Australia’s rollout behind schedule after two weeks


The federal government remains well behind its initial COVID-19 vaccination targets nearly a fortnight into its rollout.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in January he “anticipated optimistically” 80,000 Australians would be vaccinated every week at the beginning of the rollout, before the effort was “scaled up”.

But almost two weeks after the first vaccine was administered, only 71,867 Australians have been immunised, including 20,814 residents across 241 aged care facilities.

Health Minister Greg Hunt insisted mid-February the government remained “on track … for all the milestones we’ve set”, including a target to reach four million vaccinations by early April.

RELATED: Aussie-made vaccines to roll out from March 22: PM

But Labor acting health spokesman Chris Bowen said the government faced an uphill battle to meet that threshold.

“Australia has a long, long way to go in the vaccine rollout and it will only become longer if supply of the vaccines doesn’t arrive,” he told NCA NewsWire.

“The government needs to up their game and get the vaccine rollout back on track.”

The nation’s vaccine supply was dented on Thursday when Italy blocked the shipment of 250,000 AstraZeneca doses destined for Australia.

But the government insisted the development would not alter Australia’s vaccination timetable.

And with 50 million AstraZeneca doses to be manufactured by CSL in Melbourne, Mr Morrison argued Australia had protected itself from supply chain issues.

“That has given us sovereignty over our vaccination program, which I think is incredibly important,” he said.

Health Department secretary Brendan Murphy claimed one million doses would be administered every week once the Australian jabs were rolled out from March 22.

“The value of having that onshore production cannot be underestimated,” he said on Friday.

“(It) gives us the capacity to really ramp up and broadly vaccinate our population as quickly as possible.”

The Australian Defence Force will also aid the effort from next week, Professor Murphy confirmed, with 60 “nurses and paramedic-style trained” personnel helping to administer jabs.

“They were standing up teams anyway to vaccinate the defence forces, and what we’ve done is ask them to stand up a bit earlier to help with the aged care rollout,” he said.

“Aged care rollout has been a bit more complex than we thought, and we need to supplement it.”

Australia’s vaccine rollout was scheduled to be complete by October this year, the government said.

The next stage of the vaccine rollout – Phase 1b – will include the elderly, Indigenous Australians aged 55 and over, an younger Australians with an underlying medical condition.

They will be followed in Phase 2a by adults aged over 50, and Indigenous Australians aged over 19.

VACCINE ROLLOUT BY AGE

Phase 1b

• Elderly adults aged 80 years and over

• Elderly adults aged 70-79 years

• Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 55 years and over

• Younger adults with an underlying medical condition or disability

Phase 2a

• Adults aged 60-69 years

• Adults aged 50-59 years

• Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 19-54

Phase 2b

Australians aged 16-49

Phase 3

Australians under 16.



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PM Morrison confirms Aussie-made vaccines will roll out from March 22


The first vaccines produced in Australia will begin to roll out in just over a fortnight, while workers from the Pacific will take part in a “pre-travel quarantine” pilot in a bid to boost COVID-hit sectors.

National cabinet met on Friday for the first time in a month, also agreeing to boost capacity at the Northern Territory’s Howard Springs quarantine facility but state quarantine caps will be unchanged.

Health Department Secretary Brendan Murphy confirmed the first of 50 million AstraZeneca doses to be produced in Victoria would be administered from March 22.

“The value of having onshore production cannot be underestimated. Every country in the world is depending on international supplies (and) they’re seeing them come slowly,” he said.

It comes after Italy blocked a shipment of 250,000 doses of the vaccine, saying Australia’s low case numbers and death toll made it “not vulnerable” to COVID-19.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the move was not unexpected, but underlined the value on vaccines produced onshore.

“That’s why we’ve … ensured that we have our own domestically produced vaccine, and we’re one of few countries that have done that,” he said.

“That has given us sovereignty over our vaccination program, which I think is incredibly important.”

Mr Morrison welcomed the first doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, produced overseas and administered in South Australia on Friday, as “another V day for Australia”.

Professor Murphy revealed more than 70,000 COVID-19 vaccines had been administered in Australia since its rollout began nearly a fortnight ago.

Recipients included about 20,000 residents in 241 aged care facilities.

The prime minister also confirmed workers from Fiji and Vanuatu would take part in a “pre-travel quarantine” to boost COVID-hit sectors as part of the Seasonal Workers Program.

Industries heavily reliant on seasonal workers have been decimated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced international borders to abruptly shut.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced after the meeting South Australia had agreed to run a pilot for pre-travel quarantine, which would see workers quarantine before leaving their home countries.

Capacity at the Northern Territory’s Howard Springs quarantine facility will be boosted by 2000 per fortnight by April or May.

Mr Morrison said the delay was a result of the need to “ramp up” the workforce at the site, which he said was also experiencing issues with the wet season.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has called for the federal government to shift quarantine centres to stem the spread of outbreaks emanating from hotels.

But Mr Morrison said no proper plan was put to him at national cabinet.

“I need a detailed, costed proposal that the Commonwealth could consider,” he said.

“There’s been a lot of going backwards and forwards, but as yet the commonwealth doesn’t have a costed proposal that we could actually consider.”



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Reynolds apologises labelling alleged rape victim ‘lying cow’


Linda Reynolds has apologised to her former staffer Brittany Higgins for calling the alleged rape victim a “lying cow”.

Ms Higgins claimed she was raped in the Defence Minister’s parliamentary office in 2019, and has criticised support given to her in the wake of the alleged crime.

It was revealed on Thursday Ms Reynolds called the alleged victim a “lying cow” in an outburst in front of staff, a revelation that prompted Ms Higgins to threaten legal action.

The Defence Minister offered a public apology to Ms Higgins in a statement released on Friday.

“In response to a letter from Ms Higgins’ lawyers yesterday afternoon, discussions are now under way through our legal representatives in an effort to resolve this matter as soon as possible, with any resolution to include an apology,” she said.

“However, in the meantime, I want to express how deeply sorry I am for these remarks and for any hurt and distress they have caused.”

Ms Reynolds insisted she had never questioned Ms Higgins’ account of the night in question, and said the remark was directed at the alleged victim’s subsequent criticism of the support offered to her.

More to come …



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NSW Police said accuser asked to drop complaint


The woman who alleged she was raped by Christian Porter told police she did not want to proceed with the complaint just days before taking her own life.

NSW Police have released a statement on the historical rape allegation levelled at the Attorney-General, which he vigorously denies, confirming they were in contact with the woman on at least five occasions before she died.

The statement said the woman emailed NSW Police on June 23, 2020, “indicating she no longer felt able to proceed with reporting the matter, citing medical and personal reasons”.

“The woman very clearly articulated in that email that she did not want to proceed with the complaint,” it said.

“She also thanked investigators in this email. She was very grateful for the time and support the investigators provided to her.”

They were then informed by SA Police on June 25, 2020, the woman had taken her own life.

A letter was sent to the Prime Minister last week, including an attachment apparently from the woman alleging she was raped by a senior cabinet minister during a debating competition at Sydney University in 1988.

Mr Porter outed himself on Wednesday as the man at the centre of the allegation but said the incident “simply didn’t happen”.

NSW Police said they only came into possession of a personal document apparently made by the woman, outlining her allegations, after her death.

Detectives first met with the woman in February that year at Kings Cross Police Station in Sydney, where she was accompanied by a friend.

“At this time the primary concern of investigators was victim care and welfare. The woman indicated she had support from a number of sources, including both professional assistance and family support, including her partner,” the statement said.

“Investigators had ongoing contact on at least five occasions with the woman over the next 3 months.

“During the contact had with her, her ongoing welfare was discussed along with a plan for how and when her statement would be taken.”

Approaching Mr Porter with details of her accusation without having obtained a formal statement “would have an impact on any future investigative strategies”, police said.

“Investigative strategies need to be considered as part of this best practice model,” they said.

“It is current standard practice in sexual assault investigative training that upon all of the available information being obtained (in statement form) that the formal allegation can and should be provided to the person of interest as per the procedural fairness principles for investigators, to be able to determine prima facie and whether charging of the person is appropriate.”



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Scott Morrison and Kamala Harris talk China, climate change in phone call


Scott Morrison has discussed Australia and the US’ “shared interests in relation to China” during a phone call with US Vice President Kamala Harris.

The prime minister spoke with Ms Harris on Wednesday morning, when the pair reaffirmed the strength of Australia-US relations.

The pair discussed the countries’ “shared interests in relation to China”, according to a government official, after months of trade tensions between Canberra and Beijing.

“A pleasure to chat with VP Kamala Harris. We’ll strengthen our very strong alliance even further,” Mr Morrison tweeted on Wednesday.

RELATED: Prime Minister Scott Morrison holds first call with US President Joe Biden

Relations between China and Australia have deteriorated rapidly over the past year, and the Biden administration has made positive noises over its willingness to intervene on Australia’s behalf.

In December, now-US national security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the US would lobby the international community to rally around Canberra, after Beijing warned Australia would “pay the price” for siding with the US.

“As we have for a century, America will stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally Australia and rally fellow democracies to advance our shared security, prosperity and values,” he tweeted at the time.

Mr Morrison said he and Ms Harris also discussed strengthening the alliance on security, trade, and climate change during their phone call.

Labor has argued President Joe Biden’s election offered the government a chance to reset Australia’s stance on climate change.

The new President has reversed a number of Trump administration policies and committed to a net zero emissions target by 2050.

Mr Morrison has refused to commit to the target, but said his government wanted to reach net zero “as soon as possible”.

And with deaths from COVID-19 topping 500,000 in the US, the pair also discussed their respective responses.

The prime minister revealed in November his government would share its COVID-19 Contact Tracing Review with the incoming-administration.

“(Mr Biden) was very interested in Australia’s success and it’s obviously the top of his priority list,” Mr Morrison said at the time.

The Prime Minister has invited Mr Biden to visit on the 70th anniversary of the ANZUS Treaty, signed in April 1951.

He said Mr Biden was “enthusiastic” about the prospect.



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A million AstraZeneca doses in vials ‘ready to be packed’


Over a million doses of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine are already sitting in vials ahead of their rollout later this month.

Around 15 million vials of the vaccine were being stored in freezers at minus 80 degrees, representatives for drug manufacturer CSL told a Senate inquiry on Tuesday.

CSL has begun production of the AstraZeneca vaccine ahead of its rollout at the end of the month.

The company’s Christopher Larkins said it expected to “hit a run rate of well over” a million doses per week.

“I was just down at our freezers earlier today, and there are well over a million doses sitting there in vials ready to be packed,” he said.

RELATED: CSL rules out making AstraZeneca, Novavax at the same time

“Our expectation is we will hit a run rate of well over a million doses a week. We will start releasing the product around the end of March, and we hope to hit a million doses or more after that time.”

Rollout would be in rounds of 300,000 doses, he said.

It would be subject to an approval process between CSL, AstraZeneca, and the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA), taking “a day or two, if not hours”.

The vaccine was one of two granted approval by the TGA, alongside the Pfizer vaccine, and the only to be manufactured in Australia.

The federal government has ordered more than 53 million doses of the jab, 50 million to be manufactured onshore.

It argued onshore production would incubate Australia from global supply chain issues.

But concerns have been raised over the efficacy of vaccines in the face of new COVID-19 variants, with the prospect of yearly vaccinations to combat mutations.

CSL’s Beverley Menner confirmed the company was “open to the possibility” of working with AstraZeneca as it adapted its vaccine to virus mutations.

“We work very closely with them on the current vaccine and the process there, but we’re also having broader conversations with them about what the world might need out of this vaccine down the track,” Dr Menner said.

Mr Larkins said CSL could be in a position to manufacture and release new variant vaccines by the end of the year.

The company said adapting to COVID-19 variants would require “fairly minor” changes to its set-up.

But Mr Larkins warned switching to a different vaccine would be a far more complex, cost-intensive task.

“That will take much more effort, probably completely new equipment and refitting out our clean rooms and processes differently,” he said.

The pair said CSL was open to producing other vaccines after it finished its manufacture of the AstraZeneca jab and if requested to do so by the government.

But they reiterated the company could not manufacture two vaccines concurrently.



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Aged care levy could cost Australian taxpayers $610 each year


Australians could be hit with a tax $610 tax hike under a Medicare-style levy proposed to fix the aged care system.

The aged care royal commission released its final report on Monday, outlining 148 recommendations as part of an extensive overhaul of the sector.

Both commissioners – Lynelle Briggs and Tony Pagone – recommended some form of levy, but were at loggerheads over how it would function.

Mr Pagone recommended a Medicare-style levy with funds required to be diverted to the aged care sector.

RELATED:Aged Care Royal Commission hands down final report

Ms Briggs urged the government to introduce a general, 1 per cent “aged care improvement levy”, sourced from personal taxable income.

That would increase Australia’s overall tax revenue, which could be used on aged care.

That would cost the median person who paid the Medicare levy roughly $610 annually and raise nearly $8b for the aged care centre, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.

Just under 10 million Australians would pay extra income tax as a result, it reported.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has not ruled out the Medicare-style levy in response to the damning findings.

Health Minister Greg Hunt refused to commit to either proposal, but said the government’s “formal response” would be revealed in the May budget.

He said the commissioners disagreed “in good faith” over the levy.

“That is absolutely fine and understandable. This is one of those areas where commissioners presented different views,” he said.

“Yesterday we announced a $452m response with a five-year, five-pillar plan for aged care (which) above all focuses on the needs of individuals.

“The full formal response to the commission will come during the course of the budget and all of those elements … will be covered as part of that.”

National Seniors Australia chief advocate Ian Henschke said an increased Medicare levy may be the “quickest way” to pump much-needed money into the aged care sector.

But he warned safeguards needed to be put in place to ensure the money was not “chewed up” by administration fees.

“Let’s just say $5 billion extra aged care and half of that gets goes straight through to the people that are running the care package. Is that worthwhile? No, it’s not,” he told Sky News.

“There should be a forensic analysis of how that money gets through to the care recipient.”

Labor leader Anthony Albanese said the report, which found shocking levels of malnutrition in Australian aged care centres, was an “damning indictment” on the government.

“Whether it be the people who’ve died waiting for homecare packages or for people who are in residential aged care, what we need is proper funding, we need some real regulation and control, and we need to deal with workforce issues,” he said.

“Quite clearly, the neglect that is there whereby we have elderly Australians who aren’t getting the right nutrition, who aren’t getting the right care, is an indictment.”



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Minister rape allegation: NSW Police close investigation


NSW Police has confirmed there is “insufficient evidence” to proceed with an investigation into an historical rape allegation levelled at a cabinet minister.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison received an anonymous letter last week, including an attachment outlining historical allegations of an alleged rape committed by the man before he entered politics.

The woman claimed she was raped in 1988 in the document, which was referred to the Australian Federal Police.

She died in June 2020 after taking her own life in Adelaide, having reported the matter to police in 2019.

But NSW Police, which has been the lead agency in the case since 2020, confirmed the matter closed due to insufficient evidence in a statement on Tuesday.

“For various reasons, the woman did not detail her allegations in a formal statement to NSW Police,” it read.

“Following the woman’s death, NSW Police came into possession of a personal document purportedly made by the woman previously.

“NSW Police have since sought legal advice in relation to these matters.

“Based on information provided to NSW Police, there is insufficient admissible evidence to proceed.

“As such, NSW Police Force has determined the matter is now closed.”

Mr Morrison on Monday rejected calls for an independent inquiry into the allegation, saying it was a matter for the police.



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Teenagers launch class action against Sussan Ley over Vickery coal mine


A group of teenagers has taken Environment Minister Sussan Ley to court, claiming her approval of a NSW coal mine violates her duty of care to future generations.

A group of eight teenagers from around Australia are driving a class action against an extension to the Vickery coal mine in regional NSW, given the green light by Ms Ley.

The landmark case, which is in the Federal Court on Tuesday, could have dramatic implications for the future of the country’s energy.

The 16-year old lead complainant Anj Sharma warned the project would burn roughly 370 billion tonnes of carbon emissions over its lifetime if it went ahead.

“She really needs to understand that she’s the one who’s making decisions that we are going to live with, that we are going to have to raise the next generation under,” she said.

RELATED: Climate change in Australia: Reality check as ‘net-zero’ 2050 target not enough to fulfil Paris Agreement

“She owes a duty of care to all young people (and) to all marginalised people to make decisions that will guarantee a secure future for us.

“By approving this coal mine she (is) choosing (to) directly violate that duty of care. This is not the path that we can afford to have Australia and the world on.”

The group is headed by their legal guardian, 86-year old nun Sister Brigid Arthur.

The group was approached after the 2019 School Strike 4 Climate marches by lawyers who had been working on case theory “for a very long time”, Anj revealed.

If successful, their case could set a precedent preventing the federal government from approving future coal mines.

Anj said their legal team was “really excited” about its prospects but claimed the group was “building momentum” regardless of its success in court.

“I wish I was a fortune teller, but I really can’t tell you (whether the case would be successful),” she said.

“(But) this is a monumental case whether it wins or not. I’m really proud, and all the other students are really proud, to be doing something against the coal mine.”

Anj said an increasing number of natural disasters globally showed it was time for Australia to shift its energy focus to renewables.

“The world is facing the climate crisis and people are becoming climate refugees. We are at a point right now in the world where we just can’t let that happen,” she said.

“This coal mine will not be the right path to the future.”

Ms Ley declined to comment on a case before the courts.

A similar case brought by teenagers in the Netherlands was successful in 2019 when a Dutch court ordered the government to curb emissions by 25 per cent.

It was the first time a nation was ordered to take action on climate by its courts.

It followed a group of Colombians, aged between seven and 26, successfully suing their government in 2018 over its failure to halt deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.

The ruling also established the Amazon rainforest itself had rights, which the government was duty bound to protect.



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