Australia reported its first confirmed death from the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 yesterday 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. 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; yesterday it realised it sent wrong result messages to another 995 people.
Australian officials yesterday said there was no need to clamp down on Christmas festivities even as new Covid-19 infections climbed in Sydney, with the country’s high vaccination rate helping keep people out of hospital. Health Minister Greg Hunt said he was confident Australia would not need to follow the Netherlands, which has reimposed a strict lockdown over the Christmas and New Year period to curb the spread of the highly contagious Omicron variant. “We’re going into summer, we have one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and a very different set of circumstances. So we don’t see that’s a likely situation in Australia,” Hunt told reporters in a televised media conference. The Netherlands, he said, has suffered vastly higher infections and deaths than Australia over the pandemic and is now in the depths of winter when cases were more likely to climb sharply. “We’re well prepared and people are overwhelmingly... continuing to do an amazing job,” Hunt said, referring to the more than 90% of Australians over 16 who have been fully vaccinated. Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, yesterday reported a record 2,566 new cases, up from 2,482 on Saturday. Cases in intensive care remained low at 28, which state premier Dominic Perrottet said was “incredibly positive”. The state has reported more than 11,000 new cases in the past week, quadruple the number in the previous week, sparking calls from the Australian Medical Association (AMA) and an online campaign urging the state to reinstate track and trace codes, mandatory masks and capacity limits. “Even if Omicron turns out to be mild in vaccinated people, an explosion of cases will have a devastating effect on healthcare...Caution now so much better than regrets later,” AMA president Omar Khorshid said on social media. However Perrottet rejected those calls saying the key metric was the number of cases in intensive care. “It’s a time for calm. But it’s also an important time to go out and get your booster shot, because vaccination has been key to New South Wales’ success,” Perrottet said. Total new cases reported in Australia yesterday fell to 3,958 from a record 4,110 reported the previous day, thanks to a drop in Victoria state to 1,240 new infections yesterday. Victoria Deputy Premier James Merlino said while the Omicron variant was raising concern, people should just take common sense steps, such as wearing masks, to protect themselves. “We are not changing our settings...We’re not talking about lockdowns,” Merlino told reporters.
A sixth child has died following an Australian bouncy castle tragedy, with police saying Sunday the 11-year-old boy died in hospital. It comes three days after the large inflatable castle lifted off the ground at an end-of-term school party in the northern Tasmania town of Devenport. "It is with a heavy heart that I can confirm an 11-year-old boy passed away in hospital this afternoon," said Tasmania police commissioner Darren Hine. "Our thoughts continue to be with his family, and the families and loved ones of all the children involved, during what is an incomprehensibly difficult time." Three 12-year-old boys and two girls, aged 11 and 12, earlier died after a gust of wind blew the bouncy castle into the air at a celebration to mark the end of the school year. Two other children remain in critical condition in hospital in the state capital Hobart, while one child is recovering at home. The tragedy triggered an outpouring of grief in the local community and around Australia. Floral tributes have grown outside the school, with an online fundraiser for affected families raising more than Aus$1.2 million ($850,000). Authorities have said that initial witness reports indicated the children were thrown from a height of about 10 metres. Tasmanian authorities have started a probe into the incident, which they expect will "take some time". Specialist police are being flown to the island state to assist with interviewing people who were at the outdoor party, which some 40 primary school children attended.
Two adults and two children died after a light plane crashed off the coast of the Australian city of Brisbane, police said Sunday. Queensland state police said the four were killed when the small aircraft crashed in shallow waters near Redcliffe, a bayside suburb in the city's north, just after 9:00am local time. The bodies of the 69-year-old pilot and three passengers -- an adult male and two children -- were later recovered by police divers. The passengers are yet to be identified. Police inspector Craig White described it as a "tragic accident" in the lead-up to Christmas. "This is the last thing that any family need to go through this time of the year," he said. Local media images showed the four-seater plane upside down in the water. Early reports indicated it crashed shortly after take-off, authorities said, but a full investigation had been ordered to determine the cause. The Air Transport Safety Bureau said additional investigators would be sent from the national capital Canberra to assist in the probe. Queensland police commissioner Katarina Carroll earlier told local media the initial response had encountered challenging conditions. "The plane is in a very, very difficult situation, (a) difficult position in the wetland area," she said. Authorities said it could take some time to retrieve the wreckage from the crash site.
Four schoolchildren were killed and several others were seriously injured when a gust of wind blew their bouncy castle into the air at an end-of-term party in Australia Thursday. Police said the pupils at a primary school in Devonport, northern Tasmania were celebrating the last week of class before the Christmas break when they were thrown from a height of about 10 metres (33 feet). “I can now sadly confirm that four children have died and four are in a critical condition and one in a serious condition,“ Tasmanian police commissioner Darren Hine said. The victims were two boys and two girls from grades five and six -- typically aged about 10-12 years old. Several rescue helicopters and ambulances rushed to the scene after the incident, which occurred around 10 am local time on an otherwise sunny, early summer day. Images from the school showed attending police officers in tears, and a swathe of blue tarpaulin sheets shielding what officers described as “a very confronting and distressing scene”. A police investigation is under way. Distraught witnesses, friends, family, teachers and first responders are being offered counselling. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the incident was “just shattering” and “unthinkably heartbreaking”. “Young children on a fun day out, together with their families and it turns to such horrific tragedy, at this time of year, it just breaks your heart,“ he said. “I just want to say, to the parents and families and friends, all who were there, to the other young children there and witnessing these events, I just pray you’ll have great family around you and great friends and you can come through this horrific tragedy.” The school had invited parents to volunteer for the event, which featured a wet play zone, a slide, an arts and crafts area, zorb balls and the bouncy castle. “The purpose for the day is to celebrate a successful year and enjoy some fun activities with classmates,“ the school, Hillcrest Primary, posted on its Facebook page. That post was followed by the update: “There has been an accident on site at our school. We are closing the school for the rest of the day.” “We ask that parents come to collect their children as a matter of urgency.” The school has around 200 students Local weather services had forecast “light winds” for the area, which sits on Tasmania’s rugged north coast, looking out across the frigid Bass Strait.
Coronavirus-free Queensland state opened its domestic borders to all vaccinated people on Monday for the first time in nearly five months, as Australians gear up for quarantine-free travel across most of the country during the busy Christmas period. Hundreds of cars queued up at the state's southern border with New South Wales well before the rules were set to relax at 1 am local time (1400 GMT, Sunday), television footage showed. Queensland, Australia's third most populous state, shut its border to New South Wales in July and then later to people coming from Victoria to protect against a Delta outbreak that rocked the country's east for several months. "We will live with Covid - but on our terms," state Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said in a tweet as the state topped its goal of having 80% of people over 16 fully vaccinated - a prerequisite for relaxing rules. Qantas (QAN.AX) said it would fly nearly 10,000 passengers to and from Queensland on Monday in about 100 flights, with most fully booked. The easing of border restrictions comes just days before school summer holidays begin and will be a boost for the state's lucrative tourism sector which has been badly hit by the internal border curbs. Australian states have been relaxing border rules after reaching higher vaccination levels despite the threat from the new Omicron variant. Tasmania is set to reopen its borders to other states later this week, while Western Australia will announce its plans later on Monday. South Australia has been welcoming interstate arrivals since late November. Australia has recorded nearly 229,000 cases of Covid-19 and 2,104 deaths, far fewer than many comparable countries. Around 70 cases of the Omicron variant have been detected in the country so far, mainly in Sydney.
Australia will not send officials to February's Winter Olympics in Beijing, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday, joining a US diplomatic boycott of the Games. Canberra's decision comes as discord with China over a slew of issues that has plunged relations into the most serious crisis since the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989. Morrison also cited human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Beijing's freeze on ministerial contact with Australia. "Australia will not step back from the strong position we've had standing up for Australia's interests and obviously it is of no surprise that we wouldn't be sending Australian officials to those Games," Morrison said. The decision, which stopped short of preventing athletes from attending the 2022 Olympics, comes a day after the United States announced its diplomatic boycott. The US decision was taken over what Washington termed China's genocide of the Uyghur minority in the Xinjiang region and other human rights abuses, prompting Beijing to warn the US would "pay the price". China on Wednesday accused Canberra of "political posturing and selfish games" and "blindly following" the United States. Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Beijing had never intended to invite Australian officials to the Games, adding that "whether they come or not, nobody cares." A spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Canberra earlier said the boycott "runs counter to its (Canberra's) publicly pronounced expectation to improve China-Australia relations". But rights groups welcomed the move, with Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson calling it a "crucial step toward challenging the Chinese government's crimes against humanity targeting Uyghurs and other Turkic communities". Campaigners say that at least one million Uyghurs and other Turkic-speaking, mostly Muslim minorities have been incarcerated in camps in Xinjiang, where China is also accused of forcibly sterilising women and imposing forced labour. - 'Great sporting nation' - Australia's ties with China have been in freefall in recent years, with Beijing introducing a raft of punitive sanctions on Australian goods. China has been angered at Australia's willingness to legislate against overseas influence operations, to bar Huawei from 5G contracts and call for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. Australia's recent move to equip its navy with nuclear-powered submarines under a new defence pact with Britain and the United States -- widely seen as an attempt to counter Chinese influence in the Pacific region -- further infuriated Beijing. At least two Australians are currently being detained in China, with journalist Cheng Lei held for more than a year and academic Yang Jun on trial for espionage. Morrison said Canberra had "always been open" to talks with Beijing, but those attempts had been rebuffed. "There's been no obstacle to that occurring on our side, but the Chinese government has consistently not accepted those opportunities for us to meet about these issues," he said. "Australia's a great sporting nation and I very much separate the issues of sport and these other political issues. They're issues between two governments, and I would like to see those issues resolved." The Chinese Embassy spokesperson signalled Australian athletes would be welcome at the Games, wishing them an "excellent performance". "Australia's success at the Beijing Winter Olympics depends on the performance of Australian athletes, not on the attendance of Australian officials, and the political posturing by some Australian politicians," the spokesperson said. The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) said it would not impact the team's preparations. "The AOC is very focused on ensuring that team members are able to safely travel to China given the complexity of the Covid environment, with our athletes departing from overseas locations," AOC chief executive Matt Carroll said. "Getting the athletes to Beijing safely, competing safely and bringing them home safely remains our greatest challenge." About 40 Australian athletes are expected to compete in the Beijing Games, which open on February 4, with AOC support staff accompanying them.
Australian authorities on Tuesday confirmed a person with Covid-19 had the new Omicron variant after disclosing that the person had been active in the community, but urged calm as they weighed up the severity of the strain. The fully vaccinated person visited a busy shopping centre in Sydney while likely infectious, officials said. All passengers in the person's flight were asked to self-isolate for 14 days regardless of their vaccination status. The additional case brings Australia's total number of infections with the new variant to six. But it is the first case where the person appeared to be active in the community. All other cases have been in quarantine and are asymptomatic or display very mild symptoms. Authorities also said urgent genomic tests have begun to determine whether two other positive cases on the same flight were infected with the Omicron variant. The report about the new community case came as Australia's emergency cabinet - a group of federal and state leaders - met to review measures aimed at limiting the spread of the variant. The country already delayed the reopening https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/australias-reopening-plans-doubt-after-omicron-cases-2021-11-28 of its international borders by two weeks, less than 36 hours before international students and skilled migrants were to be allowed to re-enter the country. New South Wales, home to a third of Australia's 25 million population, increased fines for overseas arrivals who didn't comply with a mandatory 72-hour self-isolation, to A$5,000 ($3,561) from A$1,000 for individuals and to A$10,000 from A$5,000 for corporations. The state, which recently emerged from four months of lockdown, has been unwinding its system of mandatory hotel quarantine but has said arrivals from several southern African countries must still spend 14 days in quarantine. But the federal government urged state leaders to go ahead with plans to relax domestic border restrictions, which have been in place sporadically since the start of the pandemic, by Christmas. "We need to make calm decisions. Don't get spooked by this," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told a news conference in Canberra. Health Minister Greg Hunt said the overwhelming view of medical experts was that "while it's an emerging variant, it's a manageable variant". Omicron, dubbed a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization, is potentially more contagious than previous variants although there are signs it may be milder than initially feared. Tough border restrictions and snap lockdowns have helped Australia keep its Covid-19 numbers relatively low, with around 210,000 cases and 2,006 deaths.
Hong Kong expanded a ban on entry for non-residents from several countries as global health authorities raced to curb a potential outbreak of the Omicron virus, while Australia's cabinet will review containment steps on Tuesday after five tested positive. Omicron - first reported in southern Africa and which the World Health Organization (WHO) said carries a "very high" risk of infection surges - has triggered global alarm, with border closures casting a shadow over a nascent economic recovery from a two-year pandemic. In Australia, the five travellers with Omicron are all vaccinated and in quarantine, health officials said, adding they are asymptomatic or display very mild symptoms. BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are working on vaccines that specifically target Omicron in case their existing shots are not effective against the new coronavirus variant, the companies said on Monday. A top South African infectious disease expert said Omicron appears to be more transmissible than previous variants, including to people with immunity from vaccination or prior infection. China will deliver another 1 billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines to Africa and encourage Chinese companies to invest no less than $10 billion in the continent over the next three years, President Xi Jinping said on Monday. China's imports from Africa, one of its key sources of crude oil and minerals, will reach $300 billion in the next three years, Xi said, adding that the two sides would cooperate in areas such as health, digital innovation, trade promotion and green development. Reinfections with the virus that causes Covid-19 are rarely severe, new findings suggest. Researchers in Qatar compared 1,304 individuals with a second SARS-CoV-2 infection against 6,520 people infected with the virus for the first time. Reinfected patients were 90% less likely to be hospitalised compared to patients infected for the first time, and no one in the study with a second infection required intensive care or died from Covid-19, said Dr. Laith Jamal Abu-Raddad of Weill Cornell Medicine-Qatar in Doha. "Nearly all reinfections were mild, perhaps because of immune memory that prevented deterioration of the infection to more severe outcomes," he said. It is not clear how long immune protection against severe reinfection would last, the researchers noted. If it does last for a long time, they speculate, it might mean that as the coronavirus becomes endemic, infections could become "more benign." Smartwatch alerting systems for early detection of Covid-19 infection are coming closer to reality, researchers reported on Monday in Nature Medicine. They tested their new system, developed with open-source software, in 2,155 wearers of Fitbit, Apple Watch, Garmin watches or other devices. Ultimately, 84 of the volunteers were diagnosed with coronavirus infections - including 14 of 18 people without symptoms. Overall, the researchers' algorithms generated alerts in 67 (80%) of the infected individuals, on average three days before symptoms began. "This is the first time, to our knowledge, that asymptomatic detection has been shown for Covid-19," they said. Presently, the system mainly depends on measurements of wearers' resting heart rate, said study leader Michael Snyder of Stanford University School of Medicine in California. When watches can report other health data such as heart rate variability, respiration rate, skin temperature, and oxygen levels, it will become easier to distinguish the Covid-19 cases from other non-Covid-19 events, researchers said.
* Moderna CEO comments on Omicron jolt markets * Hong Kong bans non-resident arrivals from more countries * Singapore: 2 travellers to Sydney with Omicron transited Changi * Biden says variant is 'cause for concern, not a cause for panic' Drugmaker Moderna's CEO set off fresh alarm bells in financial markets on Tuesday after he warned that Covid-19 vaccines were unlikely to be as effective against the Omicron variant as they have been against the Delta version. Crude oil futures shed more than a dollar, the Australian currency hit a year low, and Nikkei gave up gains as Stéphane Bancel's comments spurred fears that vaccine resistance could lead to more sickness and hospitalisations, prolonging the pandemic. "There is no world, I think, where (the effectiveness) is the same level . . . we had with Delta," Moderna CEO Bancel told the Financial Times in an interview. "I think it's going to be a material drop. I just don't know how much because we need to wait for the data. But all the scientists I've talked to . . . are like 'this is not going to be good'," Bancel said. Moderna did not reply to a Reuters' request for comment on the interview and on when it expects to have data on the effectiveness of its vaccine against Omicron, which the World Health Organization (WHO) says carries a "very high" risk of infection surges. Bancel had earlier said on CNBC that there should be more clarity on the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines against Omicron in about two weeks, and that it could take months to begin shipping a vaccine that work against the new variant. The WHO and scientists have also said it could take days to several weeks to understand the level of severity of the variant and its potential to escape protection against immunity induced by vaccines. "Vaccination will likely still keep you out of the hospital," said John Wherry, director of the Penn Institute for Immunology in Philadelphia. The uncertainty about the new variant has triggered global alarm, with border closures casting a shadow over a nascent economic recovery from a two-year pandemic. News of its emergence wiped roughly $2 trillion off the value of global stocks on Friday, but some calm was restored this week as investors waited for more data on Omicron. Remarks by President Joe Biden that the United States would not reinstate lockdowns had also helped soothe markets before comments from the Moderna CEO spooked investors. Biden has called for wider vaccination, while the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged everyone aged 18 years and older to get a booster shot. Britain too has expanded its Covid-19 booster programme amid Omicron fears. First reported on Nov. 24 from South Africa, Omicron has since spread to over a dozen countries. Japan, the world's third-largest economy, has confirmed its first case. Countries around the world have moved quickly to tighten border controls to prevent a recurrence of last year's strict lockdowns and steep economic downturns. Hong Kong has expanded a ban on entry for non-residents from several countries. It said non-residents from Angola, Ethiopia, Nigeria and Zambia would not be allowed to enter as of Nov. 30. Additionally, it said non-residents who have been to Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Israel and Italy in the past 21 days would not be allowed to enter the city from Dec. 2. The global financial hub, among the last places pursuing a zero-Covid strategy, has already banned non-residents arriving from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe. In Australia, five travellers tested positive for Omicron. Singapore's health ministry said two travellers from Johannesburg who tested positive for the variant in Sydney had transited through its Changi airport. Australian authorities have also identified a sixth traveller who was most likely infected with the variant and had spent time in the community. Canberra delayed on Monday the reopening of the nation's borders for international students and skilled migrants, less than 36 hours before they were due to be allowed back in. "We're doing this out of an abundance of caution but our overwhelming view is that whilst (Omicron) is an emerging variant, it is a manageable variant," Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said. The global curbs on travellers from southern Africa also raised concerns about vaccine inequality. "The people of Africa cannot be blamed for the immorally low level of vaccinations available in Africa - and they should not be penalized for identifying and sharing crucial science and health information with the world," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in a statement. India, home to the world's largest vaccine maker, has approved supplies of Covid-19 vaccines to many African countries and said it stands ready to "expeditiously" send more. China too has pledged 1 billion doses to the continent.
World governments rushed to contain a new, heavily mutated Covid-19 strain Sunday, with Israel slamming its borders shut to foreign nationals and Australia reporting its first cases of the variant. The variant now known as Omicron has cast doubt on global efforts to fight the pandemic because of fears that it is highly infectious, forcing countries to reimpose measures many had hoped were a thing of the past. Scientists are racing to determine the threat posed by the heavily mutated strain -- particularly whether it can evade existing vaccines. Several countries have also announced plans to restrict travel from southern Africa, where it was first detected, including key travel hub Qatar, the United States, Britain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Netherlands. The strictest among them is Israel, which said Sunday it would close its borders to all foreigners in a bid to curb the spread of the variant -- just four weeks after reopening to tourists after a prolonged closure due to Covid. "We are raising a red flag," Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said, adding the country would order 10 million PCR test kits to stem the "very dangerous" strain. Israeli citizens will be required to present a negative PCR test and quarantine for three days if they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus and seven days if they have not, the prime minister's office said. But the virus strain has already slipped through the net, and has now been found everywhere from the Netherlands to Hong Kong and Australia, where authorities Sunday said they had detected it for the first time in two passengers from southern Africa who were tested after flying into Sydney. The arrival of the new variant comes just a month after Australia lifted a ban on citizens travelling overseas without permission, with the country's border also set to open to skilled workers and international students by the year's end. Both cases were fully vaccinated, authorities said, and landed the same day that Canberra announced a sweeping ban on flights from nine southern African countries, including South Africa and Zimbabwe. The speed at which governments slammed their borders shut took many by surprise, with travellers thronging Johannesburg international airport, desperate to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had imposed sudden travel bans. In the Netherlands, 61 passengers tested positive after arriving on two flights from South Africa in an ordeal one passenger described as "Dystopia Central Airline Hallway". New York Times global health reporter Stephanie Nolen said passengers, including babies and toddlers, were crammed together waiting to get tested, while "still 30 percent of people are wearing no mask or only over mouth". Scientists in South Africa last week said that they had detected the new B.1.1.529 variant with at least 10 mutations, compared with three for Beta or two for Delta -- the strain that hit the global recovery hard and sent millions worldwide back into lockdown. The variant has also revived geopolitical fault lines exacerbated by the pandemic, with the US quick to hail South Africa's openness about the new strain -- a thinly veiled jab at China's handling of information about the original outbreak. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken Saturday "praised South Africa's scientists for the quick identification of the Omicron variant and South Africa's government for its transparency in sharing this information, which should serve as a model for the world", a State Department statement said. But South Africa has complained it is being unfairly hit with "draconian" air travel bans for having first detected the strain, which the World Health Organization has termed a "variant of concern". "Excellent science should be applauded and not punished," its foreign ministry said in a statement.
The new Omicron coronavirus variant kept spreading around the world on Sunday, with two cases detected in Australia, even as more countries tried to seal themselves off by imposing travel restrictions. Health officials in Australia's most populous state, New South Wales, said two passengers who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa on Saturday evening had tested positive for the Omicron variant of the coronavirus. Both people were asymptomatic, fully vaccinated and in quarantine, NSW Health said. Another 12 passengers from southern Africa were also in 14 days of hotel quarantine, while around 260 other passengers and aircrew have been directed to isolate. The Australian cases were the latest indication that the variant may prove hard to contain. First discovered in South Africa, it has since been detected in Britain, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Austria, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong. The discovery of Omicron, dubbed a "variant of concern" last week by the World Health Organization, has sparked worries around the world that it could resist vaccinations and prolong the nearly two-year Covid-19 pandemic. Omicron is potentially more contagious than previous variants, although experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe Covid-19 compared to other strains. Countries have imposed a wave of travel bans or curbs on southern Africa. Financial markets, especially stocks of airlines and others in the travel sector, dived on Friday as investors worried that the variant could stall a global recovery. Oil prices tumbled by about $10 a barrel. On Sunday, most Gulf stock markets fell sharply in early trade, with the Saudi index suffering its biggest single-day fall in nearly two years. In the most far-reaching effort to keep the variant at bay, Israel announced late on Saturday it would ban the entry of all foreigners and reintroduce counter-terrorism phone-tracking technology to contain the spread of the variant. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the ban, pending government approval, would last 14 days. Officials hope that within that period there will be more information on how effective vaccines are against Omicron. Many countries have imposed or are planning restrictions on travel from southern Africa. The South African government denounced this on Saturday as unfair and potentially harmful to its economy - saying it is being punished for its scientific ability to identify coronavirus variants early. In Britain, where two linked cases of Omicron identified on Saturday were connected to travel to southern Africa, the government announced measures to try to contain the spread, including stricter testing rules for people arriving in the country and requiring mask wearing in some settings. The German state of Bavaria also announced two confirmed cases of the variant on Saturday. In Italy, the National Health Institute said a case of the new variant had been detected in Milan in a person coming from Mozambique. Although epidemiologists say travel curbs may be too late to stop Omicron from circulating, many countries - including the United States, Brazil, Canada, European Union nations, Australia, Japan, South Korea and Thailand - have announced travel bans or restrictions on southern Africa. More countries imposed such curbs on Sunday, including Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. Mexico's deputy health secretary, Hugo Lopez Gatell, said travel restrictions are of little use in response to the new variant, calling measures taken by some countries "disproportionate". "It has not been shown to be more virulent or to evade the immune response induced by vaccines. They affect the economy and well-being of people," he said in a Twitter post on Saturday. Omicron has emerged as many countries in Europe are already battling a surge in Covid-19 infections, with some reintroducing restrictions on social activity to try to stop the spread. The new variant has also thrown a spotlight on huge disparities in vaccination rates around the globe. Even as many developed countries are giving third-dose boosters, less than 7% of people in low-income countries have received their first Covid-19 shot, according to medical and human rights groups. Seth Berkley, CEO of the GAVI Vaccine Alliance that with the WHO co-leads the Covax initiative to push for equitable distribution of vaccines, said this was essential to ward off the emergence of more coronavirus variants. "While we still need to know more about Omicron, we do know that as long as large portions of the world’s population are unvaccinated, variants will continue to appear, and the pandemic will continue to be prolonged," he said in a statement to Reuters on Saturday.
China’s “alarming” actions do not match its rhetoric about promoting peace and prosperity in the region, Australia’s defence minister said yesterday after a Chinese navy ship was tracked sailing through the country’s exclusive economic zone. Defence Minister Peter Dutton listed China’s militarisation of the South China Sea, recent aggression towards Taiwan and the introduction of a national security law in Hong Kong as examples of China’s actions being at odds with its rhetoric. “We’re all familiar with the frequent claims of the Chinese government that it is committed to peace, co-operation and development,” Dutton said in a speech in Canberra. “And yet we bear witness to a significant disconnect between the words and the actions. We’ve watched very closely as the Chinese government has engaged in increasingly alarming activities.” The Chinese embassy in Canberra said Dutton had distorted China’s foreign policy, misled the Australian people and was “fanning conflict and division between peoples and nations”. “It is inconceivable that China-Australia relationship will take on a good momentum...if the Australian government bases its national strategy on such visionless analysis and outdated mentality,” it said in a statement. Relations between Australia and its biggest export market reached a low in 2020 when Canberra backed a United Nations inquiry into the origins of Covid-19, which was first recorded in China. China responded by cutting off ministerial contacts and imposing hefty tariffs on Australian exports of barley, beef, coal and seafood, effectively nullifying a 2015 free trade agreement. Australia and its ally the US branded the move “economic coercion”. The latest exchange of barbs came as Australia confirmed it had monitored a Chinese intelligence ship sailing in August inside Australia’s exclusive economic zone but not in Australian territorial waters. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the ship - the second of its type monitored off the Australian coast in as many months - was travelling legally. “But don’t think for a second that we weren’t keeping our eye on them, as they were seeking to keep an eye on us,” Morrison told reporters in Adelaide. “What it demonstrates is now no one can be complacent about the situation in the Indo-Pacific.” In September, a new security pact between Australia, the US and Britain, dubbed Aukus, was widely viewed as an attempt to shore up regional military muscle in the face of China’s growing presence. China called Aukus a danger to world peace.
Australian police began taking control of the Solomon Islands capital Honiara on Friday after days of violent protests in the South Pacific island nation, witnesses said. Tear gas was deployed in Chinatown where looting and the burning of buildings continued on Friday morning and a new curfew was expected to be imposed later in the day, a resident told Reuters. Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, who requested help from Australia, on Friday blamed foreign countries for stoking the violent protests, but did not name any. Many of the protesters come from the most populous province Malaita and feel overlooked by the government in Guadalcanal province and oppose its 2019 decision to end diplomatic ties with Taiwan and establish formal links with China. "I feel sorry for my people in Malaita because they are fed with false and deliberate lies about the switch," Sogavare told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "These very countries that are now influencing Malaita are the countries that don't want ties with the People's Republic of China, and they are discouraging Solomon Islands to enter into diplomatic relations and to comply with international law and the United Nations resolution." China and Taiwan have been rivals in the South Pacific for decades with some island nations switching allegiances. China views Taiwan as a wayward province with no right to state-to-state ties, which the government in Taipei hotly disputes. Only 15 countries maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan. The last two to ditch Taipei in favour of Beijing were the Solomon Islands and Kiribati in September 2019. Taiwan Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said in a statement to Reuters: "We have nothing to do with the unrest”. Solomon Island resident Transform Aqorau said more than a hundred people were on Friday looting shops, before Australian Federal Police officers arrived. "The scenes here are really chaotic. It is like a war zone,” Aqorau told Reuters by telephone on Friday morning. "There is no public transport and it is a struggle with the heat and the smoke. Buildings are still burning." He said later Australian police were "taking control of Chinatown". A statement on the Solomon Islands government website said public servants with the exception of essential workers should stay at home "due to the current unrest in Honiara City". Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Australia was sending 100 police personnel and was "clearly focused on stability in our region". Australian police were previously deployed to the Solomon Islands in 2003 under a peace keeping mission authorised by a Pacific Island Forum declaration and stayed for a decade. Severe internal unrest and armed conflict from 1998 to 2003 involved militant groups from Guadalcanal and the neighbouring island of Malaita, and fighting on the outskirts of Honiara.
Australia rushed peacekeepers to the Solomon Islands yesterday hoping to quell riots that threatened to topple the Pacific nation’s government and left its capital ablaze. After a second day of widespread protests and looting in Honiara, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare called on neighbouring Australia for help. The first contingent of a 100-strong Australian police and military force arrived late yesterday, as a defiant Sogavare said that although the country had been “brought to its knees” by unrest, he would not resign. The archipelago nation of around 700,000 people has for decades been beset by ethnic and political tensions. The latest bout of unrest began on Wednesday when thousands of protesters besieged parliament, setting fire to an outbuilding and calling for Sogavare’s ouster. Since then the protests have quickly descended into a violent free-for-all, with gangs of stick-wielding youths rampaging through the capital, stripping stores of goods and clashing with police. “There’s mobs moving around, it’s very tense,” one resident said asking not to be named. By late yesterday thousands of looters openly defied police lockdown orders, running through the streets carrying boxes, crates and bulging sacks of goods as flames crackled around them and plumes of thick black smoke billowed high above the city. Banks, schools, police stations, offices and Chinese-owned businesses were among the buildings reportedly torched. In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian expressed “grave concern” and called on the Solomon Islands government “to take all necessary measures to protect the safety of Chinese citizens and organisations”. The unrest has been sparked by pandemic-fuelled economic frustrations and a long-running rivalry between residents of the country’s most populous island Malaita and the Guadalcanal-based central government. In the late 1990s Guadalcanal militants launched attacks on settlers, particularly targeting those from Malaita, and for five years unrest plagued the country. The so-called “Tensions” only eased with the deployment of an Australian-led peacekeeping mission — named the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the latest Australian deployment was expected to last “a matter of weeks”, unlike Canberra’s previous peacekeeping mission, which ran from 2003 to 2017 and cost about $2.2bn. “It is not the Australian government’s intention in any way to intervene in the internal affairs of the Solomon Islands, that is for them to resolve,” he said. “Our purpose here is to provide stability and security.” Malaita residents continue to complain that their island is neglected by the central government.
Millions of red crabs crawled across Christmas Island on Tuesday, part of their annual migration journey to the ocean on the island off the coast of Western Australia. "This year's migration has just been absolutely epic," said Christmas Island National Park natural resource manager Brendan Tiernan. "The roads have been a seething mass of red crabs. It's caused traffic jams on this small island and people having to get out of their cars and rake them out the way." Tiernan said the ecological phenomenon of crabs migrating to the sea to spawn occurs nowhere else in the world on such a scale. "Sometimes we call it red crab island; the island's community acknowledge just how important red crabs are to our ecosystem and to our economy, to tourism," he said. After mating, male crabs will journey back to the jungle as the females stay behind in burrows for about two weeks to lay eggs. Each female can produce up to 100,000 eggs, which she will deposit into the ocean. "Some people were quite freaked out by the fact that they're surrounded by millions of crawling arthropods, whereas other people are just immersed - basically do a little 'red crab angel', they'll lie on ground and let themselves get covered in red crabs," Tiernan said. The Christmas Island red crab is unique to the island and protected by Australian law.
Poland said yesterday that Belarus has changed tactics in their border crisis by directing smaller groups of migrants to several points along the European Union’s eastern frontier. Though there have been signs of the crisis easing, Defence Minister Mariusz Blaszczak said he expected the border showdown to be long drawn out while Belarus said the situation remained “tense”. Polish border guards reported new attempted crossings by several groups mostly consisting of dozens of migrants, though also including one crowd of 200 people hurling rocks and using tear gas. “We have to prepare for the fact that this problem will continue for months. I have no doubt that that will be the case,” Blaszczak told RMF FM radio. “Now a bit of a new method has been taken on by the migrants and Belarusian services... Smaller groups of people are trying to cross the border in many places.” He added that “there is no question that these attacks are directed by Belarusian services.” The West accuses Belarus of artificially creating the crisis by bringing in would-be migrants — mostly from the Middle East — and taking them to the border with promises of an easy crossing into the European Union. Belarus has denied the claim, instead criticising the EU for not taking in the migrants. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko told the BBC on Friday that it was “absolutely possible” his forces had helped people cross into the EU but denied orchestrating the operation. “We’re Slavs. We have hearts. Our troops know the migrants are going to Germany... Maybe someone helped them,” he said. “But I didn’t invite them here.” The migrants have abandoned everything in their countries, spending thousands of dollars to fly into Belarus on tourist visas, determined to reach the EU. There were indications this week that the crisis was abating after several hundred migrants were repatriated to Iraq, while 2,000 others left a makeshift border encampment for a nearby logistics centre. Muluseu Mamo, a representative of the United Nations refugee agency in Belarus, visited the centre yesterday, saying that while conditions there were better than in the forest, “much is missing”. “If you ask if these are good conditions for further living, I would say no,” he was quoted by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti as telling reporters, adding that migrants there have complained about a lack of food, clothing and medical services. Also yesterday, the Belarusian health ministry said that a World Health Organisation mission had arrived in Belarus to help organise medical support for the migrants. Yemen’s foreign ministry said yesterday that it was working on bringing back its citizens from the border, including eight on the Belarusian side and nine in Poland. Polish border guards said that on Friday there had been 195 attempted illegal crossings, with 82 migrants ordered to leave Poland. “The largest group consisted of around 200 foreigners, the others each numbered several dozen,” the guards tweeted Saturday. “The foreigners were aggressive — they threw rocks, firecrackers and used tear gas.” The Belarusian state border committee, meanwhile, said that “the situation on the border remains tense”. “Attempts to violently and brutally expel refugees from the territories of neighbouring EU member states continue,” the committee said on its Telegram channel. On Friday the Council of Europe human rights commissioner Dunja Mijatovic called the humanitarian situation “alarming” and demanded an immediate end to Poland’s controversial returns of migrants to Belarus. “I have personally listened to the appalling accounts of extreme suffering from desperate people... who spent weeks or even months in squalid and extreme conditions in the cold and wet woods due to these pushbacks,” she said in a statement. Several hundred people marched through central Warsaw yesterday touting banners saying “Save the people on the border!” and shouting “Nobody’s illegal.” Polish mothers also held a rally for migrant rights in the eastern town of Hajnowka, where they chanted “The forest is no place for children”. Polish media say at least 11 migrants have died since the crisis began over the summer.
Tens of thousands took to the streets in Austria yesterday as anger mounted over fresh Covid restrictions imposed against a resurgent pandemic, sparking overnight riots in a Dutch city and a French island. Europe is battling a fresh wave of infections and several countries have tightened curbs, with Austria on Friday announcing a nationwide partial lockdown — the most dramatic restrictions in Western Europe for months. Other nations on the continent have resorted to less severe restrictions, often choosing to ban unvaccinated people from venues like restaurants and bars. Some 35,000 came out to protest in Austria, thousands marched in Croatia’s capital Zagreb and there were smaller rallies in The Netherlands. Violence marred protests on Friday in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam, where police fired warning shots as protesters set fires. Two people were hospitalised with bullet wounds. There was arson and looting overnight in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, where a night curfew has been imposed. Thousands gathered Saturday in central Vienna near the Chancellery, responding to a call by the far-right FPO party. They held up banners decrying “Corona dictatorship” and slamming the “division of society”. “It’s not normal that the government deprives us of our rights,” said 42-year-old teacher Katarina Gierscher, who travelled for six hours to get to the rally. “The government wants to divide us. We must remain united.” From tomorrow, 8.9 million Austrians will not be allowed to leave home except to go to work, shop for essentials and exercise. The restrictions will initially last 20 days with an evaluation after 10 days. Vaccination against Covid-19 in the Alpine nation will be mandatory from February 1 next year. Organisers cancelled a Dutch protest yesterday but a few hundred people still gathered in Amsterdam and a similar number marched through the southern city of Breda. The group that cancelled the Amsterdam rally said on Facebook it acted because “last night, all hell broke loose in Rotterdam.”
Thousands of protesters decrying Covid-19 vaccinations gathered in cities around Australia yesterday as smaller counter-rallies supporting health measures also marched. Australia’s vaccine program remains voluntary and highly successful, with nearly 85% of the population over 16 fully vaccinated and life returning to relative normality for those double-jabbed. But protesters rallied Saturday across several of Australia’s major cities against vaccine mandates, which are not universal and have only been applied to certain occupations by state authorities. In Melbourne, a crowd of several thousand called for state leader Daniel Andrews to be jailed and voiced anger over controversial new proposed pandemic powers. Police said up to 10,000 gathered in Sydney, where one protester dressed as Scottish freedom fighter William Wallace from the film Braveheart and another spoke to the crowd in costume as former US president Donald Trump. There were no reports of clashes, nor was there any sign of the gallows or calls to hang political leaders which had been filmed at earlier Melbourne protests - sparking concerns the rallies were encouraging violence. Although the views of the crowd in Sydney were wide-ranging, a heavy presence of anti-vaccination and shadowy conspiratorial views were promoted by speakers and on many signs. “In Australia where a fanatical cult runs our health bureaucracies, they say it’s ok (to vaccinate children),” right-wing federal politician Craig Kelly told the Sydney crowd to large cheers. Kelly, who is a crossbench MP in Canberra, has routinely promoted misinformation and conspiracy theories throughout the pandemic. Around 2,000 protesters also gathered in Melbourne to oppose the anti-vaccination rally - one of the first counter-demonstrations since the pandemic began. “I’m here because I am disgusted by what’s going on the streets of my city, Melbourne,” counter-protester Maureen Hill told AFP, referring to the anti-vaccination march. “Everything that’s been done (by the public health orders) has been done to save lives. I mean, it did upset people, and it did affect a lot of people, but it’s a worldwide pandemic. What else are we supposed to do?” Hill said. Australia has recorded over 195,000 cases and 1,933 deaths linked to the virus in a population of over 25mn since the pandemic began.
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday said he doesn’t believe he has lied since he was elected to parliament in 2007, rejecting allegations from French President Emmanuel Macron and others. Macron this month said Morrison had lied to him over Australia’s decision to scrap a multibillion-dollar deal with France to build Canberra’s new fleet of submarines. Criticism of Morrison intensified this week when he announced his government would spend A$178mn ($129.6mn) to support electric vehicles, three years after he criticised the technology. But when asked yesterday, Morrison rejected allegations he had lied. “No, I don’t believe I have, no,” Morrison told 3AW Radio.”It’s politics. People take sledges at me all the time … I’ve learned in public life over a long period of time to not have a thin skin, to not get bitter.” Morrison can ill-afford to have his integrity called into question as he has to return to the polls by May 2022. Widely watched polls show Morrison’s coalition government trailing the opposition Labor party, while a Guardian Essential poll published this week showed voter approval of the prime minister at its lowest level in 18 months. The poll showed Morrison’s approval rating has fallen from a high of 65% in February and now stands at 48%. Allies too have also questioned whether they can trust Morrison, with the EU president Ursula von der Leyen earlier this year questioning whether the bloc could strike a trade deal with Australia until trust is repaired. In solidarity with France, the European Union last month postponed the next round of talks on a free trade deal for a second time. France has said Australia did not attempt to inform it of the cancellation until the day Canberra announced its deal with the US and Britain.