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What we know today, Thursday June 24

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The number of locally acquired COVID-19 cases in NSW linked to the Bondi cluster has grown to 36, after 11 new infections were announced – including a government minister.

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NSW records 11 new cases

The number of locally acquired COVID-19 cases in NSW linked to the Bondi cluster has grown to 36, after 11 new infections were announced – including a government minister.

NSW Health figures show there were 18 new cases in the 24 hours to 8pm on Wednesday, 13 of which were announced earlier.

There were another six cases detected after the 8pm cut off which will be included in Friday’s official tally.

This means there’s a total of 11 new cases reported on Thursday linked to the outbreak that began in Bondi last week.

Of the 11 new cases, all but one are linked to a known case or the Bondi cluster, with urgent investigations underway into how a man in his 40s caught the virus. He’s the second man in as many days who has contracted the virus from an unknown source.

One of the new overnight infections is NSW Agriculture Minister Adam Marshall, who confirmed on Thursday that he had tested positive after dining at a restaurant in Sydney’s east at the same time as a previously reported case linked to the Bondi cluster.

“This morning just after 8am I was formally advised by NSW Health that I had returned a positive test for COVID-19,” Marshall said on Thursday.

“I’m doing fine and will continue to strictly follow the advice of health authorities.

“I have been in isolation in Sydney since late Tuesday night, when I received a text message from NSW Health.”

Marshall has been isolating at his Sydney flat since Tuesday night and won’t be able to return to his Armidale home for at least 14 days. His ministerial staff are also in isolation.

He had dined with three of his Nationals colleagues – Trevor Khan, Steph Cooke and Ben Franklin – with all three understood to have tested negative.

Parliament staffers have been told to stay home on Thursday, and MPs inside the Macquarie Street building are undergoing rapid COVID tests.

Premier Gladys Berejikilian told reporters today this is “perhaps the scariest period that New South Wales is going through”.

“I do want to stress that my level of concern is medium to high across New South Wales but at the same time, a couple of things that we are pleased about is that all the new cases bar one are linked and that one is under investigation,” she said.

“We do expect more cases in the coming days but we also please expect everybody to do the right thing.”

Qld records three new local COVID cases

Queensland has recorded three new community COVID-19 case linked to a flight attendant who was infected during hotel quarantine before briefly spending time in Brisbane.

One of the new cases is the manager of the Portuguese Family Centre, where the woman had visited, who has been in home quarantine before testing positive.

The other two were travelling with the flight attendant when she was out in Brisbane, and have been in hotel quarantine during their infectious period.

“I’m not concerned that any of these three cases are a risk to the Queensland community,” Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young said on Thursday.

There have now been four cases linked to the flight attendant after a man who visited the family centre tested positive earlier this week.

Others who were at the centre – 36 in all – are continuing to isolate and are being monitored.

Young said she was not concerned about the latest outbreak as all those believed to be at risk are in quarantine.

Govt votes down Basin Plan ‘vandalism’

The Morrison Government has voted down an explosive Nationals rebellion aimed at dramatically shaking up the Murray Darling Basin Plan and blocking 450 gigalitres of water from returning to the environment.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday was urged to strip the junior coalition partner of the water portfolio after its senators launched an audacious push to change government legislation.

The proposal would have banned the government from buying water from irrigators to return to the environment and block delivering 450 gigalitres of water, which most benefits South Australia, already earmarked for the environment.

The amendments would have also prevented any extra environmental water being allocated after the plan is completed in 2024.

The Liberals joined Labor, the Greens and Centre Alliance in voting down the amendments on Wednesday night.

Government Senate leader and SA Liberal Simon Birmingham said he was committed to the plan being delivered in full and on time.

“When those amendments come to a vote, I and the government will be voting against those amendments,” he told parliament.

“The government stands resolute in its support for the implementation of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan.”

The proposed changes prompted South Australian Water Minister David Speirs to contact his federal counterpart Keith Pitt – a Nationals MP from Queensland – about his disappointment with the “stunt”.

“The Marshall Liberal government categorically rejects the amendments put forward in the Senate,” Speirs said.

“We will continue to push all Basin jurisdictions to deliver what’s already been agreed for the good of the river and the communities which rely on it.”

The new tensions come after Speirs wrote to Pitt in February expressing his “disappointment” over the appointment of a former NSW Nationals MP to be the river’s top water compliance officer.

The Nationals were trying to tack the water amendments onto a bill which would give this compliance officer – the inspector general of the basin – substantive powers.

Labor, the Greens and Senator Patrick on Wednesday demanded Morrison take water responsibility off the Nationals.

“Until the Liberal Party decide they are going to stand up to this sort of vandalism, you will be condemned,” Opposition Senate leader Penny Wong said.

Victorian senator Bridget McKenzie, who is tipped to return to cabinet as early as this week, led the charge for the changes, and denied Barnaby Joyce’s return as Nationals leader was linked to the push.

“You’ll never ever be able to come back into our communities and take water,” she told parliament.

Labor to ditch Riverbank stadium if elected

The Labor Party will scrap plans to build a 15,000-seat arena on the Riverbank if they win the next state election in 2022, citing the need to invest more money in the state’s health system to address hospital overcrowding and ambulance ramping.

The $662.5 million basketball stadium and conference centre, announced in March as a centrepiece of the Marshall Government’s re-election bid, will be located directly west of the Morphett Street bridge on the Torrens and act as an extension of the Adelaide Convention Centre.

Tuesday’s State Budget showed funds for the project are not due to roll in until the 2022-23 financial year – after the March 2022 state election – with early site works not anticipated until 2025-26.

Opposition Leader Peter Malinauskas announced this morning the Labor Party will scrap the proposal if elected next year, saying the government has failed to make the case for why the investment is necessary.

He said the stadium is “simply not the right priority” given the state of South Australia’s health system.

“At the next election, South Australians will have a clear choice: Steven Marshall and his $662 million Basketball Stadium or a Malinauskas Labor Government which will instead invest in our health system to help address hospital overcrowding and ambulance ramping,” he said.

“There’s no point focussing on a flashy new basketball stadium when South Australians can’t guarantee they’ll get an ambulance when they call triple zero in an emergency. People are dying – this is literally a matter of life and death.”

The location of the Marshall Government’s planned Riverbank Arena (Photo supplied: State Government)

The opposition leader on Wednesday attacked the State Government’s health budget, claiming 39 jobs from the Women’s and Children’s Hospital would be lost as part of a cull of 371 positions across the health sector.

Health Minister Stephen Wade said the government has continually promised that “no doctor or nurse will be sacked as a result of savings outlined in the budget”.

Labor’s decision to scrap the Riverbank Arena comes after Premier Steven Marshall was forced to correct the record on Wednesday about the expected revenue and operating costs of the stadium.

Adelaide Venue Management Corporation CEO Anthony Kirchner had told the Budget and Finance parliamentary committee on Monday that the stadium would cost $80 million a year to run and generate $100 million in revenue per annum.

The premier told parliament on Wednesday the figures were wrong and the stadium is forecast to generate $49.2 million in revenue per annum while costing $34.5 million to operate.

GFG reaches standstill deal on Whyalla steelworks

Sanjeev Gupta’s GFG Alliance says it has negotiated a six-week standstill agreement with Credit Suisse while it finalises the refinancing of its Australian operations, which include the Whyalla Steelworks.

Citibank is acting on behalf of Credit Suisse Asset Management, which is looking to recover billions of supply-chain finance funds globally after GFG’s main financier Greensill was placed into administration in March.

The court action aims to wind up the operations of GFG’s LIBERTY Primary Metals Australia (LPMA), including the Whyalla Steelworks and a coking coal mine in NSW.

A directions hearing in the NSW Supreme Court was set for May 6 but was deferred to July 5 after an eleventh-hour announcement by GFG that it had agreed to a new financing deal to cover its Greensill debt.

At the time, a GFG Alliance spokesperson said the offer was subject to customary conditions precedent and documentation, “a process which has commenced and is expected to complete within four weeks”.

The deal is still yet to be finalised.

However, GFG put out another statement yesterday afternoon saying it had agreed to a formal standstill agreement with CSAM.

“The six-week standstill agreement will enable GFG Alliance to complete full refinancing of LPMA, expected to complete within this time frame,” the GFG spokesperson said in the statement.

“GFG Alliance and CSAM continue to work hard towards resolving GFG Alliance’s remaining exposure with CSAM-Funds following the collapse of Greensill Capital.

“Sanjeev Gupta and GFG Alliance’s Restructuring and Transformation Committee continue to make good progress on restructuring and refinancing of the group with all creditors, supported by record steel and aluminium prices, in addition to operational improvement at its major plants.”

The Whyalla steelworks is the town’s biggest employer with around 1200 workers and a further 600 work in the associated Middleback Ranges mines nearby.

UK-based Sanjeev Gupta was hailed a saviour of the Whyalla business and town after former steelworks owner Arrium went into administration and he took it over in 2017, vowing to improve and expand the operation.

Andrew Spence

NSW awaits more cases amid snap border closures

School holiday plans are in tatters for many Sydney residents who are now confined to the metropolitan area and banned from entering other jurisdictions, as NSW struggles to contain a COVID cluster following a “super-spreader event”.

South Australia moved quickly to shut the state’s border with Greater Sydney after NSW Health reported another 16 cases on Wednesday to bring the number of infections associated with the Bondi cluster to 31.

The move came as a shock to travellers from Sydney arriving at Adelaide Airport yesterday, with SA Health working through a case-by-case exemption process for arrivals from seven flights that landed in Adelaide after the border ban was announced.

The move comes just before the NSW school holidays start next week, although residents living within 100km of the South Australian-NSW border are not affected by the new border rules.

Other states have imposed a variety of restrictions on visitors from Sydney, with Western Australia, Queensland and Victoria shutting their borders completely to anyone from NSW.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is urging people to “abandon non-essential activities” after introducing new rules for residents in Greater Sydney, the Central Coast, Blue Mountains, Wollongong and Shellharbour on Wednesday.

A household guest limit of five, including children, and the four-square-metre rule indoors and outdoors were introduced alongside mandatory masks in all indoor non-residential settings, including workplaces.

“The NSW government will not hesitate to go further and harder if we have to,” she said.

Meanwhile, NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard told ABC News Breakfast this morning he is in isolation after he was identified as a possible close contact of a case in NSW parliament.

“There was a text message that had come in sometime during the night … telling me that a case had been detected as a likely positive, and that I was a possible close contact,” Hazzard said.

“That’s still being worked through.”

NSW Health has issued more alerts for COVID-19 exposure sites at a range of venues at Darlinghurst, Double Bay, Bondi Beach, Bondi Junction, Narellan, Meadowbank and the Sydney CBD.

Residents who live or work in the City of Sydney, Waverley, Randwick, Canada Bay, Inner West, Bayside, and Woollahra local government areas cannot travel outside the metropolitan area unless it’s absolutely essential.

Masks must also be worn to gym classes, which are now limited to 20 people.

More than 44,000 tests were completed in the 24 hours to 8pm on Tuesday.

Eight of the 13 additional cases were at a birthday party attended by about 30 people in West Hoxton on Saturday, which NSW Chief Health Officer Kerry Chant described as a “super-spreader event”.

AstraZeneca jab to be phased out of rollout

AstraZeneca is likely to be phased out of Australia’s COVID vaccine rollout later in the year as more Pfizer and Moderna doses join the immunisation program and are administered at GPs.

The federal government has released the vaccine distribution projections it supplied to state and territory health authorities.

The document reveals AstraZeneca – which the federal government secured 53 million doses of and is the only vaccine approved for manufacturing in Australia – will likely be phased out of the rollout later in the year with supplies subject to state and territory requests from October.

That vaccine is no longer recommended for people under 60 over very rare but serious blood clots which have claimed two lives from more than 3.8 million doses.

“For all of those people and cohorts that AstraZeneca is preferred, we think they will have received the AstraZeneca before the fourth quarter,” COVID-19 task force commander Lieutenant General John Frewen told reporters.

“For any people who still do require AstraZeneca we will have allocations into the fourth quarter.”

Up to 2.3 million Pfizer doses – with 1.5 million to GPs and the rest to state vaccination hubs – could be allocated every week between October and December.

Moderna will join the rollout from September with between 87,000 and 125,000 doses forecast to be distributed weekly.

A total of 490,932 vaccine doses have been administered in South Australia.

Of these, GPs have administered 261,439 doses, state-run health clinics 194,581, while the Commonwealth have given 34,912 doses in South Australian aged and disability care.

VP Kamala Harris to visit US-Mexico border

US Vice President Kamala Harris will visit the US-Mexico border for the first time since taking a lead role in immigration issues, her office says, bowing to pressure that she make the high-profile trip.

Harris will travel to El Paso, Texas, on Friday and will be accompanied by Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, Harris spokeswoman Symone Sanders said.

US President Joe Biden assigned Harris the task of addressing the root causes of migration of thousands of people from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who cross the US border from Mexico.

She visited Mexico and Guatemala earlier this month.

Republicans have assailed Harris for not having already visited the border.

Harris had said she would do so eventually.

Former president Donald Trump, who plans a border visit on June 30, said in a statement: “If (Texas) Governor (Greg) Abbott and I weren’t going there next week, she would have never gone!”

Biden, a Democrat, has moved to reverse many of the restrictive immigration policies of Trump, a Republican he defeated in a November election.

At the same time Biden has left in place a border policy known as Title 42, expelling in five months more than 400,000 migrants detained at or near the border, including many Central American families and asylum seekers sent back to Mexico.

Publicly, the Biden administration insists the order remains necessary to limit the spread of the coronavirus, although it has yet to provide scientific data to support that rationale and many public health experts have opposed it.

-With AAP and Reuters

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