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What we know today, Thursday January 27

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A major Australian bank has slashed its March quarter growth forecast to zero due to the economic impact of the Omicron variant.

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Omicron forces bank to slash growth forecast to zero

Economists at a major Australian bank have slashed their economic growth forecast for the March quarter to zero due to the impact of the Omicron variant on activity.

Westpac has raised its growth forecast for the December quarter 2021 to 2.6 per cent from 2.2 per cent, partly reflecting the 12 per cent boost to retail sales in October and November as Delta strain lockdowns were removed.

“In contrast, our own high frequency credit and debit card data for the first few weeks of January is pointing to a marked fall in consumer spending over that period which can be attributed to the Omicron shock,” Westpac chief economist Bill Evans said.

“With confidence-related spillovers to business investment and inventories in January we have marked down our forecast growth rate in the March quarter from a robust 2.3 per cent to zero.”

Growth for the full year is now forecast at 5.5 per cent rather than 6.4 per cent.

The Westpac-Melbourne Institute leading index, which indicates the likely pace of economic activity three to nine months into the future, rose to minus 0.15 per cent in December from minus 19 per cent in November.

Evans said the index remains in slight negative territory due to the high degree of uncertainty around the near-term outlook, due to the spectacular spread of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.

Still, Westpac and others are expecting the Reserve Bank of Australia to start lifting the cash rate in August after recent data indicated the central bank’s goals for inflation and employment are being achieved.

Trials underway for Omicron-specific booster

Pharmaceutical company Moderna is testing its Omicron-specific COVID-19 booster vaccine, dosing the first participant in a stage two trial.

The second stage of the trial will evaluate the effectiveness and safety of the shot as a single booster for people over the age of 18.

It will be broken into two cohorts: people who have had two mRNA doses with the second dose being at least six months ago, and people with two doses and a booster who received their last jab at least three months ago.

The company expects to use 300 people in each cohort and the trials will be conducted in up to two dozen sites in the US.

Early data revealed a 37-fold increase in antibody levels in its 50 microgram dose and 83-fold increase in its 100 microgram dose compared to pre-booster levels, the company says.

Other figures showed Omicron neutralisation was detected in only 55 per cent of participants seven months after the second dose.

But while Omicron neutralisation six months after a 50 microgram booster dose declined, it remained detectable in all participants.

The company says it can bring new vaccine candidates to a clinical stage within 60 to 90 days of a new variant of concern emerging.

SA mulls elective surgery restrictions amid national cabinet talks

State, territory and federal leaders will discuss the capacity of Australia’s health system at national cabinet today as South Australian authorities consider lifting a ban on non-urgent elective surgery.

Australia recorded 87 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday alongside more than 50,000 cumulative new infections.

South Australia reported 13 deaths – six of which were from aged care and in an undisclosed reporting period – along with another 2401 cases, up from 1869 on Tuesday.

The state’s hospital admissions rose by one to 288, with 26 people in intensive care and four on ventilators.

The capacity of the country’s health system, an update on the vaccine rollout and supply chain issues will be on the table at Thursday’s national cabinet with Prime Minister Scott Morrison, premiers and chief ministers.

Premier Steven Marshall on Wednesday said the State Government was now taking advice on when it could ease restrictions on elective surgery,

All elective surgery in SA except category one and urgent category two appointments were put on hold on December 29 in a bid to boost the state’s health system capacity ahead of a looming wave in Omicron hospitalisations.

Marshall said a “preliminary meeting” about lifting the elective surgery ban was held on Tuesday and another will be held on Friday.

“We have got really good capacity within our hospital system, we don’t want delays to elective surgery in our state for one longer than we [need] to,” Marshall told reporters yesterday.

“I think most states still have that ban in place, but we’re looking to ease ours when it’s safe to do so.”

Teachers’ union set to consider strike deadline

The SA executive of the Australian Education Union is set to consider whether to recommend calling off strike action planned for the first day of term one, after setting a Thursday deadline for a response to concerns from teachers about the safe return of schools.

A majority of AEU members last week voted in favour of strike action if concerns teachers have about ventilation and a lack of rapid antigen test use in schools weren’t adequately addressed.

AEU state president Andrew Gohl told InDaily on Tuesday afternoon that the State Government had until 10am on Thursday to provide a “firm written position” on negotiated measures to facilitate the safe return of school.

He said if the union’s executive is satisfied with the written response, it will recommend calling off the strike – planned for next Wednesday, February 2 – and will conduct another ballot of its members.

“Industrial action remains on foot pending a written position provided from the department which goes to a number of matters that we’ve been talking about over the last couple of days,” Gohl said on Tuesday.

The union held crisis talks with chief public health officer Nicola Spurrier on Tuesday to go through their list of concerns.

Premier Steven Marshall said on Wednesday, “I think we’re getting close to an agreement”.

“Obviously they have 18 or 19 issues, it’s now down to three, four or five I think,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

“The area where we are not in agreement is the use of the rapid antigen tests.

“They will be provided when they’re needed but not for surveillance across the board.

“Professor Spurrier was very positive about all of the questions that were asked by the union, and of course she provided fulsome answers to them.

“We’ll just have to see what the union decide to do.”

Heavy rains soak state overnight

Wind gusts upwards of 80km/h were recorded across South Australia overnight and heavy rainfall continues to pour down across the state as prolonged road closures remain in place due to flooding.

The Adelaide Hills received a drenching with the Bureau of Meteorology reporting that Balhannah received 25mm of rainfall in the 30 minutes to 1:30am this morning, while Lenswood received 22mm in the half an hour to 1:15am.

The northern suburbs have been similarly affected with Ingle Farm receiving 27mm of rain from 11:45pm to 12:15am overnight, with Montague Road closed due to asset damage.

The BoM says there have been numerous reports of flash flooding across the northern suburbs, “especially in the area between Munno Para West and Craigmore”.

Elsewhere, Port Lincoln has recorded 47.2mm of rain since 9am yesterday while nearby Cummins has received 22mm in the same timespan.

The BoM reported this morning that Tarcoola in the state’s remote far north recorded a wind gust of 113km/h last night.

A gust of 93km/h was also recorded in Cultana at 9:50pm, while an 85 km/h gust was recorded at 10pm.

The Stuart Highway between Adelaide and Darwin, which closed on Monday due to flooding, remains shut, as does parts of the York Highway in Clinton and Iron Knob Road in Whyalla Barson.

SA tourism industry outlook at near-record low

The business outlook of South Australia’s tourism operators last quarter reached its second lowest recorded level since 2010, according to a survey from the state’s peak tourism body.

The Tourism Industry Council of South Australia today released the results of its quarterly sentiment survey measuring the outlook of 370 businesses in the October to December period of 2021.

The survey found more than 64 per cent of respondents were experiencing a “significant downturn” in business, while 42.5 per cent were operating with reduced staff or operations.

Further, more than 60 per cent said they were “worried” or “very worried” about their business prospects this year.

Medium and long-term business outlook also plummeted to its second-lowest level in the survey’s eleven-year history, with only the June 2020 quarter at the start of the pandemic more negative.

Businesses in this survey primarily attributed their pessimistic outlook to a lack of consumer confidence and COVID-19 uncertainty, with 36.59 per cent planning less future investment.

TiCSA CEO Shaun de Bruyn used the results to call for a greater support for the state’s tourism sector.

“Last quarter’s Barometer reinforces that now, more than ever, our tourism industry needs support to survive, and then recover, from the effects of the pandemic,” he said.

“A staggering $2.3 billion has been wiped off the value of our visitor economy since the start of the pandemic.

“As such, we continue to push for further restart and recovery funding for tourism businesses here in SA.

“Furthermore, we need tourism demand stimulus through increased marketing budget for the SA Tourism Commission to be provided, to boost business outlook for the future.”

Premier Steven Marshall flagged this week that details of another business support package will be unveiled over the weekend.

The announcement will follow the expiry of this month’s financial program, which has distributed grants of up to $22,000 to businesses impacted by this month’s heightened COVID-19 restrictions.

Man dies after Port Pirie motorcycle crash

A young man has died after crashing his motorcycle into a fence in Port Pirie last night.

Emergency services were called to The Terrace in Port Pirie around 6:30pm on Wednesday following reports a motorcyclist had collided with a fence on the northern half of the road.

Police say the rider, a 22-year-old man from Globe Derby Park, died at the scene.

Major Crash Investigators have travelled from Adelaide to examine the scene.

The Terrace is currently closed between Frederick Road and Clara Street, with police asking residents to avoid the area.

South Australia’s road toll for 2021 now stands at five, compared to seven at the same point last year.

Strikers’ golden run ends after dramatic BBL finals loss to Sixers

Alex Carey watches as Hayden Kerr celebrates the winning runs on the final ball of the BBL Challenger Final between the Sydney Sixers and Adelaide Strikers at the SCG last night. Photo: AAP/Dan Himbrechts

Sydney Sixers young gun Hayden Kerr has stunned the Adelaide Strikers, riding his luck to hit a career-best knock of 98 and secure a dramatic four-wicket victory and a spot in the BBL final.

The Sixers, bidding for a third straight crown, will meet the Perth Scorchers in Friday night’s title-deciding match at Marvel Stadium.

The depleted Sydney side will ask Cricket Australia yet again to include Steve Smith yet again after Steve O’Keefe (calf) and Jordan Silk (hamstring) both suffered injuries in the field at the SCG.

Sixers captain Moises Henriques, who scored 13 in a remarkable chase of 168 that Kerr finished in scarcely-believable fashion, also tweaked his calf on an eventful night.

Earlier in the night, Jonathan Wells’ unbeaten 62 rallied Adelaide from 3-21 to 4-167.

But Kerr underlined the hosts’ depth in response, hitting a four off the last ball and carrying his bat as the home side reached 6-170.

Kerr benefited from two chances, having been dropped in the deep by Matthew Renshaw on 16 after Test keeper Alex Carey missed a stumping off the first ball of the innings.

“It is disappointing,” Strikers captain Peter Siddle said.

“A few missed opportunities with bat and ball.”

Harry Conway, who was the final-over hero of the Strikers’ thrilling victory over Sydney Thunder on Sunday night, was asked to defend 12 runs in Wednesday night’s final over.

Conway started with the wicket of a well-set Sean Abbott for 41 but ended with Kerr’s 12th boundary.

There was no shortage of drama between.

A hobbled Silk walked to the middle, scored a single, watched Kerr wallop a six then retired hurt because the Sixers wanted a fully-fit body at the non-striker’s end for the final ball.

The move appeared to not go down well with Siddle, while Adam Gilchrist opined in the commentary box that “it’s probably not in the spirit of the game”.

Kerr, having previously tallied 77 runs at 11 from 11 BBL innings, produced a masterful dig full of sensible strokes and powerful blows.

The 25-year-old’s career defining innings brings an end to a golden six game winning streak for the Strikers.

The Adelaide side finished just one game short of the final despite a dreadful opening half of the season in which they lost seven of their first eight games.

World’s COVID cases hit new weekly record

The World Health Organisation says there were 21 million new COVID-19 cases reported globally last week, the highest weekly number of infections recorded since the pandemic began, although the number of deaths remains largely unchanged.

In its weekly assessment of the pandemic issued late on Tuesday, the UN health agency said the number of new infections rose by five per cent although the rate of increase appeared to be slowing, with only half of regions reporting an increase in COVID-19.

Earlier this month, the previous highest number of cases – 9.5 million – was recorded amid a 71 per cent spike from the week before, as the highly contagious Omicron variant swept the world.

WHO said the biggest increase in cases was seen in the Middle East, with a 39 per cent rise, followed by a 36 per cent jump in Southeast Asia.

However, the number of deaths across the world was largely unchanged at more than 50,000.

Deaths increased in Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the Americas, but fell in other regions.

On Monday, WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus cautioned against talk that the pandemic might be entering its “endgame,” warning that conditions remain ripe for new variants to emerge due to vast swathes of unvaccinated people in some countries amid rapid virus transmission.

Still, Tedros said it might be possible for the world to exit the acute phase of the pandemic if goals like immunising at least 70 per cent of each country’s population are met later this year.

-With AAP and Reuters

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