong with more than 2.68 million solar power systems now on roofs across the nation.

Australia now leads the world in PV capacity on a per capita basis at 591 watts per person, which is almost eight times the worldwide average.

“Australia’s solar advantage creates an economic opportunity for us on the world stage and an environmental benefit for the globe – even better when it’s powered by Australian science and research,” Marshall said.

A total of 35,599 solar panels have been installed in South Australia.

CSIRO scientist Michael Ambrose said Australia was one of the sunniest places on the planet.

“We lead the world in PV capacity on a per capita basis at 591 watts per person, which is almost eight times the worldwide average,” he said.

Clean Energy Regulator general manager Mark Williamson said low technology costs, increased work from home arrangements and a shift in household spending to home improvements during COVID-19 had played a key role in the increase of rooftop solar systems.

Moderna to provide 25 million vaccines to Australia

US pharmaceutical company Moderna has announced it will provide 25 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine to Australia over the next two years, with the company saying it’s in discussions with the federal government to establish “potential local manufacturing opportunities”.

The new supply agreement will see 10 million Moderna doses delivered to Australia in 2021 followed by 15 million doses of the company’s variant booster candidate delivered in 2022, according to the biotech firm.

The agreement is subject to the vaccine’s approval from Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration, with Moderna saying it anticipates submitting for regulatory approval “shortly”.

Moderna’s mRNA vaccine uses the same technology as the Pfizer jab and requires two doses to be administered 28 days apart.

The overnight vaccine supply announcement came with no corresponding information from the Australian government.

“We appreciate the partnership and support from the government of Australia with this first supply agreement for doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine and our variant booster candidates,” Moderna CEO Stéphane Bancel said in a statement.

“As we seek to protect people around the world with our COVID-19 vaccine and potentially our variant booster candidates, we look forward to continuing discussions with Australia about establishing potential local manufacturing opportunities.”

The Moderna CEO’s comments about local production come after biologics firm BioCina on Wednesday said it could begin manufacturing mRNA vaccines at an Adelaide facility “within 12 months” pending federal government support.

A 4600 square metre facility located in Thebarton is the candidate for the production contract, with BioCina claiming it is the “most advanced facility of its kind in Australia”.

Finance Minister Simon Birmingham on Wednesday confirmed the federal government was negotiating with the biologics firm.

“Our Health Department has been talking with [BioCina] as we try and get and secure the contracts for tech transfer of the mRNA vaccine to Australia,” he told ABC radio.

Currently, Australia’s only COVID-19 vaccine manufacturing plant is the CSL facility in Melbourne which exclusively produces the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Australia has supply contracts for 40 million Pfizer vaccines and 50 million AstraZeneca doses.

The federal government also has a supply contract for 50 million Novavax doses, although that vaccine is yet to pass phase three clinical trials.

More than 2.8 million people have received a COVID-19 vaccine in Australia as of Wednesday, including more than 207,000 in South Australia.

Playford Hotel leak puts travellers back in quarantine

Returned travellers who quarantined at Adelaide’s Playford Hotel where COVID-19 leaked have been ordered into another two weeks of isolation, as Victorian health officials scramble to track down hundreds of footy fans who travelled to and from a game at the MCG on Friday.

Genomic sequencing testing has confirmed a Melbourne man became infected while staying at the Playford medi-hotel on North Terrace.

He tested positive on Tuesday after returning from India via the Maldives and Singapore on April 19 and completing 14 days of hotel quarantine.

The man, from Wollert in Melbourne’s outer north, was staying in a room next to another person who tested positive for the virus before being moved to Tom’s Court – Adelaide’s dedicated medi-hotel for COVID-positive travellers.

In a statement late on Wednesday, Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier confirmed the two cases were genomically linked.

“Investigations into the precise cause of transmission are ongoing,” she said.

Prof Spurrier said discharged returned travellers on level three of the Playford Hotel during the “period of concern” must now isolate for a further two weeks.

The group includes 10 South Australians who will be given the option to quarantine at home if deemed suitable.

Spurrier stressed most medi-hotel staff working at the time of the suspected leak had undergone daily testing, although five still need to be followed up.

Earlier in the day, Police Commissioner Grant Stevens barred travellers from entering the state if they had visited any of Victoria’s high-risk exposure sites, with few exceptions.

The sites are listed on the Victorian Department of Health website and include businesses in the suburbs of Altona North, Craigieburn, Docklands, Epping and Melbourne.

Stevens also announced on Wednesday that plainclothes police officers will now be monitoring whether individuals and businesses are properly using the QR code check in system.

It comes as Victorian health colleagues scramble to track down hundreds of fans who went to last Friday’s AFL match on the same train as the infected Wollert man.

There are fears hordes may have been exposed to the virus on the Craigieburn line train while travelling to or from the Geelong-Richmond match at the MCG on Friday night.

The AFL has sent text message alerts to all 54,857 spectators.

Victoria’s Health Minister Martin Foley warned people will soon face tough penalties if they fail to check in with QR codes at venues, after some patrons at a new exposure site failed to use the system.

The Wollert man dined at the CBD restaurant Curry Vault on Friday, but others failed to use the QR system, which is to become mandatory for venues later this month.

No other new cases were recorded in Victoria on Wednesday from more than 21,000 tests, while SA recorded one new case from a returned traveller in hotel quarantine.

Labor flags ‘Startup Year’ in budget reply

Young Australians will have access to loans to enable them to spend a year working on innovative business ideas, under a federal Labor government.

Labor leader Anthony Albanese will tonight reveal in his budget reply speech to parliament the concept of a “Startup Year”.

It will offer 2000 students the opportunity to be mentored by innovative universities and private-sector incubators to turn their ideas into future businesses.

“This policy harnesses the ideas and energy of young Australians and focuses on the huge potential our younger generations have to lead us into the future,” Labor’s innovation spokesman Ed Husic said.

“We need to inspire and empower an ever-greater diversity of communities and individuals to build great Australian companies that become world-leading in emerging global markets.”

The Startup Year loans will be delivered through the existing HELP system.

The loans are designed to help cover costs associated with participation in accredited accelerator programs, up to the band three maximum annual student contribution level under the HECS system, currently $11,300.

Data from the Australian Department of Industry shows new firms create substantially more net new jobs than established ones.

Firms up to three years old created 1.44 million jobs over the six years to 2011, compared with a net loss of 400,000 jobs by established firms over the same period.

“It is Australian startups in areas like manufacturing, medicine, IT and clean energy that will build the Australian industries of tomorrow whilst also solving some of our toughest domestic and global challenges,” Albanese said.

Labor is seeking to differentiate itself from the coalition by finding ways to boost productivity to lift wages and create jobs.

The Morrison government’s budget delivered on Tuesday forecast a real wage cut for the next two financial years, before inflation and pay growth reach parity in 2022/23 and 2023/24.

However, it is banking on a multi-billion-dollar spend on tax cuts, training and infrastructure to boost the economy.

Damning report finds shortcomings in global COVID response

A new global system should be set up to respond faster to disease outbreaks after governments across the world failed to prepare for the COVID-19 pandemic last year, a damning independent report from the World Health Organisation says.

The experts found crucial shortcomings in the global response in early 2020 – including a delay in declaring an emergency, a failure to impose travel restrictions and an entire “lost month” when countries neglected to respond to warnings – letting the virus quickly spread into a crippling pandemic.

To address those problems, the report suggests the WHO should be given the power to send investigators swiftly to chase down new disease outbreaks, and to publish their full findings without delay.

“It is critical to have an empowered WHO,” panel co-chair and former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark told reporters on the launch of the report “COVID-19: Make It the Last Pandemic”.

Co-chair Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a former president of Liberia, said: “We are calling for a new surveillance-and-alert system that is based on transparency and allows WHO to publish information immediately.”

Health ministers will debate the findings at the WHO’s annual assembly opening on May 24.

The experts noted that Chinese doctors in the central city of Wuhan had reported cases of unusual pneumonia in December 2019, with the WHO picking up reports from the Taiwan Centres for Disease Control and others.

But when the WHO’s Emergency Committee met on January 22, it stopped short of declaring an international health emergency.

That declaration did not come until eight days later, costing crucial time.

That committee, acting under the WHO’s International Health Regulations, also declined to endorse international travel restrictions that would have slowed the spread of the virus.

The experts said those guidelines need to be changed.

Governments, meanwhile, failed to grasp that the emergency declaration was the WHO’s “loudest possible alarm,” the experts said.

“It is glaringly obvious to the panel that February 2020 was a lost month, when steps could and should have been taken to curtail the epidemic and forestall the pandemic.”

Instead of preparing their hospitals for COVID-19 patients, many countries engaged in a “winner-takes-all” scramble for protective equipment and medicines, it said.

EU calls for India travel halt

The European Union’s executive has called on countries of the bloc to temporarily halt non-essential travel from India in a bid to limit the spread of a coronavirus variant.

The European Commission said its proposal followed the World Health Organisation’s decision on Monday to reclassify the B.1.617.2 variant of COVID-19 first detected in India as a “variant of concern,” raising the alert from a “variant of interest”.

EU countries should apply an “emergency brake” on non-essential travel from India, it said in a statement.

“It is important to limit to the strict minimum the categories of travellers that can travel from India for essential reasons and to subject those who may still travel from India to strict testing and quarantine arrangements,” it added.

Last week the Commission proposed that the EU’s 27 member states ease COVID-19 travel restrictions from June to allow foreign travellers from more countries to enter the bloc while keeping the option to quickly restrict travel from countries where the health situation deteriorates sharply.

The member states have not yet adopted this recommendation but could individually opt to ban non-essential travel from India before it is adopted.

India’s coronavirus death toll crossed 250,000 on Wednesday in the deadliest 24 hours since the pandemic began and experts around the world have expressed concern the variant first identified there may be highly transmissible.

The European Commission said limited exemptions should apply to its proposed halt to travel from India, including to those travelling for “imperative family reasons” or EU citizens and long-term residents.

Those travellers should face additional health measures on arrival in the EU, such as strict testing or quarantine requirements, it said.

Australia’s controversial travel ban with India, which floated jail terms of up to five years for travellers trying to return from the COVID-ravaged country, is set to expire on Friday.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has flagged he anticipates at least three repatriation flights from India to arrive before the end of the month.

IOC downplays Japan’s opposition to Olympics

The IOC has downplayed concerns over Japanese public opinion calling for the Tokyo Olympics to be cancelled even as its virtual news conference was interrupted by an activist protesting against the games.

The news conference followed a monthly meeting of the International Olympic Committee’s executive board on Wednesday held amid a state of emergency in Tokyo to curb surging COVID-19 cases.

Polling in Japan also persistently suggests people want the July 23-August 8 Olympics to be called off, having already been postponed by one year.

“We listen but won’t be guided by public opinion,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said, adding “everything is telling us that the games can go ahead and will go ahead.”

Adams stood in for his boss, IOC president Thomas Bach, whose planned visit to Japan next week was called off on Monday after states of emergency in Tokyo and other regions were extended through May.

The final question of the news conference, held by video call, was offered to a reporter from Yahoo Sports.

Instead, though, an activist appeared on the screen holding up a black and white banner opposing the Tokyo Olympics, before he protested against both the Japan games and the planned 2028 edition in Los Angeles.

“No Olympics anywhere, no Olympics anywhere,” he said, before adding: “No Olympics in LA, no Olympics in Tokyo.”

The line was then cut.

Adams made light of the interruption, noting that if Bach had been present, it “probably would have made that stunt a little bit more interesting”.

The NOlympics LA group later claimed on its Twitter account it had “crashed the IOC’s press conference.”

A tricky week for the IOC comes just 78 days before the Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to open, which Adams said would be a “historic moment” for the world and make the Japanese people proud.

“I am very confident that we will see public opinion hugely in favour of the games,” Adams said, adding that Japanese people strongly approved of Tokyo’s candidacy.

Still, opposition has seemed to harden against an Olympics that has cost at least $US15 billion ($A19 billion) of mostly taxpayer money.

Adams said there was private polling numbers known to the IOC and organisers in Tokyo, though no details were given on Wednesday.

-With AAP and Reuters

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