A traveller receives a test for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at a pre-departure testing facility, as countries react to the new coronavirus Omicron variant, outside the international terminal at Sydney Airport in Sydney, Australia, November 29, 2021. REUTERS/Loren Elliott
Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
SYDNEY, Dec 27 (Reuters) – Australia reported its first confirmed death from the new Omicron variant of COVID-19 on Monday amid its biggest daily surge in infections, but the authorities refrained from imposing new restrictions saying hospitalisation rates remained low.
The death, a man in his 80s with underlying health conditions, marked a grim milestone for the country which has had to reverse some parts of a staged reopening after nearly two years of stop-start lockdowns, due to the fresh outbreak.
Omicron, which health experts say appears more contagious but less virulent than previous strains, began to spread in the country just as it lifted restrictions on most domestic borders and allowed Australians to return from overseas without quarantine, driving case numbers to the highest of the pandemic.
Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
The authorities gave no additional details about the Omicron death, except to say that the man caught the virus at an aged care facility and died in a Sydney hospital.
“This was the first known death in New South Wales (state) linked to the Omicron variant of concern,” said NSW Health epidemiologist Christine Selvey in a video released by the government.
The man was among seven COVID-19 deaths reported in Australia the previous day. The country clocked 10,186 new cases nationwide, according to a Reuters calculation of state data, its first total over 10,000 since the start of the pandemic. Most new cases were in NSW and Victoria.
“Although we are seeing increased case numbers… we are not seeing the impacts on our hospital system,” said Annastacia Palaszczuk, premier of Queensland which reported 784 new cases with four people in hospital.
With reports of six-hour wait times for COVID testing for people hoping to meet requirements for interstate holiday travel, Palaszczuk defended the tourism-friendly state for mandatory testing, saying “everyone knew when they booked a ticket that if they wanted to come here they would have to do a PCR test”.
However, she added that Queensland was considering whether to relax testing requirements for domestic visitors. Tasmania, another tourist-popular state, also said it was considering changes to state border testing rules.
Around the country, the surge in infections meanwhile weighed on testing resources. Sydney testing clinic SydPath had confirmed a day earlier that it wrongly told 400 COVID-positive people they were negative in the days before Christmas; on Monday it now realised it sent wrong result messages to another 995 people.
Australian authorities have so far resisted a return to lockdown in the face of surging case numbers but have reinstated some restrictions. On Monday, NSW again made it compulsory to check into public venues with QR codes, while many states have brought back mandatory mask-wearing in indoor public places.
The country has also narrowed the window for vaccine booster shots from six months to four months, soon to be three months.
Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
Reporting by Byron Kaye; Editing by Michael Perry
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
WEE WAA, Australia — Two years ago, the fields outside Christina Southwell’s family home near the cotton capital of Australia looked like a dusty, brown desert as drought-fueled wildfires burned to the north and south.
Last week, after record-breaking rains, muddy floodwaters surrounded her, along with the stench of rotting crops. She had been trapped for days with just her cat, and still didn’t know when the sludge would recede.
“It seems to take for bloody ever to go away,” she said, watching a boat carry food into the town of Wee Waa. “All it leaves behind is this stink, and it’s just going to get worse.”
Life on the land has always been hard in Australia, but the past few years have delivered one extreme after another, demanding new levels of resilience and pointing to the rising costs of a warming planet. For many Australians, moderate weather — a pleasant summer, a year without a state of emergency — increasingly feels like a luxury.
Black Summer bush fires of 2019 and 2020 were the worst in Australia’s recorded history. This year, many of the same areas that suffered through those epic blazes endured the wettest, coldest November since at least 1900. Hundreds of people, across several states, have been forced to evacuate. Many more, like Ms. Southwell, are stranded on floodplain islands with no way to leave except by boat or helicopter, possibly until after Christmas.
La Niña in full swing, meteorologists are predicting even more flooding for Australia’s east coast, adding to the stress from the pandemic, not to mention from a recent rural mouse plague of biblical proportions.
pregnancies on pause, shows that the El Niño-La Niña cycle has been around long enough for flora and fauna to adapt.
more than doubled since the 1970s.
Ron Campbell, the mayor of Narrabri Shire, which includes Wee Waa, said his area was still waiting for government payments to offset damage from past catastrophes. He wondered when governments would stop paying for infrastructure repairs after every emergency.
“The costs are just enormous, not just here but at all the other places in similar circumstances,” he said.
60 percent of the trees in some places. Cattle farmers culled so much of their herds during the drought that beef prices have risen more than 50 percent as they rush to restock paddocks nourished (nearly to death) by heavy rain.
Bryce Guest, a helicopter pilot in Narrabri, once watched the dust bowls grow from above. Then came “just a monstrous amount of rain,” he said, and new kind of job: flights to mechanical pumps pushing water from fields to irrigation dams in a last-ditch effort to preserve crops that had been heading for a record harvest.
On one recent flight, he pointed to mountains of stored grain — worth six figures, at least — that were ruined by the rains, with heavy equipment trapped and rusting next to it. Further inland, a home surrounded by levees had become a small island accessible only by boat or copter.
“Australia is all about water — everything revolves around it,” he said. “Where you put your home, your stock. Everything.”
The flood plains in what is known as the Murray-Darling basin stretch out for hundreds of miles, not unlike the land at the mouth of the Mississippi River. The territory is so flat that towns can be cut off with roads flooded by less than an inch of additional rain.
That happened a few weeks ago in Bedgerabong, a few hundred miles south of Narrabri. On a recent afternoon, a couple of teachers were being driven out of town in a hulking fire truck — equipment for one disaster often serves another. Across a flooded road behind them, three other teachers had decided to camp out so they could provide some consistency for children who had already been kept out of school for months by pandemic lockdowns.
Paul Faulkner, 55, the principal of the school (total enrollment: 42), said that many parents craved social connection for their children. The Red Cross has sent in booklets for those struggling with stress and anxiety.
“Covid has kept everyone from their families,” he said. “This just isolates them even more.”
He admitted that there were a few things they did not discuss; Santa, for one. The town is expected to be cut off until after the holidays as the waters that rose with surging rains over a few days take weeks to drain and fade.
In Wee Waa, where the water has started to recede, supplies and people flowed in and out last week by helicopter and in a small boat piloted by volunteers.
Still, there were shortages everywhere — mostly of people. In a community of around 2,000 people, half of the teachers at the local public school couldn’t make it to work.
At the town’s only pharmacy, Tien On, the owner, struggled with a short-handed staff to keep up with requests. He was especially concerned about delayed drug deliveries by helicopter for patients with mental health medications.
Ms. Southwell, 69, was better prepared than most. She spent 25 years volunteering with emergency services and has been teaching first aid for decades. After a quick trip into Wee Waa by boat, she returned to her home with groceries and patience, checking a shed for the stray cats she feeds and discovering that only one of her chickens appeared to have drowned.
She said she wasn’t sure how much climate change could be blamed for the floods; her father had put their house on higher stilts because they knew the waters would rise on occasion.
All she knew was that more extreme weather and severe challenges to the community would be coming their way.
“The worst part of it is the waiting,” she said. “And the cleanup.”
CANBERRA/SYDNEY, Nov 22 (Reuters) – Australia will allow foreign visa holders to enter the country from the start of December, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday, the latest step to restart international travel and support its economy.
Australia shut its international border in May 2020 and allowed only restricted numbers of citizens and permanent residents to enter in a bid to curtail the spread of COVID-19.
The rules were relaxed in recent weeks to allow foreign family members of citizens to enter, and Morrison said this will be scaled up from Dec. 1 to allow vaccinated students, business visa holders and refugees to arrive.
Register now for FREE unlimited access to reuters.com
“The return of skilled workers and students to Australia is a major milestone in our pathway back,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra. Australia will also allow in vaccinated tourists from South Korea and Japan from Dec 1, he said.
The return of foreign students, who are worth about A$35 billion ($25 billion) a year to the Australian economy, will be a major boost for the education sector.
More than 235,000 foreigners, including about 160,000 students, held visas for Australia at the end of October, government data showed.
Airport staff hold up welcome signage as the first international travellers arrive at Sydney Airport in the wake of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) border restrictions easing, with fully vaccinated Australians being allowed into Sydney from overseas without quarantine for the first time since March 2020, in Sydney, Australia, November 1, 2021. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy
Many Australian universities have come to rely on foreign students, who make up about 21% of total enrolments, and the border closure led higher education facilities to lay off hundreds of staff.
Many students locked out of Australia have said they would switch to alternative universities if they were unable to begin face-to-face learning in 2022. read more
The relaxation of the border rules is also expected to ease labour shortages, which threaten to stymie an economic rebound.
“This will be critical relief for businesses who are struggling to find workers just to keep their doors open and for those who need highly specialised skills to unlock big projects,” said Jennifer Westacott, chief executive of the industry body, the Business Council.
Border rules, swift lockdowns and tough social distancing rules helped Australia to keep its coronavirus numbers far lower than many other comparable countries, with around 200,000 cases and 1,948 deaths.
Most new infections are being reported in Victoria state, which logged 1,029 cases on Monday. New South Wales, home to Sydney, reported 180 cases. Other states and territories are COVID-free or have very few cases.
($1 = 1.3824 Australian dollars)
Register now for FREE unlimited access to reuters.com
Reporting by Renju Jose and Colin Packham; Editing by Richard Pullin
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.
SYDNEY, Australia — When Australia made its trumpet-blast announcement that it would build nuclear-powered submarines with the help of the United States and Britain, the three allies said they would spend the next 18 months sorting out the details of a security collaboration that President Biden celebrated as “historic.”
Now, a month into their timetable, the partners are quietly coming to grips with the proposal’s immense complexities. Even supporters say the hurdles are formidable. Skeptics say they could be insurmountable.
Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, has laid out an ambitious vision, saying that at least eight nuclear-propelled submarines using American or British technology will be built in Australia and enter the water starting in the late 2030s, replacing its squadron of six aging diesel-powered submarines.
For Australia, nuclear-powered submarines offer a powerful means to counter China’s growing naval reach and an escape hatch from a faltering agreement with a French firm to build diesel submarines. For the Biden administration, the plan demonstrates support for a beleaguered ally and shows that it means business in countering Chinese power. And for Britain, the plan could shore up its international standing and military industry after the upheaval of Brexit.
lagged the average for wealthy economies. Its past two plans to build submarines fell apart before any were made.
Marcus Hellyer, an expert on naval policy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“We sometimes use the term nation-building lightly, but this will be a whole-of-nation task,” he said. “The decision to go down this path while burning all of our bridges behind us was quite a brave decision.”
American officials have already spent hundreds of hours in talks with their Australian counterparts and have no illusions about the complexities, said officials involved. Mr. Morrison “has said this is a high-risk program; he was upfront when he announced it,” Greg Moriarty, the secretary of the Australian Department of Defense, told a Senate committee this week.
Failure or serious delays would ripple beyond Australia. The Biden administration has staked American credibility on building up Australia’s military as part of an “integrated deterrence” policy that will knit the United States closer to its allies in offsetting China.
“Success would be tremendous for Australia and the U.S., assuming open access to each other’s facilities and what it means in deterring China,” said Brent Sadler, a former U.S. Navy officer who is a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “Failure would be doubly damaging — an alliance that cannot deliver, loss of undersea capacity by a trusted ally and a turn to isolationism on Australia’s part.”
Australia is hoping for a reversal of fortune after more than a decade of misadventures in its submarine-modernization efforts. The plan for French-designed diesel submarines that Mr. Morrison abandoned had succeeded a deal for Japanese-designed submarines that a predecessor championed.
wrote in a recent article critical of Mr. Morrison’s plan.
two Virginia class boats a year for the Navy and are ramping up to build Columbia class submarines, 21,000-ton vessels that carry nuclear missiles as a roving deterrent — a priority for any administration.
A report to the Senate Armed Services Committee last month warned that the “nuclear shipbuilding industrial base continues to struggle to support the increased demand” from U.S. orders. That report was prepared too late to take into account the Australian proposal.
“They are working at 95-98 percent on Virginia and Columbia,” Richard V. Spencer, a Navy secretary in the Trump administration, said of the two American submarine shipyards. He supports Australia’s plan and said his preferred path on the first submarines was to galvanize specialized suppliers to ship parts, or whole segments of the submarines, to assemble in Australia.
“Let us all be perfectly aware and wide-eyed that the nuclear program is a massive resource consumer and time consumer, and that’s the given,” he said in a telephone interview.
said during a Senate committee hearing.
often behind schedule. Britain’s submarine maker, BAE Systems, is also busy building Dreadnought submarines to carry the country’s nuclear deterrent.
“Spare capacity is very limited,” Trevor Taylor, a professorial research fellow in defense management at the Royal United Services Institute, a research institute, wrote in an email. “The U.K. cannot afford to impose delay on its Dreadnought program in order to divert effort to Australia.”
Adding to the complications, Britain has been phasing out the PWR2 reactor that powers the Astute, after officials agreed that the model would “not be acceptable going forward,” an audit report said in 2018. The Astute is not designed to fit the next-generation reactor, and that issue could make it difficult to restart building the submarine for Australia, Mr. Taylor and other experts said.
Britain’s successor to the Astute is still on the drawing board; the government said last month that it would spend three years on design work for it. A naval official in the British Ministry of Defense said that the planned new submarine could fit Australia’s timetable well. Several experts were less sure.
“Waiting for the next-generation U.K. or U.S. attack submarine would mean an extended capability gap” for Australia, Mr. Taylor wrote in an assessment.
town of 67,000 that is home to Britain’s submarine-building shipyard, are handed iodine tablets as a precaution against possible leaks when reactors are tested. The Osborne shipyard in South Australia, where Mr. Morrison wants to build the nuclear submarines, sits on the edge of Adelaide, a city of 1.4 million.
Australia operates one small nuclear reactor. Its sole university program dedicated to nuclear engineering produces about five graduates every year, said Edward Obbard, the leader of the program at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. Australia would need many thousands more people with nuclear training and experience if it wants the submarines, he said.
“The ramp-up has to start now,” he said.
Michael Crowley and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.
Then came the Delta variant. Despite keeping their countries largely sealed off, the virus found its way in. And when it did, it spread quickly. In the summer, South Korea battled its worst wave of infections; hospitals in Indonesia ran out of oxygen and beds; and in Thailand, health care workers had to turn away patients.
With cases surging, countries quickly shifted their vaccination approach.
Sydney, Australia, announced a lockdown in June after an unvaccinated limousine driver caught the Delta variant from an American aircrew. Then, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who had previously said vaccination “was not a race,” called in July on Australians to “go for gold” in the country’s inoculation drive.
The State of Vaccine Mandates in the U.S.
Vaccine rules.On Aug. 23, the F.D.A. granted full approval to Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and up, paving the way for mandates in both the public and private sectors. Such mandates are legally allowed and have been upheld in court challenges.
College and universities. More than 400 colleges and universities are requiring students to be vaccinated against Covid-19. Almost all are in states that voted for President Biden.
Schools. California became the first state to issue a vaccine mandate for all educators in public and private schools. New York City has also introduced a vaccine mandate for teachers and staff, but it has yet to take effect because of legal challenges. On Sept. 27, a federal appeals panel reversed a decision that temporarily paused that mandate. it. Los Angeles has mandated vaccines for students 12 and older who are attending class in person.
Hospitals and medical centers. Many hospitals and major health systems are requiring employees to get vaccinated. Mandates for health care workers in California and New York State appear to have compelled thousands of holdouts to receive shots.
New York City. Proof of vaccination is required of workers and customers for indoor dining, gyms, performances and other indoor situations. City education staff and hospital workers must also get a vaccine.
At the federal level. On Sept. 9,President Biden announced a vaccine mandate for the vast majority of federal workers. This mandate will apply to employees of the executive branch, including the White House and all federal agencies and members of the armed services.
In the private sector. Mr. Biden has mandated that all companies with more than 100 workers require vaccination or weekly testing, helping propel new corporate vaccination policies. Some companies, like United Airlines and Tyson Foods, had mandates in place before Mr. Biden’s announcement.
He moved to overcome a supply shortage, compounded by the slow regulatory approval. In August, Australia bought one million Pfizer doses from Poland; this month, Mr. Morrison announced a purchase of a million Moderna shots from Europe.
When the Delta outbreak emerged, fewer than 25 percent of Australians over the age of 16 had received a single shot. In the state of New South Wales, which includes Sydney, 86 percent of the adult population has now received a first dose, and 62 percent of adults are fully vaccinated. The country expects to fully inoculate 80 percent of its population over the age of 16 by early November.
“There was great community leadership — there were people from across the political divide who came out to support vaccination,” said Greg Dore, an infectious-disease expert at the University of New South Wales. “It really helped us turn around a level of hesitancy that was there.”
Many governments have used incentives to encourage inoculations.
In South Korea, the authorities eased restrictions in August on private gatherings for fully vaccinated people, allowing them to meet in larger groups while maintaining stricter curbs for others. Singapore, which has fully vaccinated 82 percent of its population, previously announced similar measures.
Researchers there have also analyzed the pockets of people who refuse to be inoculated and are trying to persuade them.