Australia

What we know today, Thursday January 14

Welcome to your serving of the day’s breaking news from South Australia, the nation and abroad.

SA border opens to regional NSW amid Queensland chaos

The South Australian border opened this morning to residents in regional New South Wales, with incoming travellers having to undergo “surveillance” COVID-19 testing on day one, five and 12 of their stay in SA.

Travel restrictions remain for residents of Greater Sydney, the Blue Mountains, Wollongong and the Central Coast, although Premier Steven Marshall said authorities “will continue to look at those on a daily basis”.

The move comes after NSW reported just one new locally acquired COVID-19 case in the 24 hours up to 8pm on Tuesday: a close contact of a case linked to the 28-person Berala cluster.

There are currently 191 active cases in the state.

NSW Chief Health Officer Dr Kerry Chant said they will need “at least” three more weeks to stamp out the COVID-19 clusters around Greater Sydney.

“It would take at least three, maybe four weeks, and so I need the community to be on track with us,” Dr Chant told reporters yesterday.

“As an epidemiologist, we like to see around two incubation periods before we assess that we are free of the disease … there are multiple factors.”

South Australian authorities have said they will not reopen to border to Greater Sydney until it records 14 days of no community transmission.

Meanwhile, there has been no change to SA’s border restrictions on residents from Greater Brisbane, with the Commonwealth keeping their hotspot declaration for the area after six people at Brisbane’s Hotel Grand Chancellor tested positive for COVID-19.

Queensland authorities moved yesterday to close the medi-hotel, forcing 129 returned travellers to restart their 14-day quarantine and a further 476 workers and guests into isolation as they await test results.

Queensland Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young described the source of the six cases as an “epidemiological mystery”.

“There are two parts to this that we need to address: the incident response and the epidemiological mystery behind the source,” Dr Young said.

“There is no evidence at this stage that the hotel or any of its staff have done anything wrong,”

Marshall said he understood the frustration surrounding SA’s closed border to Brisbane, but insisted authorities are “not in a position” to lift current restrictions.

“There are still some worrying concerns there, there is still more testing to be done from people who have been released from the hotel quarantine situation, and from some people who’ve been working in that hotel quarantine situation,” Marshall said.

“Until Queensland get that information back, we’re not in a position to lift that restriction, but we’re hopeful it can be done in the coming days.”

There are currently 12 active COVID-19 cases in South Australia, with the state’s coronavirus total at 590.

US House moves to impeach Trump for second time

As the House of Representatives moved towards a vote to make Donald Trump the first US president to be impeached twice, the Senate’s top Republican rejected Democratic calls to reconvene the Senate for an immediate trial, all but ensuring Trump will not be ousted before his term ends next week.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell confirmed on Twitter a Washington Post report that McConnell had informed the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, he is not willing to bring the chamber into emergency session to consider removing Trump from office following House impeachment.

The planned House vote later on Wednesday comes a week after a pro-Trump mob swarmed the US Capitol in a deadly attack shortly after the Republican president delivered an incendiary speech to thousands of supporters and repeated false claims of an election stolen from him due to widespread voting fraud. The mob interrupted the formal certification of Democratic President-elect Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in the November 3 election.

The House debated a single article of impeachment formally charging Trump with inciting insurrection.

“We know that the president of the United States incited this insurrection, this armed rebellion against our common country,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told her fellow lawmakers.

“He must go. He is a clear and present danger to the nation that we all love.”

Pelosi said Trump has engaged in a “war on democracy,” and that the “insurrectionists” and “domestic terrorists” who stormed the Capitol were “sent here by the president.”

No US president ever has been removed from office through impeachment. Three – Trump in 2019, Bill Clinton in 1998 and Andrew Johnson in 1868 – previously have been impeached by the House but were left in power by the Senate.

Republicans made speeches urging the House not to impeach Trump in the interest in promoting national healing, with some accusing Democrats of recklessness.

Lawmakers remained on edge after last week’s violence, and large numbers of National Guard troops wearing fatigues and carrying rifles were stationed outside and inside the building.

Trump urged his supporters not to launch new demonstrations as some are threatening, with the FBI reporting that “armed protests” are planned in all 50 state Capitols from January 16 through to Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20.

“In light of reports of more demonstrations, I urge that there must be NO violence, NO lawbreaking and NO vandalism of any kind,” Trump said in a statement.

“That is not what I stand for, and it is not what America stands for. I call on ALL Americans to help ease tensions and calm tempers.”

Google hiding news content during ACCC code row

Tech giant Google is removing Australian news content from its search results in “experiments” affecting around one per cent of Google search users in Australia.

Some internet users have reported that Google searches for Australian news organisations are only showing old content or the news outlet’s Wikipedia and social media pages, while the outlet’s site and its latest stories have disappeared.

In a statement to The Guardian, a spokesperson for Google admitted the search platform was “running a few experiments that will each reach about one per cent of Google Search users in Australia to measure the impacts of news businesses and Google Search on each other”.

The spokesperson said the experiments would end in February.

The move comes as Google lobbies against a media bargaining code set out by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which the federal government says will ensure digital platforms – namely Google Search and Facebook NewsFeed – share the benefits they obtain from using Australian-sourced news content.

While the code encourages news businesses and digital platforms to negotiate outside of the code, it sets out a process for independent arbitration if the two parties cannot reach an agreement.

The code also includes a provision which would require Google to give “14 days advance notice of deliberate algorithm changes that impact news media businesses”.

Google is opposed to new laws, with Google Australia managing director Mel Silva writing an open letter last week claiming the code would “fundamentally damage Google Search”.

“If the code became law today, it would break the way Google Search works undermining the benefits of the internet for millions of Australians, from small business owners across the country, to literally anyone trying to find information online,” Silva said.

The code is currently being scrutinised by a Senate committee which is due to report on February 12, before the laws are voted on in parliament.

Meanwhile in the US, Google is suspending all political advertisements on its platforms until at least January 21 – the day after President Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration – with the tech company saying it is “extremely vigilant” about enforcing its policy against ads that promote hate or incite violence.

In an email sent to advertisers, the company said the suspension came “following the unprecedented events of the past week”, and would “temporarily pause all political ads in addition to any ads referencing impeachment, the inauguration, or protests at the U.S. Capitol”.

Australia’s human rights record marred by HRW report

Australia’s global reputation on human rights has been marred by the government’s failure to address longstanding abuses against First Nations people, Human Rights Watch says in its annual report.

The New York based rights group also highlighted the misuse of police powers during COVID-19 lockdowns, excessive restrictions on movement and the government’s continued mistreatment of asylum seekers.

“In 2020 the global Black Lives Matter movement refocused attention in Australia on systemic racism and inequality against First Nations people, particularly high death rates in custody, and overrepresentation in prisons,” Australia director at HRW Elaine Pearson said.

“Australian federal and state governments need to urgently prioritise reforming longstanding policies that discriminate against First Nations people,” she said in a statement.

In 2020 at least seven Indigenous people died in custody in Australia where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people comprise 29 per cent of the adult prison population, but just 3 per cent of the national population, the HRW report said.

“Reducing incarceration rates requires systemic reforms including repealing punitive bail laws and mandatory sentencing laws, decriminalising public drunkenness, ending over-policing of indigenous communities and raising the age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 14,” the report said.

HRW noted that in June the Western Australian parliament took a positive step by passing a law to reduce the practice of jailing people for unpaid fines, which disproportionately affects indigenous people and people on low incomes.

The HRW report labelled the federal government’s offshore processing of asylum seekers “punitive, cruel, and unlawful”.

“The Morrison government continues to reject New Zealand’s offers to take some of the 290 people remaining in Papua New Guinea and Nauru; 208 have been recognised as refugees and 23 have asylum claims pending.”

HRW also noted that police efforts to enforce pandemic curfews and lockdowns raised concerns over freedom of expression and the misuse of police powers.

“A spate of cases of racial abuse and attacks against people of Asian descent were reported across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic,” its report said.

“Australia has done very well in containing COVID-19, but some police practices during Victoria’s COVID-19 lockdown threatened basic rights,” Pearson said.

HRW’s 761-page World Report 2021 reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries.

Second year of pandemic ‘could be even tougher’: WHO

The second year of the COVID-19 pandemic may be tougher than the first given how the new coronavirus is spreading, especially in the northern hemisphere as more infectious variants circulate, the World Health Organisation is warning.

“We are going into a second year of this, it could even be tougher given the transmission dynamics and some of the issues that we are seeing,” Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergencies official, said during an event on social media.

The worldwide death toll is approaching 2 million people since the pandemic began, with 91.5 million people infected.

The WHO, in its latest epidemiological update issued overnight, said after two weeks of fewer cases being reported, some five million new cases were reported last week, the likely result of a letdown of defences during the holiday season in which people – and the virus – came together.

“Certainly in the northern hemisphere, particularly in Europe and North America we have seen that sort of perfect storm of the season – coldness, people going inside, increased social mixing and a combination of factors that have driven increased transmission in many, many countries,” Ryan said.

The warning comes as the US recorded a total of 4327 COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, a new daily record.

Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, warned: “After the holidays, in some countries the situation will get a lot worse before it gets better.”

Amid growing fears of the more contagious coronavirus variant first detected in Britain but now entrenched worldwide, governments across Europe on Wednesday announced tighter, longer coronavirus restrictions.

That includes home-office requirements and store closures in Switzerland, an extended Italian COVID-19 state of emergency, and German efforts to further reduce contacts between people blamed for failed efforts, so far, to get the coronavirus under control.

“I worry that we will remain in this pattern of peak and trough and peak and trough, and we can do better,” Van Kerkhove said.

She called for maintaining physical distancing, adding: “The further, the better … but make sure that you keep that distance from people outside your immediate household.”

Scientists describe ‘ecological Ponzi scheme’ in scathing paper

The world faces a ghastly future, threatening the survival of all species, unless urgent and decisive action is taken to slow climate change and biodiversity loss, an international group of 17 leading scientists says.

The group has looked at 150 studies to produce a “perspective paper”, published yesterday, which outlines future trends in biodiversity decline, mass extinction, climate disruption and planetary toxification.

It says all these events are tied to human consumption and population growth and demonstrate the near certainty that these problems will get worse over the coming decades, with negative impacts for centuries to come.

Professor Paul Ehrlich of Stanford University says no political or economic system, or leadership, is prepared to handle the predicted disasters.

“Stopping biodiversity loss is nowhere close to the top of any country’s priorities, trailing far behind other concerns such as employment, healthcare, economic growth, or currency stability,” he said.

“Humanity is running an ecological Ponzi scheme in which society robs nature and future generations to pay for short-term economic enhancement today.”

The study’s lead author Professor Corey Bradshaw of Flinders University in Adelaide said humanity was causing a rapid loss of biodiversity and, with it, the earth’s ability to support complex life.

But he said most people had difficulty grasping the magnitude of the losses and the dangers ahead.

“In fact, the scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its life forms is so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts,” he said.

“The problem is compounded by ignorance and short-term self-interest, with the pursuit of wealth and political interests stymieing the action that is crucial for survival.”

Professor Dan Blumstein from UCLA said the scientists were choosing to speak boldly and fearlessly because “life literally depends on it”.

“What we are saying might not be popular, and indeed is frightening,” he said.

“But we need to be candid, accurate, and honest if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face in creating a sustainable future.”

Another scientific study published yesterday in Environmental Health Perspectives showed increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels can inflict structural damage on the lungs of young mice.

The study examined the impact of a carbon dioxide concentration of 900 parts per million (ppm) on mice.

The earth’s current C02 concentration is around 400 ppm.

Although mice are better able to tolerate higher C02 levels due to their burrowing habits, the study found the 900 ppm concentration had a “direct impact” on the mice’s lung functioning.

“The lung damage included altered alveoli, which is the critical part of the lung that helps with gas exchange – meaning they could have had more difficulty breathing,” the study’s lead author Associate Professor Alexander Larcombe said.

“We also saw some changes in the actual physical structure of the lungs and both of these changes meant the lungs weren’t functioning as they should.”

Larcombe urged for more research into the phenomenon, given the earth’s C02 levels are projected to rise to 800 ppm “within our lifetimes”.

Triumphant de Minaur claims fourth ATP title

After missing last year’s Australian Open in despair, in-form Alex de Minaur says he has goosebumps thinking about returning to Melbourne Park as the country’s top men’s hope in 2021.

The 21-year-old tennis excitement machine has opened his season in style, claiming the first ATP trophy on offer for the year – and his fourth overall – with title glory at the Antalya Open in Turkey.

De Minaur was leading Alexander Bublik 2-0 in Wednesday night’s final when the Kazakh retired injured just seven minutes into the match.

The world No.23 dropped only one set for the week in a promising build-up to the rescheduled Open starting on February 8.

“I mean, it’s massive. At the start of the year that’s what you need,” de Minaur said after backing up his semi-final win over second-seeded world No.16 David Goffin in a somewhat anticlimactic title decider

“Look, you never know what was going to happen. I knew I had put in a great pre-season, I was ready to compete.

“I just think I gave myself the best possible chance to go deep into this tournament and I’m happy how it finished.

“I got four matches – and today – so very happy with my level and I had some quality wins.”

De Minaur missed his home slam last year with an abdominal tear, the “reward” for a heroic singles and doubles campaign that helped Australia to the ATP Cup semi-finals.

“It was a bittersweet moment last year so hopefully a year later I can come back stronger and hopefully have a great Aussie summer,” he said.

“I’m really looking forward to going back home and playing in front of a home crowd, that’s for sure.”

The high-energy Davis Cup star hated playing without fans in 2020 and is thrilled that crowds will be at 50 per cent capacity in Melbourne.

“It’s exciting. I’m looking forward to it. It’s probably going to give me goosebumps once I walk out there,” de Minaur said.

“Especially (given) I’m fortunate enough to play in front of my home crowd, so that’s going to be special.

“I can’t wait to bring out all this energy I’ve built up for a while now. It’s not the same playing without a crowd and hopefully I can get fired up and get the crowd going.”

– with AAP and Reuters

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