THURSDAY, MAY 6
Australians hoping international travel will return to normal next year have been dealt a blow, as the Federal Government warns borders are unlikely to reopen until the end of 2022 at least.
Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said despite the rollout of the vaccine, global outbreaks and new mutant strains, such as those in India, left the world facing as much uncertainty as ever.
He said this meant Australia’s international borders – which have largely locked Australians in since March 2020 – would likely remain shut well into next year.
Meanwhile, the government is considering using NT Howard Springs to only quarantine Indian returned travellers, as a way to expedite getting people out of the country when the travel ban ends.
The news came as officials in NSW are bracing for a potential COVID-19 outbreak after a Sydney man with a “high viral load” visited 14 suburbs over five days.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian and chief health officer Dr Kerry Chant announced the news yesterday afternoon, putting at least 19 venues across the city’s north, east and west on alert.
Global biosecurity and infectious disease expert, the University of NSW’s Professor Raina MacIntyre, told the ABC the next two weeks will be critical in knowing “if the virus’ spread is growing or not”.
“It is worrying because it’s unknown where this man acquired this infection.
Who did they get infected from? That’s the real question of interest,” she said.
It comes as more than 42,000 residents in Sydney’s inner west have been warned to look out for any COVID-19 symptoms after virus fragments were found in wastewater from a sewage plant.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke conceded it would take “many months” to get all Australians stranded in India back.
There are roughly 9,000 Australians in India who have told officials they want to return home, and about 900 are considered vulnerable.
The Howard Springs facility, outside of Darwin, has been used for those landing in the Northern Territory on repatriation flights.
Mr Hawke said the process of getting everyone out of India will be an enormous challenge.
“This Indian situation will take some [time],” he said.
“Our hearts go out to India, we’ve sent one plane of supplies, we’re going to be sending more, we’re going to have to restart those repatriations, that will take some time.
“There is no way we can work through the Indian system immediately to remove every person.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison told Nine Radio medical evacuation capabilities were still available to get Australians out of India if needed.
He would not put a timeline on how long it would take to get everyone who wanted to come home back.
“This has been the challenge all the way through the pandemic, every time you get 1,000 people home, another 1,000 people go on the list,” Mr Morrison said.
The federal government has come under sustained criticism for the ban, which has made it a crime for anyone who has been in India in the previous 14 days to return to Australia.
Hefty fines and even jail sentences have been announced as punishments to deter anyone from attempting to break it.
Mr Morrison said it was “looking good” that the ban would end on May 15 as planned.
“I’m very confident after the 15th of May those repatriation flights will be restored,” he said.
“I can tell you the pause is working, it was the right decision for Australia’s health and safety.”
The government argued the infection rates in quarantine facilities, particularly Howard Springs, were up to seven times higher than the goal of 2 per cent, and the “temporary pause” on flights from India was needed to give authorities time to deal with the caseload.
Former Australian test cricketer Michael Slater has also been an outspoken critic of the ban.
On Twitter, he said Mr Morrison had “blood on your hands”, and most recently called on the Prime Minister to “take your private jet and come and witness dead bodies”.
Agriculture Minister David Littleproud hit back at Slater, saying he needed to “get over himself” and that he was acting like “a spoiled prat”.
“Michael Slater can sit on the beach and slam us over here in Australia.
“These are tough decisions and we’re very empathetic with not only Australians there, but also those thousands of Indians that are dying every day.
“Wake up. If you want to have an adult conversation, talk like an adult.”
The head of the World Health Organization (WHO) says US President Joe Biden’s plan to back a waiver on intellectual property rights on vaccines to boost global production is a “monumental moment in the fight against COVID-19”.
Mr Biden on Wednesday threw his support behind a proposed World Trade Organization (WTO) waiver of intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines, bowing to mounting pressure from US Democrats and more than 100 other countries.
US Trade Representative Katherine Tai said the battling the pandemic required extraordinary measures.
The WHO’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who has repeatedly urged countries to support the proposal brought by India and South Africa at the WTO, wrote in a tweet that Mr Biden’s support was a “powerful example of United States leadership to address global health challenges”.
WTO members met on Wednesday to assess signs of progress in talks on the proposal brought forward by South Africa and India.
They want to ease rules of the WTO’s Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property (TRIPS) agreement, in order to boost supply to developing countries.
The WHO said in April that of 700 million vaccines globally administered, only 0.2 per cent had been in low-income countries.
WTO decisions are based on consensus, so all 164 members need to agree.
Ten meetings in seven months had failed to produce a breakthrough, with 60 proposal sponsors from emerging economies, backed by a chorus of campaign groups, Nobel laureates and former world leaders.
The United States’ endorsement of the proposal now could pave the way for the proposal to be endorsed by all members.
The group is set to meet in October to again discuss the proposal.
The Indian/South African proposal says property rights such as patents, industrial designs, copyright and protection of undisclosed information hinder timely access to affordable vaccines and medicines essential to combat COVID-19.
Those in favour say the waiver should last for an unspecified time period, with an annual review until it terminates.
They have called for unhindered global sharing of skills and technology.
Proponents say there cannot be a repeat of the early years of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, when a lack of access to life-saving medicines cost at least 11 million African lives.
The Mr Ghebreyesus and 375 civil society and campaign groups such as Doctors Without Borders back the proposal as do former leaders like UK prime minister Gordon Brown and Soviet Union head Mikhail Gorbachev.
These two former world leaders had written to Mr Biden urging him to throw the United States’ support towards it.
Former US president Donald Trump has lashed out at Facebook after the social media company’s independent Oversight Board upheld a decision to ban him from the platform for the moment.
However the board also said Facebook will have to “reassess” the indefinite ban it gave to Mr Trump within six months.
While upholding the suspension, the board faulted Facebook in a statement for the way it made the decision.
The board said the ongoing risk of serious violence justified Facebook’s suspension at the time, but said it “was not appropriate for Facebook to impose an ‘indefinite’ suspension.”
The board said Facebook was seeking to avoid its responsibilities by applying “a vague, standard-less penalty” and then referring the case to the board to resolve.
“Indefinite penalties of this sort do not pass the international smell test,” oversight board co-chair Michael McConnell said in a conference call with reporters.
In response to the board’s decision, Mr Trump released a statement accusing social media companies of violating his free speech.
“What Facebook, Twitter, and Google have done is a total disgrace and an embarrassment to our Country,” Mr Trump said.
“These corrupt social media companies must pay a political price, and must never again be allowed to destroy and decimate our Electoral Process.”
Facebook said they would consider the recommendation to review the indefinite ban.
“We will now consider the board’s decision and determine an action that is clear and proportionate,” Nick Clegg, Facebook vice-president of global affairs and communication, published in a blog entry following the decision.
“In the meantime, Mr. Trump’s accounts remain suspended.”
Mr Trump’s social media accounts were suspended on January 6 for several posts he made in the lead up to the US Capitol insurrection.
Social media companies banned Mr Trump from their platforms over posts he made in the lead up to the storming of the US Capitol. (AP: Manuel Balce Ceneta)
The decision marked the first time Facebook had blocked a current president, prime minister or head of state over a post they had made.
“We love you. You’re very special,” he said to the rioters in the first post.
In the second, he called them “great patriots” and told them to “remember this day forever.”
Supporters of the former US president stormed the Capitol on January 6, 2021. (Reuters: Leah Millis)
Those violated Facebook’s rules against praising or supporting people engaged in violence, the board said.
At the time of the suspension, Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg said in a post that “the risks of allowing the President to continue to use our service during this period are simply too great.”
The company later referred the case to its recently established board, which includes academics, lawyers and rights activists, to decide whether to uphold the ban or restore Mr Trump’s accounts.
The binding verdict marks a major decision for the board, which rules on a small slice of challenging content decisions and which Facebook created as an independent body as a response to criticism over how it handles problematic material.
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