Liverpool to play Leipzig in Budapest for a 2nd time



NYON, Switzerland (AP) – Liverpool and Leipzig are going to Budapest for a second time in the Champions League round of 16 next week.

UEFA confirmed on Thursday that Liverpool’s home second-leg game will also be at Puskas Arena in the Hungarian capital next Wednesday.

The Puskas Arena – which is a European Championship venue at the end of this season – has become UEFA’s main neutral venue during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leipzig’s home game in the first leg was also played in the empty stadium in Budapest on Feb. 16 because of travel restrictions between England and Germany. Liverpool won 2-0.

It also hosted Borussia Mönchengladbach vs. Manchester City in the Champions League, and Wolfsberger vs. Tottenham in the Europa League last month.

It will stage Molde vs. Granada in the Europa League on March 18.

___

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Family’s travel plans ruined over wheelchair debacle


A Brisbane woman battling muscular dystrophy has been barred from flying on a Virgin plane because her wheelchair is 1cm above the airline’s accepted height dimensions.

Emma Weatherley tried to book a trip from Brisbane to Cairns for next month on April 6 with Flight Centre, but was told the airline would not accept her motorised wheelchair height of 85cm aboard.

“I went to America in 2017 with Virgin – booked through Flight Centre – and took this exact wheelchair without any problems,” she told NCA NewsWire.

“This chair fits in the boot of my Corolla and apparently there’s not enough room on a Boeing 737. It defies logic for me.”

It comes after Virgin cancelled her trip to the United States late last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mother-of-two then got the money refunded in the way of a future travel credit and tried to book a domestic trip with her family instead, but the 40-year-old hit a curveball.

According to correspondence seen by NCA NewsWire, Flight Centre said Virgin was “unwilling to budge” on the height limit and “not willing to offer refunds on the credits”.

“The best option is to possibly go to the airport with your chair to check in, hopefully they accept it at the 85cm, but if they do not, then you would need to remove the wheels so it fits the accepted dimensions,” Ms Weatherley’s Flight Centre travel agent said in an email.

More correspondence from Virgin sent to Ms Weatherley suggested her chair “be dismantled or lowered below 84cm”.

But Ms Weatherley said her wheelchair “was not designed to be dismantled”.

“The wheels alone cost $10,000 and you would need to disassemble the motor inside them – it’s not designed for this, it will weaken the motors when they’re put back together.”

She also said hiring a manual wheelchair “was not an option”.

“I have muscular dystrophy – I don’t have the power in my arms to propel the wheels forward,” she said.

“I would literally need to get modifications done to my wheelchair to make it fit, which is ridiculous and would cost more money.”

Ms Weatherly wants a full refund of the $8500 she paid for her cancelled USA trip, rather than the travel credit she received.

“Travelling with a disability should not be made this difficult – it’s exhausting. If I can’t travel anywhere because of my wheelchairthen at least offer me a full refund.”

She said she did have travel insurance with “cancel for any reason cover”, but canned it once she accepted the flight credits.

Virgin said it did not accept electronic wheelchairs over the maximum height of 84cm for safety reasons.

If a customer’s wheelchair did not fit within the dimensions after being adjusted or disassembled they would need to travel with an alternative mobility aid – such as a manual wheelchair – which did fit within the allowable dimensions.

It’s understood Virgin provided Flight Centre with authority to provide a travel credit for the value of Ms Weatherley’s booking from Brisbane to Cairns.

Virgin Australia Group spokesman Kris Taute said: “We are working closely with the customers travel agent to resolve this case.”

Ms Weatherley’s travel agency Flight Centre confirmed it was working with Virgin on a solution.

“We have reached out to our contacts at Virgin to try and find the best possible solution however at this time, we do not have a clear response,” spokeswoman Anna Burgdorf said.

“We will continue to work with Mrs Weatherley to find the best solution for her circumstances.

“Flight Centre’s customers are incredibly to important to our business and we continue to advocate to find the best solution to any issues or concerns as they arise.”

Ms Weatherley has sought help from consumer advocate Adam Glezer’s group Travel Industry Issues.

The country’s travel industry has borne a brutal brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic after the federal government slammed international borders shut in March last year in a bid to stop the virus spreading to Australia.

Virgin collapsed into administration in April after it was no longer able to service its debts, while the pandemic forced the grounding of most of its fleet and starved the country’s second biggest airline of cash.

Deloitte stepped in to restructure Virgin, before selling it to American private investment firm Bain Capital.

Flight Centre posted a $662 million statutory loss after tax last year as a result of the pandemic, forcing the ASX-listed travel agent to close about 400 of the 740 stores it operated pre-COVID.

anthony.piovesan@news.com.au



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Virus surge forces Sao Paulo to shut as Buenos Aires reopens



SAO PAULO (AP) – A swell of COVID-19 cases is halting samba steps in Brazil’s biggest metropolis while Argentina‘s capital tiptoes its way back to the tango floor.

The two biggest cities in each of the neighboring South American countries are headed in opposite directions, reflecting how those that loosen restrictions despite warnings from scientists see a spike in the pandemic while others that keep social distancing measures in place are able to reopen their economies sooner.

Sao Paulo, home to almost 12 million people, is bracing for the worst two weeks yet in the pandemic and the growing risk that its once-resilient health care system will collapse, Gov. João Doria told reporters Wednesday. More than 75% of the city’s intensive-care beds are occupied by COVID-19 patients and some wards – like those of the private Albert Einstein hospital – are full for the first time.

Doria announced that the entire state, where 46 million people reside, on Saturday will face the highest level of restrictions yet to arrest the virus’ spread. That means closure of all bars, restaurants, shopping malls and any other establishment deemed non-essential until at least March 19.

Meanwhile, the nearly 3 million residents of Buenos Aires are enjoying an easing of their restrictions, with authorization to attend movie theaters taking effect this week. On Wednesday, official figures showed just 26% of intensive-care beds were occupied by COVID-19 patients. The low hospitalization rate also enabled local authorities in mid-February to reopen bars and restaurants until 2 a.m. — something long sought in a city famous for its all-hours culture.

That means Buenos Aires‘ famed steakhouses are reigniting their fires, while counterparts in Sao Paulo extinguish theirs.

Buenos Aires‘ casinos also reopened at the end of 2020, and authorities are discussing whether the soccer-crazy city will be able to return to the stadiums soon. In Brazil, despite Bolsonaro’s push to allow fans back, no local authorities are seriously considering opening stadiums. The 48,000-seater NeoQuimica arena on the east side of Sao Paulo is being used as a vaccination post.

Some good news from the Sao Paulo region came on Tuesday, when soccer great Pelé received his first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The 80-year-old posted the news on his social media channels.

“The pandemic is not over yet. We must keep discipline to preserve lives until many people have taken the vaccine,” the three-time World Cup winner said. “When you go out please don’t forget your mask and maintain social distance.”

His plea is important — even one year after the pandemic began — as Bolsonaro continues to cast doubt on the effectiveness of masks.

The distance between the two nations has seemingly widened during the pandemic, with Bolsonaro and Argentina‘s Alberto Fernández adopting opposite tacks in their handling of the crisis. The former downplayed the disease’s risks and has insisted on keeping the economy churning, while the latter has taken a more cautious approach.

Fernández imposed one of the longest quarantines in the world between March and October, despite risks of damaging an economy already in a recession.

Over the past week, Brazil has recorded 35 COVID-19 deaths per million residents, almost triple that of Argentina.

Troubles in Sao Paulo worsened after furtive Carnival celebrations in mid-February. Though street celebrations and parades were canceled, many paulistas, as residents are known, traveled or joined unmasked gatherings. The city declined to allow days off work traditionally allowed during the Carnival period, in a bid to keep people from partying.

Izidoro Silveira, 34, got a job waiting tables at a pizzeria in downtown Sao Paulo two months ago, after almost a full year unemployed. He’s upset about his restaurant’s imminent shutdown.

“Those doing deliveries won’t be hurt, but I and many others will,” a distressed Silveira said as he watched a televised news broadcast about the shutdown. “I don’t know what to tell my wife and my daughter. I’m afraid I’ll lose my job again, even though I work at a place that takes all precautions.”

Not far away, movie theaters on the city’s main drag, Paulista Avenue, are empty, just as they have been since the pandemic first began.

Argentina‘s ease doesn’t mean the virus is completely under control. Wednesday’s official figures showed 262 deaths and more than 8,700 new infections in the country. Vaccine rollout is slow. But the overwhelming gloom seen in Sao Paulo seems to be far from Buenos Aires.

With a bag of popcorn in one hand and a soft drink in the other, 8-year-old Bautista Sundblat was eager to enter a movie theater in Buenos Aires’ tony Palermo neighborhood to watch “Bad Boys Forever”.

“He’s very excited,” said his mother, Martina. “We’d been waiting for a long time. There are few seats, everything has been taken care of. He’s a movie fanatic. There’s still a long way to go, but little by little we’re getting where we wanted.”

___ Rey reported from Buenos Aires.

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Hamish and Zoe Foster Blake encourage big city escapes in Tourism Australia campaign


From beach-hopping to bush-bashing, Australians have been enjoying our new-found travel freedom since border restrictions relaxed, but there’s one area we’re criminally overlooking – our big cities.

So travel-loving couple Hamish Blake and Zoe Foster Blake have teamed up again with Tourism Australia for a new campaign that urges Aussies to plan a city escape to bring some love back to the big smoke.

In their new ad campaign, which is part of Tourism Australia’s Holiday Here This Year campaign, the popular couple showcases what our cities have to offer for your next domestic getaway.

Speaking to news.com.au about the City Escapes campaign and their upcoming travel plans, the pair explained how Australia’s excellent cities leave us spoiled for choice.

“No offence to other countries, but let’s say if you go to America, you’ve got some good capital cities in America but you’ve got some duds. In Australia, we’ve got no duds. If it was up to me, the campaign would be called Australia: No Dud Cities,” Blake said.

“Every capital city is awesome in its own unique way. I do love that so much about Australia. Cities that are smaller, population-wise, are kind of even cooler because they’ve got their own art, culture, food, geography, cool hotels. The cities have boomed.”

“And also whether you’re going with children, or just your partner, or you’re going for nature, or you’re going for shopping – you’ve got all of it,” Foster Blake added. “Art galleries, museums – they’re smashing it.”

The couple said they already had a hit list of cities they planned to go to next with kids Sonny, 6, and Rudy, 3.

“We were just saying we feel embarrassed we haven’t been to MONA (Museum of Old and New Art) in Hobart,” Foster Blake said.

“Our kids like to be a bit free-range and barefooted and feral, so we’ll definitely head to somewhere that affords that sort of environment as well. That might be Perth, or Brissie.”

Blake agreed he was “dying to get back to Perth”.

“I haven’t been for a couple of years and again, I think one of my favourite things about Perth is that it’s that perfect mix between big and small,” he said.

“It’s obviously a big city but it’s spacious, there’s lots of little great pockets and there are amazing beaches.”

Tourism Australia has found domestic travellers have been shunning cities in favour of regional areas due to health and safety concerns.

Spending on overnight trips across Australia fell by $27.1 billion, or 34 per cent, in the year ending September 2020, compared to the previous year.

It has especially been felt in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Gold Coast and Perth.

Hotel occupancy has also taken a dive, with Melbourne, Sydney and Hobart the hardest hit – their occupancy rates have plunged to 33 per cent, 40 per cent and 49 per cent respectively.

Tourism Australia managing director Phillipa Harrison said tourism operators in Australia’s cities were still struggling almost a year after the country’s international borders snapped shut and lockdown restrictions inhibited domestic travel.

“Our cities are the key international gateways to Australia and transit hubs for travellers, so it’s no surprise that they’ve been hit the hardest in terms of tourism spend, hotel occupancy and aviation capacity over the past year,” Ms Harrison said.

“While our international borders remain closed and travel restrictions continue to fluctuate around the country, our cities run the risk of continuing to bear the brunt of this pandemic despite offering so many incredible, safe experiences and being more affordable than ever.

“As part of this campaign we are calling on Australians to help support their fellow Australians by booking a city escape, which in turn will help to support the thousands of city-based hotels, restaurants, bars, cultural attractions and experiences that rely on tourism for their livelihoods.”

As Hamish and Zoe look forward to their next city escape, they admitted there was one thing they’d have to contend with – their very opposing approaches to packing.

“He doesn’t pack until the night before, which gives me hives the morning of,” Foster Blake told news.com.au.

“I pack a week out, constantly curating, editing … and I do the kids’ suitcases as well. That will be our point of tension the night before.”

Blake admitted his packing habits were somewhat chaotic.

“For some reason, even though I know where we’re going and I know the temperature, as soon as I open my wardrobe my brain is filled with wild, 1 per cent contingencies,” he said.

“I’m packing wet weather gear on a whim, maybe three woolly jumpers for a beach holiday.

“Then when I get to the destination … it’s like a theatre sports game where I open up a bag and have no idea what’s in there.”

“But he’ll live in the same pair of shorts for seven days,” Foster Blake laughed.



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Collins to back Haaland for Interior, sealing her approval



WASHINGTON (AP) – Maine Sen. Susan Collins said Wednesday she will support New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland to be Interior secretary, the first Republican senator to publicly back a nominee set to become the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency.

The announcement makes Haaland‘s confirmation by the Senate nearly certain and follows Haaland‘s endorsement last week by Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin, chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Manchin, a moderate from West Virginia, had been publicly undecided through two days of hearings on Haaland’s nomination by President Joe Biden. Manchin caused a political uproar last month by announcing plans to oppose Biden’s choice for budget director, Neera Tanden, a decision that played a key role in Tanden’s withdrawal on Tuesday.

Collins, a moderate who frequently sides with Manchin, said she differs with Haaland on a number of issues but appreciated her role in helping to lead House passage of the Great American Outdoors Act. The landmark law, co-sponsored by Collins in the Senate, authorizes nearly $3 billion on conservation projects, outdoor recreation and maintenance of national parks and other public lands.

Collins said she also appreciated Haaland’s support on issues important to Maine, such as Acadia National Park, “as well as her deep knowledge of tribal issues, which has earned her the support of tribes across the country, including those in Maine.”

Interior oversees the nation’s public lands and waters and leads relations with nearly 600 federally recognized tribes.

The Senate energy panel is set to vote on Haaland‘s nomination Thursday. Several Republicans, including Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, the top GOP senator on energy, oppose Haaland, saying her opposition to fracking, the Keystone XL oil pipeline and other issues made her unfit to serve in a role in which she will oversee energy development on vast swaths of federal lands, mostly in the West, as well as offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska.

Barrasso said a moratorium imposed by Biden on oil and gas leases on federal lands “is taking a sledgehammer to Western states’ economies.″ The moratorium, which Haaland supports, could cost thousands of jobs in West, Barrasso said.

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EXPLAINER: Pope’s risky Iraq trip aims to boost Christians



VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis is pushing ahead with the first papal trip to Iraq despite rising coronavirus infections, hoping to encourage the country’s dwindling number of Christians who were violently persecuted during the Islamic State group’s insurgency while seeking to boost ties with the Shiite Muslim world.

Security is a concern for the March 5-8 visit, given the continued presence of rogue Shiite militias. Francis, who relishes plunging into crowds and zipping around in his popemobile, is expected to travel in an armored car with a sizeable security detail. The Vatican hopes the measures will have the dual effect of protecting the pope while discouraging contagion-inducing crowds.

Francis’ visit is the culmination of two decades of efforts to bring a pope to the birthplace of Abraham, the prophet central to Christian, Muslim and Jewish faiths.

The trip will give Francis – and the world – a close-up look at the devastation wrought by the 2014-2017 IS reign, which destroyed hundreds of Christian-owned homes and churches in the north, and sent tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians and other religious minorities fleeing.

The trip will include a private meeting with Iraq’s top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, a revered figure in Iraq and beyond.

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WHAT IS THE VIRUS SITUATION IN IRAQ?

The trip marks Francis’ return to international travel since the coronavirus pandemic erupted, and it comes as Iraq is seeing a resurgence of infections, with daily new cases nearing the height of its first wave.

For months, Francis has eschewed even small, socially distanced public audiences at the Vatican, raising questions about why he would expose Iraqis to the risk of possible infection. Francis, the Vatican delegation and traveling media have been vaccinated, but few ordinary Iraqis have been given shots.

The Vatican has defended the visit, insisting that it has been designed to limit crowds and that health measures will be enforced. But even then, 10,000 tickets have been prepared for the pope’s final event, an outdoor Mass at the sports stadium in Irbil.

Spokesman Matteo Bruni said the important thing is that Iraqis will be able to watch Francis on TV and “know that the pope is there for them, bringing a message that it is possible to hope even in situations that are most complicated.”

He acknowledged there might be consequences to the visit, but said the Vatican measured the risks against the need for Iraqis to feel the pope’s “act of love.”

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HOW WILL PERSECUTED CHRISTIANS REACT TO POPE’S INTERFAITH MESSAGE?

Before IS seized vast swaths of northern Iraq, the Rev. Karam Shamasha ministered to 1,450 families in his hometown of Telskuf, 20 miles (about 30 kilometers) north of Mosul. Today, the families of his Chaldean Catholic parish number 500, evidence of the massive exodus of Christians who fled the extremists and never returned.

Shamasha says Francis will be welcomed by those who stayed, even though his message of interfaith harmony is sometimes difficult for Iraqi Christians to hear. They faced decades of discrimination and envy by the Muslim majority well before IS.

“The first ones who came to rob our houses were our (Muslim) neighbors,” Shamasha told reporters ahead of the trip. Even before IS, when a Christian family built a new house, Muslim neighbors would sometime say “‘Good, good, because you’re building a house for us’ because they know or believe that in the end, Christians will disappear from this land and the houses will be theirs,” he said.

Francis is going to Iraq precisely to encourage these Christians to persevere and remain, and to emphasize that they have an important role to play in rebuilding Iraq. Estimates vary, but Iraqi Christians were believed to number around 1.4 million in 2003. Today there are ABOUT 250,000 left.

On his first day in Baghdad, Francis will meet with priests, seminarians and nuns in the same cathedral where Islamic militants in 2010 slaughtered 58 people in what was the deadliest assault targeting Christians since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

On Francis’ final full day in Iraq, he will pray in a Mosul square surrounded by four destroyed churches, and visit another church in the Christian city of Qaraqosh that has been rebuilt in a sign of hope for Christianity’s future there.

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WHY WILL FRANCIS MEET WITH GRAND AYATOLLAH?

One of the highlights of the trip is Francis’ meeting with al-Sistani, the grand ayatollah whose 2014 fatwah calling on able-bodied men to fight IS swelled the ranks of Shiite militias that helped defeat the group.

Francis has spent years trying to forge improved relations with Muslims. He signed a historic document on human fraternity in 2019 with a prominent Sunni leader, Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the seat of Sunni learning in Cairo.

There are no plans to add the 91-year-old al-Sistani’s signature to the document. But the fact that the meeting is happening at all is enormously significant, said Gabriel Said Reynolds, professor of Islamic studies and theology at the University of Notre Dame.

“It’s hard not to see this as accompanying his relationship with Ahmed el-Tayeb,” Reynolds said, noting al-Sistani’s place as a revered figure of religious, political and intellectual influence in Iraq and beyond.

“I think there would be a lot for them to speak about,” he said.

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WHAT ARE THE SECURITY CONCERNS?

Security concerns were an issue well before twin suicide bombings claimed by IS ripped through a Baghdad market Jan. 21, killing at least 32 people.

They have only increased after a spate of recent rocket attacks, including at least 10 Wednesday, resumed targeting the American presence in the country, attacks the U.S. has blamed on Iran-aligned Shiite militias.

Those same groups, strengthened after al-Sistani’s fatwa, are accused of terrorizing Christians and preventing them from returning home. Iraqi government and religious officials are concerned these militias could carry out rocket attacks in Baghdad or elsewhere to show their displeasure over al-Sistani’s meeting with Francis.

Asked if this 33rd foreign visit was the riskiest Francis has taken, Bruni replied diplomatically.

“I wouldn’t get into a competition of riskiest journeys, but I would say this is certainly one of the most interesting.”

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Seychelles bids to reach COVID ‘herd immunity’ by mid-March



VICTORIA, Seychelles (AP) – The president of Seychelles says he hopes enough residents will soon be vaccinated against COVID-19 to stop the spread of the virus in the Indian Ocean island nation.

Seychelles began vaccinations in January, and by the end of February, about 44% of those vaccinated had gotten a second shot.

“We are hoping to achieve herd immunity mid-March when we would have vaccinated 70,000 of our people,”” Seychelles President Wavel Ramkalawan told The Associated Press in an interview last week. “That represents 70% because our population is 100,000.”

So-called herd immunity is reached when enough people are protected through infection or vaccination to make it difficult for a virus to continue to spread. The exact threshold for coronavirus is unknown, although some experts suggest that at least 70% of a population would need to be protected to hold the virus in check. The emergence of new worrisome versions of the coronavirus, however, is further complicating the picture.

Since the pandemic began, Seychelles has had 2,592 confirmed cases of COVID-19, including 11 deaths, according to the Africa Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Seychelles’ first two positive cases of COVID-19 were confirmed on March 14, 2020. The two individuals were a couple from Seychelles who had returned from a trip to Italy.

The country imposed a nationwide lockdown in which most shops, businesses and schools were closed for 21 days in April. The airport was also closed and ships were prevented from bringing tourists.

Restrictions continue on public gatherings, restaurants and bars. Tourists flying to Seychelles are required to have recent negative PCR tests and have a 7-day quarantine period at a designated hotel and have a negative PCR test at the end of the restriction.

The 7-day rolling average of daily new cases in Seychelles has dropped over the past two weeks, going from 49 new cases per 100,000 people on Feb. 15 to 32 new cases per 100,000 people on March 1, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.

Seychelles’ vaccination drive started in January with 50,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccine donated by the United Arab Emirates, a close trading partner, according to the Seychelles News Agency. The Emirati carrier, Etihad Airways, has a substantial stake in Air Seychelles.

India donated 50,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine made by the Serum Institute of India. The Seychelles government said it purchased an additional 40,000 doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine to have enough to inoculate 70,000 people.

The vaccines are voluntary and free. The shots have been given to senior officials, including the president, as well as health and tourism workers in a country where tourism accounts for about 30% of GDP, according to World Bank figures.

When the vaccinations started in January, health care workers, essential service workers and tourism workers were given priority. After those on the front-line were vaccinated, the elderly were given priority. The shots are given in hospitals, clinics, pharmacies and some businesses. Now all residents can get inoculated, except for those under 18 years.

The publicity surrounding the vaccination drive has helped to dispel misinformation about the shots, according to medical workers.

“The moment we started giving out the vaccines to leaders, religious leaders and health workers, that started to subside,” said Sanjeev Pugazhendi, a doctor with the Ministry of Health.

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Cruise industry pleads for COVID- safe plan approval


The cruise industry is pleading with the Australian and state governments to sign off on their COVID-safe plan to allow them to be ready sail again in Australia as the rest of the world takes to the seas.

The cruise industry has been dealing with both levels of government for six months and has submitted extensive COVID-safe plans with an aim for intrastate sailings.

Their proposal comes as Royal Caribbean announced it would resume sailing in Israel in May having already been traversing the waters off Singapore and Taiwan for several months.

The federal government’s announcement to ban international travel until mid-June caught the industry off guard, says Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) Australasian spokesman Joel Katz.

Mr Katz said the industry had submitted detailed COVID-safe plans, which are already in practice across the world, that would allow Queenslanders, for instance, to safely tour the waters off the coast of the Sunshine State.

“We are naturally disappointed that the government has extended the ban without finalising a pathway for the return of cruising given the work that has taken place over many months, “ Mr Katz said.

“We were hopeful that by this time we would have had the steps towards a phased resumption finalised.

“With no community transmission in Australia, it does open up the opportunity for domestic cruising which does not impact the international borders.”

He said domestic cruising would not only provide local tourism-related jobs but be a boon for local farmers as the industry purchases Australian-grown produce.

“The ships based in Australia do their purchasing here … the meat and fruit and veg industry, so we need lead times because they are also keen to know the timelines to be able to meet the demand,” he said.

Since July last year, when the world was in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, almost 350,000 passengers have travelled on more than 400 sailings aboard 25 ocean-going cruise line ships, Mr Katz said.

That alone proves the cruise industry can be trusted to implement COVID-safe protocols and pave the way for Australian sailings to reopen sooner rather than later, he said.

“These successful sailings, combined with the growing confidence expressed by governments and experts in health and sciences, are clear indications that a responsible resumption of cruising is possible,” Mr Katz said.

“We have developed comprehensive protocols to show how crews can safely be brought back into Australia through the quarantine process.”

Overseas cruise liners are operating at 50 per cent capacity, with no casino, buffets nor spas open.

Other measures include reserved isolation cabins, social distancing for arrivals and departures, and extensive COVID testing for crew members in the lead-up to, and just before, a cruise.

Passengers must also return a negative test result before boarding.

All these measures would be implemented in Australia, and Mr Katz said passengers could sail with confidence despite the fallout from the Ruby Princess fiasco.

“Certainly the feedback from various agencies is that the industry protocols are comprehensive and they have acknowledged the amount of work the industry has done,” he said.

About 2700 passengers were allowed to disembark from the Ruby Princess on March 19, with many testing positive for the virus after having used public transport or commercial flights to return home.

All-up, more than 660 cases and 28 deaths were linked to the ship.

Health Minister Greg Hunt made specific reference to the cruise industry on Tuesday when he extended the international travel ban a further three months until June 17.

“The Australian government continues to work closely with the cruise industry to develop a framework for the staged resumption of cruise ships in a manner that is proportionate to the public health risk,” he said.

Mr Katz said if the government could just sign off on their COVID-safe plan then cruise lines could be ready to sail as soon as the international travel ban was lifted.

However, until that time, they remain in limbo as ships sit idle in international waters.

“We continue to advocate for domestic cruises … and we would like to be further along in this process,” he said.

More than 35,000 guests have sailed more than 26 sailings on their Singapore and Taiwan cruises with no positive COVID cases says Royal Caribbean International (Australia/NZ) managing director Gavin Smith.

He said their first ship was scheduled to arrive in Sydney on October 16 and they would need three months lead time to prepare for the cruise.

“We estimate that preparing and positioning a cruise ship to begin cruise operations in Australia is a complex undertaking and will take 60-90 days after receiving permission to return to service,” Mr Smith said.

While some protocols, like advanced HVAC filtration systems, will be here to stay, we’ll refine others based on needs specific to Australia.”



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Palaszczuk government again demands JobKeeper extension for struggling tourism industry


The Palaszczuk government has again demanded the JobKeeper wage subsidy program be extended for the tourism sector after it was revealed international travellers wouldn’t be welcomed back until at least mid-June.

Health Minister Greg Hunt on Tuesday night pushed the date back by three months from March 17 by extending the emergency period as “overseas continues to pose an unacceptable public health risk to Australia, including the emergence of more highly transmissible variants”.

The update confirmed tourism operators in the Sunshine State who relied on international travellers would be disproportionately impacted when the wage subsidy support scheme was cut off at the end of the month, Deputy Premier Steven Miles said.

“We anticipate 50,000 Queenslanders will lose their job at that point,” he told reporters on Wednesday morning.

The Deputy Premier said the impact to the sector equates to slashing about 3 per cent from the Australian economy.

“And if you go to places like Cairns, Gold Coast and the Sunshine Coast, that 50,000 jobs lost represents something like 15 or 16 per cent of their pre-COVID employment levels,” he said.

“We can’t afford that and we also can’t afford for those businesses to close who deliver the tourism products that attract people to our state.

“We won’t be able to turn those back on once our airports are open again and once we’re inviting people back from overseas.”

Mr Miles made the comments after delivering a speech about the need for affordable housing amid the Sunshine State’s rapid population growth.

He said the state government had begun discussions with industry experts to create a growth areas delivery team to decide where housing and infrastructure development needed to be accelerated.

The team is tasked with deciding on a region most in need, likely near the Gold Coast or the Redlands area closer to Brisbane.

“The pilot site identified will be an example of how local and state governments and the private sector can work together to plan for better communities,” Mr Miles said.

“The team will also work to bring land in the underutilised urban footprint to market sooner and ensure that quarterly local government infrastructure reporting identifies infrastructure spending and delivery for larger councils.”

Seven applications for a building acceleration fund totalling $72.8 million had reached the final stage of the assessment process.

“These projects are located across the state and will unlock land supply and employment opportunities,” Mr Miles said.

“The building acceleration fund is helping to deliver catalytic infrastructure projects that generate private sector investment, unlock development in Queensland and create construction and long-term employment.”



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Fauci presents his personal virus model to Smithsonian



WASHINGTON (AP) – Dr. Anthony Fauci, the face of the U.S. government’s pandemic response, has donated his personal 3D model of the COVID-19 virus to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

The museum on Tuesday honored Fauci with its Great Americans Medal.

“Dr. Fauci has helped save millions of lives and advanced the treatment and our understanding of infectious and immunologic diseases across more than five decades of public service,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the museum’s director. “His humanitarianism and dedication truly exemplify what it means to be a Great American.”

The museum asked Fauci to contribute a personal artifact to mark the pandemic, and he chose the lumpy blue and orange ball that he used to explain the complexities of the virus in dozens of interviews.

The model was made with a 3D printer and shows what the Smithsonian’s announcement calls “the various components of the SARS-CoV-2 virion (the complete, infectious form of the virus), including the spike protein.”

Fauci showed off his new medal in a video call Tuesday night, calling it “an extraordinary and humbling” honor.

“This has been a terrible year in so many respects,” he said. “Decades from now, people will be talking about the experience that we went through.”

Fauci, 80, is the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. After serving as the beleaguered and frequently sidelined face of the Trump administration’s COVID response, Fauci was retained as a senior adviser to President Joe Biden.

The Great Americans Medal was founded in 2016. Previous honorees include former secretaries of state Madeleine K. Albright and Gen. Colin L. Powell, tennis star Billie Jean King and musician Paul Simon.

Fauci received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian award, in 2008 from then-President George W. Bush for his decades of work, dating back to the earliest days of the AIDS crisis.

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