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What we know today, Tuesday September 21

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Victoria has recorded 603 new COVID-19 cases and one death, as the government defends its decision to shut down the construction industry for two weeks due to low public health compliance.

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Vic Govt defends construction industry shutdown as cases rise

There was “no choice” but to shut down swathes of Victoria’s construction industry because of the spread of COVID-19 and low public health compliance, the Victorian Government says, as the state records another 603 COVID-19 cases.

Health Minister Martin Foley on Tuesday defended a late-night decision to close down construction in locked-down Melbourne, Geelong, Ballarat, Mitchell Shire and the Surf Coast.

An official government statement declaring the shutdown was not issued until 10pm on Monday night, effective at midnight.

The shutdown began on the same day Victoria recorded 603 new COVID-19 cases and one death.

It is the highest daily tally in the current outbreak and since August 2020.

The total number of active cases in the state to 6000 and the number of death from this outbreak to 13.

Foley said for weeks the government had been warning of high cases linked to construction sites, with outbreaks taking hold in a young and mobile workforce.

“As a result of these figures, the public health team was left with no choice but to hit the pause button and continue working with the sector over these next two weeks to improve compliance,” Foley told reporters.

There are 403 cases directly linked to construction, from 186 work sites, he said.

Of those, 151 sites are in metropolitan Melbourne with 362 connected cases, including 49 people who live in regional Victoria.

An audit of about 200 construction sites on Thursday found 73 per cent were failing to comply with health directions.

The shutdown followed a violent protest outside the CFMEU’s head office in central Melbourne.

Foley said Monday’s violence was “deplorable and an insult to every Victorian who has been doing the right thing”, but the decision to shut down the industry was influenced by data.

An amnesty will be in place on Tuesday so a limited number of workers can attend construction sites to shut them down safely.

The government said all sites would need to demonstrate compliance with the chief health officer’s directions before reopening, including proof workers have had at least one dose of a vaccine before they return to work on October 5.

The Property Council of Australia said the shutdown would cost the economy $1.1 billion a week.

Treasurer and Industrial Relations Minister Tim Pallas said the government was still working out the financial fallout of the closure.

The protests continued on Tuesday, with the riot squad and mounted police facing off with a hi-vis wearing crowd of mostly young men.

The CFMEU Victorian construction branch secretary John Setka described the protests as “absolutely outrageous”.

“We’ve tried to keep our members all working and … because of a handful of drunken idiots there’s 300,000-plus workers sitting at home for at least the next two weeks,” he told ABC radio on Tuesday.

NSW records 1022 new cases, ten deaths

NSW has reported 1022 new locally acquired cases of COVID-19 and 10 deaths.

Of the 10 people who died in the 24 hours to 8pm on Wednesday, one was in their 50s, one in their 60s, two in their 70s, five in their 80s and one in their 90s.

It takes the toll for the current outbreak to 255.

There are currently 1266 COVID-19 patients in hospital in NSW, with 244 people in intensive care units and 118 on ventilators.

Health Minister Brad Hazzard on Tuesday also confirmed Tweed, Byron Shire and Kempsey would go into lockdown from Tuesday afternoon for seven days after local COVID-19 cases were uncovered in those areas.

The NSW-Queensland border bubble is likely to again be shut down as a result.

Meanwhile, children under 18 in NSW will be able to catch-up with each other in groups of three in a concession to families during the school holidays.

Crisis cabinet agreed on Monday night to offer relief to families after months of lockdown and home schooling.

Children don’t have to be vaccinated but all adults living with the children must be fully vaccinated. They must stay in the same trio of friends.

The three friends must also live within five kilometres of each other, or in the same local government area.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she hoped the change would boost the mental health of children locked down at home.

“This change will hopefully make a big difference for families during the school holidays and allow young children and teenagers to catch up and reconnect with their friends,” she said in a statement.

NSW is on track to reach the 70 per cent double vaccination milestone that will allow more freedoms in the first week of October.

Virgin to start flying Adelaide to Hobart

Virgin Australia will offer direct flights from Adelaide to Hobart from next month, adding to the Adelaide to Launceston route it introduced this month.

The airline will operate four services a week between Adelaide and Hobart on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday from October 22.

It is the only carrier airline to offer direct flights to two Tasmanian cities from Adelaide.

Qantas and Jetstar already offer a direct flight between Adelaide and Hobart, which takes about one hour and 50 minutes.

It will be the first time three major domestic carriers have scheduled flights between the two capital cities, which will now see thirteen services per week operate from Adelaide Airport.

The Virgin flights will depart Adelaide at 7.30am and depart Hobart at 10.40am using a Boeing B737.

McBride to stay a Liberal

State Liberal MP Nick McBride has declared he will not quit the Liberal Party after a week weighing up a move to the crossbench.

McBride represents the Sout East seat of MacKillop and had been a vocal opponent of the Government’s handling of border closures and tardy processing of exemptions for returning South Australians.

The issue came to a head last month when he crossed the floor of parliament to block a move to extend the state’s emergency powers into next year.

But after his concerns were given short shrift by Premier Steven Marshall at a party-room meeting last week, according to some attendees, McBride had resolved to take soundings in his electorate about whether to formally break ranks with the party.

However, he has now decided against that move – for now at least – after a meeting with Marshall yesterday and talks with Treasurer Rob Lucas in recent days.

McBride attended a joint party-room meeting late yesterday, after which he confirmed in a statement that “for the past week I have been considering my future within the Liberal Party”.

“As part of this process, I have been in consultation with members of the MacKillop electorate,” he said.

“This has been a challenging time, as I considered how I can best serve my constituents and my electorate.

“I wish to advise my commitment to continue as the Liberal Member for MacKillop.”

He cited “productive discussions with the Premier and the Treasurer”, saying “we have committed to improve the flow of communication between the Parliamentary Party and regional members”.

“The establishment of a monthly regional members forum is a measure that I welcome and look forward to participating in,” he said.

“I intend to continue to work hard for my electorate and my party, and remain committed to ensure the best outcomes for my constituents.”

Earlier yesterday, Marshall told reporters: “I think it was a positive meeting.”

“I love catching up with all members of the Liberal team here in SA,” he said.

Marshall had last week sent a strong message to McBride that his electorate “elected a Liberal and I think they expect that to continue”.

The MP’s continued presence on the Government benches prevents a parliamentary headache for the Premier, who has already lost Sam Duluk and Fraser Ellis to the crossbench since coming to power in 2018.

 – Tom Richardson

$15 million timber shortage lifeline

Fire-damaged logs harvested by Kangaroo Island Plantation Timbers await export. Picture: KIPT

More than $15 million in Federal Government funding will be provided to help salvage bushfire damaged logs off Kangaroo Island to address severe timber shortages in the building industry.

The timber could be enough to build between 8000 and 10,000 new houses.

However, the $15.1 million funding will only support the transportation of the softwood to timber mills with immediate spare processing capacity, raising concerns that the timber may not end up in the hands of South Australian builders.

All of South Australia’s timber mills are currently at full capacity but in New South Wales there are a couple of major mills with huge spare capacity as a result of a lack of local timber available to process, in part due to bushfires in their own state.

Federal Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said the program would target pine from Kangaroo Island and was an expansion of its previous Foresty Salvage Transport Measure that was made available to bushfire-affected timber in New South Wales and Victoria last year.

“We stand ready to work with states and urge them to act swiftly to help us bring bushfire-affected construction timbers to mills with immediate capacity to produce structural timbers,” he said.

“(It wil) allow for both intrastate and interstate transport of remaining bushfire-salvaged construction-grade softwood to mills in any state with capacity to process it.”

Listed company Kangaroo Island Plantation Timber has about 14,500 hectares of plantations, about 80 per cent hardwood (blue gum) and 20 per cent softwood pine, which is used to produce structural timber.

But about 95 per cent of it was damaged in the Kangaroo Island fires that began on December 20, 2019 and burnt 210,000ha – almost half of the island – across a 612 km perimeter before it was contained on January 21, 2020.

SA  Primary Industries Minister David Basham said the State Government had pledged up to $3 million to bring additional timber to the local housing industry and welcomed the Commonwealth Government’s new support package.

“This will be a game-changer for South Australia’s housing construction industry and will significantly increase the amount of structural timber currently available,” Basham said.

The local building industry has been calling for help to access the timber for more than six months to help address major shortages as a result of tightened supply and huge demand as a result of the building boom.

KIPT has since struggled for 18 months to get the fire-affected timber off the island before it rots and last month announced it now planned to fell and burn the timber and convert the plantations into farmland after the State Government rejected its bid to build a $40 million port at Smith Bay on the island’s north coast.

Two-week shutdown for Vic construction industry

Melbourne’s construction industry will be shut down for two weeks following a violent anti-vaccination protest outside the CFMEU’s Melbourne headquarters.

The closure was announced on Monday night after the building was damaged and riot police deployed in chaotic scenes.

Only critical infrastructure, including hospitals and ongoing level crossing removal works, will continue during the shutdown – giving time for the workforce to get vaccinated.

The two-week shutdown from today is for metropolitan Melbourne, City of Ballarat, City of Greater Geelong, Surf Coast Shire and Mitchell Shire.

“We’ve been clear: if you don’t follow the rules, we won’t hesitate to take action – we have seen widespread non-compliance across the industry and that’s why we’re taking necessary steps to protect every single Victorian,” Industrial Relations Minister Tim Pallas said in a statement last night.

“We put the industry on notice just a week ago, we have seen appalling behaviour on-site and on our streets, and now we’re acting decisively and without hesitation.”

It comes as Victoria on Monday recorded the highest number of daily COVID-19 cases in the current outbreak, with 567 new locally acquired cases and one death – a Moreland woman in her 70s.

The protesters, not all of whom were union members, want the union to defy new regulations requiring workers to have proof of their first vaccination.

Construction sites have been a place of high spread in the latest outbreak, forcing health officials to close tearooms last week.

The state’s roadmap out of lockdown was released on Sunday, detailing small changes to restrictions when 80 per cent of Victorians aged over 16 have received a single vaccine dose.

Melbourne’s lockdown will remain in place until 70 per cent of Victorians are double-vaccinated, which is forecast for October 26.

France claims sub doubts began in June

France began doubting Australia’s commitment to a $A90 billion submarine order in June and President Emmanuel Macron was only informed by officials in Canberra of the deal’s collapse in writing hours before it was announced, a French presidency official says.

The official said there had been no hint of the contract cancellation when Macron met Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison in Paris in mid-June, shortly after a meeting of G7 leaders in the UK.

“We started hearing echoes of Australian concerns about the execution of the contract from June,” the Elysee Palace official told Reuters on Monday.

Australia said last week it was cancelling the contract for conventional submarines from France and would instead build at nuclear-powered submarines with US and UK technology after striking a security partnership with those countries.

France discussed the contract for the diesel-powered submarines with its allies at the G7 summit, the official said.

Australia is not a G7 member but was invited by the UK as a guest country.

On June 15, when Macron hosted Morrison for dinner, Morrison set out Australia’s concerns but there was no suggestion that he was considering tearing up the contract, the official said.

“Morrison said nothing to suggest this and they agreed to continue working. The president later wrote at length to Morrison to address his concerns,” the official continued.

For months, Australia had issues over the delivery time and cost of the project but it was not clear what concerns Morrison presented to Macron.

On Sunday, Morrison said Australia had formed the view that the French Attack-class submarines were not going to meet Australian needs for protecting its sovereign interests.

A second Elysee official said Australia did not once indicate it was studying an alternative to the French deal.

France also sought answers from the United States but received none, the first official said.

Morrison informed Macron that the deal was dead in writing hours before the official announcement.

The United States has sought to assuage the anger in France, a NATO ally.

The French government spokesman said on Sunday that Macron would have a call with US President Joe Biden “in the next few days”.

Australia’s trade minister said on Monday he would seek a meeting with France to ease tensions and was confident it would not cloud EU-Australia trade talks.

France has recalled its envoys to Washington DC and Canberra for consultations.

Pfizer says vaccine safe for 5-11 year olds

Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer says its COVID-19 vaccine induces a robust immune response in five to 11 year olds and it will seek authorisation to use it in children in that age range.

Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE say they plan to ask for authorisation to use the vaccine in children in the US, Europe and elsewhere as soon as possible.

The companies said the vaccine generated an immune response in the five-to-11 year olds in their Phase II/III clinical trial that matched what they had previously observed in 16-to-25 year olds.

The safety profile was also generally comparable to the older age group, they said.

“Since July, pediatric cases of COVID-19 have risen by about 240 per cent in the US – underscoring the public health need for vaccination,” Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla said in a news release on Monday.

“These trial results provide a strong foundation for seeking authorisation of our vaccine for children five to 11 years old, and we plan to submit them to the FDA and other regulators with urgency.”

Top US health officials believe regulators could make a decision on whether the shot is safe and effective in younger children within three weeks of the companies submitting a request for authorisation, two sources told Reuters earlier this month.

Royal baby is Queen’s 12th grandchild

Princess Beatrice, Queen Elizabeth’s granddaughter, has given birth to a baby girl, her first child with husband Edoardo Mapelli Mozzi, Buckingham Palace has announced.

The baby, who weighed 6 pounds and 2 ounces (2.78 kg), was born at London’s Chelsea and Westminster Hospital on Saturday evening.

Beatrice, the tenth-in-line to the throne and the eldest daughter of Prince Andrew and Sarah, Duchess of York, married property developer Mapelli Mozzi in July 2020.

“The new baby’s grandparents and great-grandparents have all been informed and are delighted with the news. The family would like to thank all the staff at the hospital for their wonderful care,” the statement said.

Beatrice, 33, is also stepmother to Mapelli Mozzi’s young son Wolfie, from his previous relationship with ex-fiancee Dara Huang.

“Her Royal Highness and her child are both doing well and the couple are looking forward to introducing their daughter to her big brother Christopher Woolf.”

The baby is the 12th great-grandchild for Britain’s 95-year-old monarch.

The birth is good news for Beatrice’s family, coming on the back of a slew of negative headlines that have followed a US sex assault lawsuit against her father Prince Andrew, the Queen’s second son.

Clarko rules out Blues coaching job

Four-time Hawthorn premiership coach Alastair Clarkson has confirmed he is not open to coaching Carlton in the 2022 AFL season.

Clarkson says he will definitely take next season off rather than going “flat out” again in the AFL after confirming he spoke to new Blues chief executive Brian Cook at the weekend.

Former Brisbane senior coach and current Port Adelaide assistant Michael Voss is now the short-priced favourite to take over at Carlton.

“I need a spell – I’ve only got two gears, that’s flat-out or stop,” Clarkson told AFL360 on Monday night.

“I’m just not ready to go flat-out again right now.”

The embattled Blues pulled off a major coup on Friday night when they lured Cook, the highly respected former Geelong and West Coast chief executive, to take over the role.

That immediately ramped up speculation again that the Blues could yet land Clarkson.

Clarkson admitted there was a strong lure to put his hand up to take over at Carlton or Collingwood, who have appointed Craig McRae.

But it was not strong enough and Clarkson said he has three objectives next year – to commit more to family and friends, hopefully study abroad and put something back into the game by lending his expertise to the Tasmanian push for their own AFL team.

– with AAP, Reuters and The New Daily

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