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Covid news live: Australia braces for Omicron as states and territories tighten border restrictions

The Guardian
The Guardian
 2021-11-28

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12.36am GMT

Australia’s federal opposition leader, Anthony Albanese , has weighed in on the government’s plan to introduce legislation holding social media giants liable for anonymous users’ defamatory posts.

The AAP reports that Albanese agreed with the sentiment of the government’s announcement but said it must be delivered on.

“The government needs to explain how it can deal with the fact that domestic controls have limitations for what is a global industry,” Albanese told reporters in Melbourne.

12.27am GMT

12.25am GMT

QLD records three new local Covid-19 cases

12.15am GMT

The Australian state of New South Wales is sticking with its reopening plan, amid concerns surrounding the Omicron variant.

NSW premier Dominic Perrottet said it was “inevitable” that more variants will emerge and enter Australia, and said the state was taking a “precautionary approach” with the changes to international arrivals announced yesterday.

“The clear point today is that this clearly demonstrates the pandemic is not over.”

“We need to learn to live alongside the virus and to live alongside the various strains of the virus that will come our way, and the best thing we can do is get vaccinated and get booster shots.”

“There are limits to what the state and federal government can do: these variants will get into the country, it is inevitable.”

Yesterday, the government announced that hotel quarantine will return for travellers who had recently been in South Africa.

“Urgent” genomic sequencing is under way after two passengers on a Qatar Airways flight arrived in Sydney last night.

Perrottet confirmed that 29 people arrived in Sydney yesterday, after spending time in southern Africa.

Updated at 12.26am GMT

12.12am GMT

Australia’s federal health minister, Greg Hunt , said that the prime minister, and the chief health officer and him are meeting with their state and territory counterparts to discuss developments around the Omicron Covid-19 variant.

We won’t hesitate if more is needed to take those steps. As we did our first briefing on Friday, we foreshadowed that ... he would take steps. And overnight international evidence came in and we took the immediate steps yesterday and will continue todo that to protect Australians. Yesterday, there were over 3,800 passengers who arrived in Australia and the relevant public health orders; 54 were from southern Africa. They had been there and identified in the previous 14 days across the nine countries and what we are pleased to see is that all of the orders that were issued yesterday had been put in place, actions had been taken, Border Force is implementing, state and territory and public health is supporting. I thank everybody for their part in that work.

Updated at 12.15am GMT

12.08am GMT

The Australian state of South Australia has tightened its border rules following the emergence of the Omicron Covid-19 variant, AAP reports .

All international travellers and people arriving in SA from high-risk locations in Australia will once again be required to quarantine for 14 days.

People arriving from lower-risk locations interstate must also have a coronavirus test within the 72 hours prior to arrival and must show proof of a negative result.

The provision for people to have a COVID-19 test after they arrive in SA and isolate until they get a negative result has been removed.

The changes come days after SA lifted most of its border restrictions, which led to a number of infections being detected in interstate arrivals.

With three new cases on Saturday, the state is currently managing eight active infections.

Australia has shut its borders to nine southern African countries and NSW, Victoria, SA and the ACT have brought in new rules for all international arrivals amid concern over Omicron.

Urgent genomic sequencing is also under way to determine whether two people, who tested positive for the virus in Sydney overnight after spending time in Africa, have the variant.

Updated at 12.10am GMT

11.55pm GMT

Social media companies will be deemed the 'publisher' of defamatory posts, under Australian law

Attorney general Michaelia Cash is providing more detail about the government’s new legislation concerning social media giants.

The “social media anti-trolling legislation” will do two things.

First, it will overturn the high court decision that found social media page owners will be considered as publishers of defamatory comments left by users on their pages, even if they did not know about those third-party comments.

Under the government’s legislation, social media services will be deemed the publisher. It will specifically state that the social media page user – like a small business or a newspaper – won’t be deemed as the publisher.

Second, the legislation will give social media companies a defence from being the publisher if they have a complaints procedure in place for defamatory and harmful posts. Under the complains process, the social media company will need to provide complainants with the details of the online troll, such as their email address, mobile phone number, or other relevant details. Cash explains this is so the complainant can take defamation action against the anonymous user.

Updated at 12.10am GMT

11.42pm GMT

Government to introduce legislation holding social media companies accountable for trolls

Scott Morrison announces that the government will introduce legislation to hold social media companies accountable for defamatory and harmful posts by online trolls:

Digital platforms – these online companies – must have proper processes to enable the takedown of this content. There needs to be an easy and quick and fast way for people to raise these issues with these platforms and get it taken down. They have that responsibility. They have created this world. They have created the space, and they need to make it safe, and if they won’t, we will make them laws such as this, and I will campaign for these all around the world as I have done on so many other occasions with Australia taking the lead. We simply want them to make it a safe place. They will need those simple procedures.

Secondly, it is important that we understand that they are the publishers at the end of the day. Just like the media who is here today who represent the traditional media, papers that are published, news bulletins that are broadcast, we all know who is putting that to air and who is putting the ink on the paper, and they are responsible and they are accountable for what is published in those mediums. So, too, should it be for these digital online companies that allow these things to be aired and published on their platforms. And where people do not identify themselves, or the digital companies provide shields – a digital shield to trolls and bots and bullies and bigots – well, we will hold them accountable for the statements that are made and they will be liable for what is said.

Updated at 11.50pm GMT

11.37pm GMT

Scott Morrison press conference

The prime minister is holding a press conference. Scott Morrison starts by acknowledging the growing concern around Omicron.

But he is here to speak about the government’s new bill to hold social media companies to account for defamatory and harmful posts by anonymous users:

The online world provides many great opportunities but it comes with some real risks and we must address these, or it will continue to have a very harmful and corrosive impact on our society, on our community ... The online world should not be a wild west where bots and bigots and trolls and others are anonymously going around and can harm people and hurt people, harass them and bully them and sledge them.

Morrison adds that women are one of the “biggest victims when it comes to the terrible things that we see in the online world”.

Updated at 11.49pm GMT

11.29pm GMT

Vulnerable women attempting to escape domestic violence are being offered “false hope” by a government program that potentially could be putting them at greater risk, frontline service workers say.

The two-year $145m escaping violence payment trial was billed as a one-off payment of up to $5,000 to “ help women establish a life free of violence ”.

In reality, the program offers eligible people up to $1,500 in cash, with the remainder paid in vouchers or direct payments to schools or rental bond agencies. In the month the trial has been running, frontline services are already pleading for clarity over who is eligible and how the payment works.

Read the full story by Amy Remeikis :

Related: ‘False hope’: family violence program could be putting women at greater risk, critics say

Updated at 11.48pm GMT

11.22pm GMT

New South Wales premier Dominic Perrotte t , federal health minister Greg Hunt , and opposition leader Anthony Albanese are also all expected to give updates soon. It’s going to be a busy few hours.

Updated at 11.27pm GMT

11.13pm GMT

Scott Morrison is expected to speak to reporters shortly. Standing by!

Updated at 11.21pm GMT

11.05pm GMT

Minister for women’s safety Anne Ruston told ABC Insiders this morning that the government plans to introduce legislation to prevent social media platforms from allowing anonymous users to post material that is going to be defamatory or damaging or cause injury to an individual.

Updated at 11.21pm GMT

11.01pm GMT

The federal government is moving ahead with its plan to allow travellers from Japan and South Korea to come to Australia without quarantining from Wednesday, despite concerns around the new Omicron Covid-19 variant.

Our friends at AAP have the story:

Allowing travellers from Japan and South Korea into Australia without needing to quarantine from Wednesday will go ahead as planned at this stage, Trade Minister Dan Tehan says.

However, the Morrison government is keeping a watchful eye on developments surrounding the new Omicron variant of the coronavirus.

Australia has shut its borders to nine southern African countries and NSW, Victoria and the ACT have brought in new rules for all international arrivals amid concern over Omicron.

“We think that’s got the balance right at the moment,” Mr Tehan told Sky News’ Sunday Agenda program from Geneva.

“But obviously there is more work to be done in understanding this new variant and the potential impacts it might have.”

Mr Tehan had travelled to Switzerland for a World Trade Organization ministerial meeting, only to find it had been cancelled because of the clampdown on travellers from the southern African states.

Urgent genomic sequencing is under way to determine whether two people, who tested positive for the virus in Sydney overnight after spending time in Africa, have the Omicron variant.

The two arrivals are in special health accommodation and 12 others on the flight from Doha who had been in the region will do two weeks’ mandatory quarantine …

NSW, Victoria and the ACT will make all overseas arrivals quarantine at home for 72 hours. People already in the state who have been in the nine countries in the past two weeks must isolate for 14 days and be immediately tested.

Anyone in those jurisdictions who have been to the nine southern African countries in the past 14 days must get a PCR test and quarantine immediately.

South Australia extended the length of its quarantine requirement for fully vaccinated Australian international arrivals to two weeks, and made small changes to its interstate arrival regime.

West Australian Premier Mark McGowan announced SA would be designated “low risk”, introducing a quarantine requirement for international arrivals from the state.

Tasmania will bar entry to people who have been in southern Africa unless they have first completed two weeks of supervised quarantine on the mainland.

Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said Omicron was spreading quickly, but it wasn’t clear that it caused more severe symptoms than existing strains.

It is not yet known whether existing vaccines are any less effective against the new variant than prevailing strains.

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Federal government says it will continue with its plan to allow travellers from Japan and South Korea to come to Australia without quarantining from Wednesday, despite concerns around the new Omicron Covid-19 variant. Photograph: Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Getty Images

Updated at 12.24am GMT

10.55pm GMT

Finally, David Speers asks Anne Ruston about her work as minister for women’s safety. He asks when we will expect to see the draft national plan to prevent violence against women and children, given that Ruston’s department promised it would be public by the end of the year.

Ruston says:

We will release the draft plan this year, but obviously take the opportunity to make any changes that may come from that consultation.

Speers also asks about how, six months ago, Ruston announced an extension of two years of funding for frontline family and domestic violence support services.

Ruston says New South Wales is the only state that has received the funding because “no other state has signed up the documentation”:

Obviously we’re very keen for them to do so and would certainly encourage them to sign the documentation so the money can flow, but at this stage we have not received any advice to suggest that states and territories are requiring the money immediately, but of course the money has been promised and the money will be delivered.

Updated at 10.57pm GMT

10.48pm GMT

Speers moves on to ask Ruston about new legislation the government is expected to introduce this week which will target online trolls. He asks how the government plans to stop social media bullying:

Ruston:

Well, what this particular bill that we’re proposing to bring in this week does two things: One is to say to social media platforms you cannot allow somebody to post material that is going to be defamatory or damaging or cause injury to an individual anonymously and get away with it. So what we now seek to do is have a mechanism where there is a complaints mechanism, so if somebody thinks that they are being defamed, bullied or attacked on social media that they will have an opportunity to require the platform to take it down, and if they fail to do so, then there will be a court process that would allow that person to require the platform to provide details of the identity of the abusive or defaming identity so that they can take the necessary processes through ... the court process. It is absolutely unacceptable that a platform can shirk its responsibility to say: “Well, we don’t know who it is, so you just go ahead and defame and bully.” We’ve seen the consequences of this so many times in Australia.

Speers:

But this is the thing, if you are going to say to Twitter and Facebook that they have to identify every one of their users, they might just laugh and say, “OK, we will not operate in Australia.” Do you think they could possibly ... identify all of their billions of users?

Ruston:

Well, I would really like to see any of these platforms stand up and say that they think it’s acceptable that they hide behind the anonymity of bots and bullies and bigots online ... I think the whole world should be asking these platforms to take an absolutely much more responsible approach with how they deal with this. We’ve seen people take their own lives as a result of some of this behaviour from anonymous bullies and it’s just not acceptable. You can’t do it in real life, you can’t do it offline, so why should you be allowed online?

Speers points out that the eSafety commissioner has said it would be challenging for Facebook to identify or reidentify its 2.7 billion users. So how is the government going to be able to get Facebook and Twitter to go back and do this?

There is a lot of back and forth as Ruston says the government needs to “work out how we can get past some of the challenges” and Speers again asks whether this is impractical.

He then asks whether the government is worried if these social media platforms threaten to shut down in Australia rather than comply with its demands?

Ruston:

I think the government will be working with likeminded nations around the world. We’ve seen the UK take a likeminded approach. Collectively nations around the world need to protect their citizens from this really insidious new way of bullying.

Updated at 10.55pm GMT

10.39pm GMT

Speers asks about the “number of criticisms” of the Coalition’s draft bill for a national integrity commission, pointing out that “even some of your own colleagues have concerns”.

Speers:

Under that model, politicians can only be questioned secretly. There would be no transparency for public to see what’s going on. A federal police officer, however, would have to face a full public hearing. Does that different standard make any sense?

Ruston:

Well, one of the things that we do need to be really careful of is that you don’t set up a structure that then allows for political purpose and political gain; [that allows for] one party to actually prosecute somebody from another party just for the political gain. We’ve seen the shadow attorney general try to refer numerous things in relation to political gamesmanship, and we need to make sure that doesn’t happen. Equally, doesn’t matter who you are in public life, if you are found to be corrupt, then there are processes that need to be put in place and will be put in place. There are existing mechanisms in a lot of areas and what this bill seeks to do is to fill the gap that says serious corruption needs to be dealt with appropriately, but we mustn’t let this turn into something that is some sort of a sideshow. It must befit for purpose.

Speers:

Just before we leave this area, though, on the process: you are sticking with the original model, but you won’t introduce it unless Labor now comes out and says what they are going todo?

Ruston:

Well, I think a bipartisan approach to something as important as an integrity commission would send a very strong message to the Australian public that all of us take seriously the issue of serious corruption, and I would be delighted if the Labor party was prepared to come forward and support this. This – our particular bill suggests that the powers of the commission are well in excess of a royal commission, so I think it is a good balanced bill that balances out, asI said, calling out corruption, but at the same time protecting the innocence of those until they’re proven guilty.

Updated at 10.52pm GMT

10.35pm GMT

David Speers turns to the government’s national integrity commission (or lack thereof). He asks if the government will introduce any legislation for a federal corruption watchdog to come before the parliament at the end of the year?

The minister blames Labor for the government’s inaction.

Anne Ruston:

I think the prime minister has been very clear, as has the attorney general. If the Labor party are prepared to support the legislation that is currently before them, then we will bring it into the parliament and we will pass it as quickly as they will allow us to.

Speers points out the fact that the government hasn’t introduced any legislation for a corruption watchdog: “Hang on, you are in government. You need to bring it into parliament. You can’t blame Labor when you haven’t brought anything to parliament?”

Ruston:

Well, one of the most important things for something as important as an integrity commission is to make sure it passes. The last thing we want to do is bring a bill into this place and then find out it won’t get through ... The bill provided to the Labor party that we sought their support 12 months ago is the bill that we currently wish to bring into the parliament and we are asking for the Labor party support because we believe that the bill is a fair balance between making sure that serious corruption is called out and dealt with, but at the same time we want to maintain the rule of law in this country and that is that you must be presumed innocent until you’re proven guilty, and need to be really careful you’re not convicted in the court of public opinion before you have a chance to put your case forward.

Updated at 10.42pm GMT

10.30pm GMT

First up, David Speers asks Anne Ruston whether any of the Coalition men who crossed the floor this week were called into a meeting the prime minister, or only Bridget Archer ?

Ruston:

Well, David, I think it’s an entirely reasonable proposition when somebody expresses an opinion different to government policy and then acts on it, the prime minister would seek to find out what their concerns were in an effort to try and resolve them, and that’s exactly consistent with how the prime minister would deal with any other backbencher that sought to cross the floor. And I can assure you that the prime minister did meet with Senator Antic and Senator Rennick last week, as he would have met, I’m sure, with every other Liberal party senator who crossed the floor in the time he has been prime minister.

Speers points to the fact that Archer told news.com.au political editor Samantha Maiden that she wasn’t comfortable at her meeting with the prime minister and had wanted more time to collect herself before speaking to him. Speers asks if, given that, it was appropriate for her to be brought before him straight away?

Ruston:

I don’t know the circumstances in how the meeting was ... but what I do know is that it was entirely consistent. [There was] nothing different about the prime minister wanting to meet with Bridget Archer than at any other time. I’m absolutely confident that the prime minister wanted to meet with Bridget because he wanted to know what her concerns were – because we always as a government want to resolve those concerns.

Updated at 10.40pm GMT

10.26pm GMT

Minister for women’s safety A nne Ruston is speaking to David Speers on ABC Insiders.

10.20pm GMT

Hunter River towns ordered to evacuate

An evacuation order has been issued to residents of towns along the Hunter River in NSW as rising flood waters threaten power and water services, AAP reports.

Widespread heavy rainfall led to flooding across much of the state.

Rain eased on Saturday afternoon, with not much forecast for Sunday.

However, the statewide situation remains volatile, with numerous watches and warnings active following a month of heavy rainfall.

More than 30 people have been rescued from floodwaters since Friday lunchtime. The SES has received more than 745 requests for help.

In the Hunter, major flooding is on the cards in Singleton for Sunday morning, and Maitland is also on alert.

On Monday, the Macquarie River at Warren could also reach high levels.

Areas of major concern include along the Namoi River at Gunnedah, in the state’s northeast, and the Castlereagh River around Coonamble in the central west.

The Bureau of Meteorology said some areas of the state were hit with more than 100mm of rain on Friday.

On Saturday evening, there were major flood warnings for the Lachlan at Jemalong and the Namoi at Narrabri and Wee Waa, where it’s feared residents could be cut off for more than a week.

Sydney’s Warragamba Dam began spilling shortly after 9pm on Friday.

WaterNSW said the outflow volume could peak at a rate of about 60-80 gigalitres per day, just a fraction of levels in March that peaked at 500 gigalitres per day.

“On current projections the spill could continue for up to a week,” WaterNSW said in a statement on Saturday, adding “downstream impacts are likely”.

Premier Dominic Perrottet on Saturday urged residents to follow safety advice and avoid driving through flooding,

The number of flood rescues performed by SES volunteers was “way too high”, he said.

“Those rescues take place in the main because people aren’t following the instructions, they’re driving through floodwaters. Don’t do that. Follow the advice, that’s the best way to stay safe.”

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The Warragamba Dam spillway. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Updated at 12.35am GMT

10.11pm GMT

NSW records 185 new local Covid-19 cases and no deaths

Updated at 10.18pm GMT

10.09pm GMT

Victoria records 1,061 new local Covid-19 cases and four deaths

Updated at 10.18pm GMT

10.07pm GMT

About 40 years ago this week, Australia’s intelligence agency, the Office of National Assessments, delivered a 17-page report to prime minister Malcolm Fraser .

The subject? “Fossil Fuels and the Greenhouse Effect”.

Read about how Australia’s spy agency predicted the climate crisis 40 years ago – and fretted about coal exports here:

Related: Australia’s spy agency predicted the climate crisis 40 years ago – and fretted about coal exports

Updated at 10.18pm GMT

10.00pm GMT

Prime minister Scott Morrison is expected to hold a press conference at 10am.

Updated at 10.08pm GMT

9.55pm GMT

The Northern Territory has two new Covid-19 cases, including an international traveller from South Africa.

Our friends at AAP have the story:

The Northern Territory has two new COVID-19 cases, one an arrival on a repatriation flight from South Africa where the new and heavily mutated Omicron variant has been detected.

Authorities as yet have no genomic sequencing in relation to the passenger’s infection strain, Health Minister Natasha Fyles says.

However the person has been in supervised quarantine at the national Howard Springs facility, south of Darwin, since arriving, she told reporters on Saturday.

“So there is a very low risk to the community and we wish that person well,” Ms Fyles said.

NT health chief Dr Charles Pain says he expects the sequencing test results for the South African case to be processed by Monday.

The passenger arrived in Darwin on Thursday and his positive virus result was confirmed on Friday evening.

The Northern Territory’s other infection was locally acquired and is of a 50-year-old man from Katherine who is a household contact of an existing case.

He has also been housed at Howard Springs during his entire infectious period and is considered a non-risk.

Updated at 10.07pm GMT

9.49pm GMT

Omicron cases confirmed in Italy, Germany and UK

Around the world, health authorities are racing to test and track down cases of the Omicron variant.

Confirmed cases have so far been detected in Italy, Germany and the UK.

The UK has already banned travel from several southern African nations.

UK prime minister Boris Johnston announced that other travellers will have to take a PCR test by the second day of their arrival and self-isolate until they have a negative result. Face coverings will become compulsory in shops and on public transport in the UK from next week.

Dr Anthony Fauci , the director of America’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told NBC News that he “not be surprised” if the Omicron variant was already in the United States.

Updated at 10.17pm GMT

9.40pm GMT

We have more detail about the two travellers from southern Africa who tested positive for Covid-19 in Sydney.

A Qatar Airways flight from Doha landed in Sydney about 7pm last night. Fourteen of the passengers were from one of the nine southern African countries: South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini, Malawi and the Seychelles.

The passengers were tested on arrival. Two of them tested positive for Covid-19 and urgent genomic sequencing is under way to determine if they have been infected by the new Omicron B.1.1.529 variant.

The two passengers have been transported to the special health accommodation where they will undertake 14 days of quarantine, according to NSW Health.

All travellers who have been in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini, Malawi and the Seychelles during the 14-day period before their arrival in NSW must enter hotel quarantine for 14 days.

NSW Health says other passengers on the flight may be also considered close contacts and will be contacted and requested to get tested immediately then isolate for 14 days in accordance with a public health order.

Updated at 9.51pm GMT

9.33pm GMT

Good morning

Good morning! It’s Justine Landis-Hanley here to bring you the news today, Sunday 28 November 2021.

Australia is bracing for Omicron as states and territories tighten border restrictions for overseas arrivals. The variant has already been detected in UK and across Europe.

Urgent genomic testing is underway in Sydney after two travellers from southern African nations tested positive for Covid-19. The flight arrived in Sydney last night. Health authorities are trying to work out whether they carry the heavily mutated Omicron variant.

A traveller who arrived in the Northern Territory on a repatriation flight from South Africa has t ested positive for Covid-19. Authorities are now testing to determine whether the person is infected with the Omicron variant. The traveller has been in supervised quarantine at the national Howard Springs facility, south of Darwin, since arriving.

The federal government yesterday closed international borders to non-citizens arriving from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini, Malawi and the Seychelles. Anyone who has already arrived in Australia from these countries needs to begin a 14-day quarantine.

New South Wales and Victoria also announced that all vaccinated travellers from other countries would be required to isolate for 72 hours on arrival into their states.

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