Resetting Australia’s troubled COVID-19 vaccine rollout at top of National Cabinet agenda


Resetting Australia’s troubled COVID-19 vaccine rollout will be the focus of a National Cabinet meeting today, as the nation’s leaders gather to urgently get the program back on track. 

The federal government has blamed the sluggish rollout on vaccine supply issues overseas, with GPs complaining they have received as few as 40 doses to distribute a week.

Some doctors say public confidence in the vaccine rollout is fading, and urgently needs to be restored if there is any hoping of completing it by the end of the year.

The government has also had to overhaul its rollout plans after receiving updated medical advice recommending people under the age of 50 get the Pfizer vaccine over AstraZeneca due to concerns about blood clots.

Starting from today, National Cabinet will be meeting twice a week to address those issues and Mr Morrison said the states will discuss their plans to open mass vaccination centres to accelerate the rollout.

“I know some states are very interested in supporting larger vaccination programs now for people aged 50 to 70 and we are very open to discussing that with the states and looking forward to that discussion tomorrow,” Mr Morrison said on Sunday.

Victoria announced on Sunday it will open three mass-vaccination hubs for Australians eligible for the shot, after similar announcements from the New South Wales and South Australian governments. 

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Professor Brendan Murphy explains the changes to Australia’s vaccine rollout.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said the nation’s leaders would today discuss how mass vaccination centres would be run in tandem with GP clinics which are already administering the jabs.

“If states wish to expand their offerings then that’s an option that is available to them individually and there is no one-size-fits-all model that each state and territory will have options going forward,” he said on Sunday.

“We need to be honest that the global challenge with the scientific information, which it was our duty to make sure was considered by ATAGI, and when they made the recommendations, has meant that there are elements that we are reviewing through the National Cabinet.”

Calls for GPs to issue Pfizer shots

Some doctors say the greatest threat facing the rollout is not the practical issues it faces, but the fading public confidence they are causing.

Dr Omar Khorshid from the Australian Medical Association said in many respects the rollout is tracking quite well, but is being weighed down by the perception it is failing.

“It has been characterised as something that’s chaotic and missing its targets, and with vaccines that are of questionable safety, and the most of that isn’t actually true,” he said.

“But it’s critical that our state governments and our federal government work together to demonstrate to Australians that they’re on top of this, and that they will roll out these vaccines in a safe and effective way by the end of the year.”

Pfizer is going to play a much more significant part in the vaccine rollout, as it is now the preferred vaccine for Australians under 50.

Dr Karen Price from the Royal Australasian College of GP’s said that means questions around supply must be clearly answered and communicated.

And she said GP’s will have to be given the capacity to administer Pfizer doses.

“I think we’re going to need all hands on deck here,” she said. 

“It won’t be for every practice. And that’s okay.”

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Why isn’t Australia ordering the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

Scott Morrison last week abandoned a target to offer a first vaccine dose to all Australians by October, arguing there was too much uncertainty. 

Speaking on Sunday, opposition health spokesman Mark Butler said the national cabinet meeting was an opportunity for the Prime Minister to set new goals.

“Scott Morrison must outline a clear plan — to replace his current failed one — that has targets, that has timelines and that has milestones that allow Australians, and Australian businesses, to plan for the future,” he said.

“Tomorrow’s National Cabinet meeting is an opportunity for states to step in and fix his mess.”

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Australia’s slow vaccine rollout in aged care prompted one provider to go it alone


Australia’s progress in vaccinating some of its highest-priority citizens has been slower than anyone wanted, but one Melbourne aged care provider is streets ahead of the rest.

In the next few weeks, private provider TLC Aged Care is likely to become the first residential aged care company to have all residents and staff fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

They’ve got there by taking matters into their own hands.

“We really didn’t want our residents, staff or contractors to endure another winter with the nervousness and trepidation that they have endured over the last 16 months,” CEO Lou Pascuzzi said.

“We’ve got immunisation capabilities and primary care capabilities.

“We decided to approach the government …  and ask for permission to administer phase 1a ourselves.”

The federal government agreed to send Pfizer doses, and TLC Aged Care started immunising in the second week of March.

“We’re now three weeks away from completing double doses for all of our 1,500 residents and 2,000 staff and contractors,” Mr Pascuzzi said.

The company is also claiming a high uptake rate for the vaccine, with 91.25 per cent of staff and residents taking up the opportunity to get a shot.

But the TLC model is not one that can be rolled out widely in aged care, as most residential homes don’t have the medical facilities or expertise to deliver immunisations.

Nationally, around 153,000 doses have been administered in the Commonwealth aged care rollout as of yesterday.

That represents around a quarter of the vaccination program for just residents of aged care homes.

Vaccinations have taken place in at least 1,121 sites, representing around 40 per cent of all residential aged care homes.

Many homes still don’t know when they’ll get a visit from Commonwealth vaccination teams, including Alwyndor aged care in Adelaide’s south.

“The rollout has been slower than we’d anticipated — a number of care homes in the surrounding areas have had theirs,” said general manager Beth Davidson-Park said.

The vast majority of the doses in the sector have so far gone to residents, with workers in the sector waiting on the sidelines.

They may be waiting some time.

The changed advice for the administration of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to those under 50 means those workers no longer have a timeline on which they’ll be inoculated.

“Our advice to staff has been to contact their GP and get their vaccination independently of work,” Ms Davidson-Park said.

The Prime Minister said his priority is still to vaccinate those most vulnerable in our community in phases 1a and 1b, “particularly those Australians aged over 70”.

“Right now, our focus is on vaccinating people for whom the AstraZeneca vaccine does not present a challenge,” Scott Morrison said yesterday.

“Those supplies are continuing to roll out.”

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Australia’s worst motel, the Stay Inn, for sale


A notorious Melbourne motel — described as Australia’s worst — is on the market, likely to be redeveloped into apartments.

On Sydney Road in Coburg, the Stay Inn was Melbourne’s worst-rated accommodation on travel review website Trip Advisor — rated before it closed to guests in 2019.

Visitors described it as a “slum”, finding bullet holes in the glass and having “fled” without staying a night.

“We literally fled the premise in fear of our lives before we even stayed a night,” one visitor wrote.

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“The scariest motel experience me and my family have ever had,” another said. “Do not stay here. Ever,” wrote yet another.

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The former motel is now derelict. Image: YouTube

The motel’s reputation was so bad it inspired a Vice documentary team to spend four months filming the residents and workers at the motel.

It has now been shuttered, but when it was opened operated as a commercial motel as well as crisis accommodation for homeless people and others in need of accommodation.

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When it was open, the Stay Inn operated as a commercial motel and crisis accommodation.

Colliers’ Joe Kairouz, who is marketing the property alongside Colliers colleague Ted Dwyer and NSL Property’s Guy Naselli, said the site was “quintessentially Coburg”.

“Coburg has certainly experienced growth and gentrification, it’s known as an old industrial area,” Mr Kairouz said. The nearby Pentridge Prison estate is the most prominent example of regeneration in the area, he said. That infamous prison will be developed into a shopping centre with cafes, a cinema, a hotel and apartments.

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With three street frontages, the property is likely to have some commercial elements on Sydney Rd.

Mr Kairouz said he didn’t think the site’s colourful history would worry any buyers, and nearby residents would be happy to see the site transformed.

“You have to look at it as a blank canvas,” he said. “From the viewpoint of the residents, I’m sure they’d love to see a development on the site.”

He said he’d expect the buyer to develop the 2787-square-metre site into apartments or townhouses, with some of the street frontage on Sydney Road to be for commercial use – shops, cafes, and possibly offices. It is zoned for mixed use and for general residential use. The vendors are also currently looking to renew a planning permit to refurbish the motel into a mixed-height building up to four storeys for combined residential and motel use.

The asking price is more than $4.5 million, and expressions of interest close on May 6.

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Australia’s Milly Tapper targeting Tokyo Paralympics medal in table tennis


She is ranked number three in the world.

She is a Commonwealth Games gold medallist, a world championships bronze medal winner and is now on target for a podium finish in Tokyo.

Milly Tapper will head to her third Paralympic Games in August with a history of achieving her goals.

“I find it quite fun to set myself goals and it’s always nice if you do get to check them off,” Tapper said.

“The last one I really want to check off is a medal at the Paralympic Games … we’ve been working very hard towards that.”

Tapper competed at the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio in 2016, becoming the first Australian athlete to achieve that feat in the same year.

“That came about as a childhood dream, to try and compete in table tennis for Australia,” she said.

Tapper initially only competed in able-bodied competition and was crowned Australian junior champion six times.

She was born with nerve damage in her right arm, resulting in Erb’s palsy. She has never considered it a disability.

“As I went through the years I tried qualifying about two or three times for the Olympics and missed out, several Commonwealth Games and missed out, then 2012 was my first Paralympic Games,” Tapper said.

“[That] Helped in terms of progress in international results and then come 2016 it was a very successful year for me — I qualified for both the Olympics and Paralympics and made it a dream come true.”

Tapper has a knack for making things sound easy, but the reality was very different in 2016.

“It was definitely pretty hectic,” she laughed.

“When I actually got to stop and switch off, that was when I really did feel it … thankfully I’ve got great people around me that help manage that.

“In the moment it is exciting, and you sort of just keep riding with all the adrenaline that comes with the Games.”

In Tokyo, Tapper’s focus will be solely on the Paralympic Games, where Australia will be taking its largest table tennis team in history, with 11 athletes having already qualified.

In the Class 10 classification in which Tapper competes, she is currently ranked number three in the world behind Poland’s Natalia Partyka and Australian teammate Yang Qian.

“I’ve done everything, given the circumstances as well over the last year, to put myself in the best position to [win a medal],” Tapper said.

“We’ll get over there and compete and see how we go, but regardless of the result I’ve absolutely loved in particular the last two years of training and preparation.”

With the assistance of an Australian Institute of Sport grant, the team has been able to train on eight newly purchased San-Ei tables, the same as those they will use in Tokyo.

“It definitely does make a difference … there’s been a lot of adjusting to that,” Tapper said.

“Some [tables] can be faster so the ball might slide through, or slower and the ball will stop, so it’s really good we have the opportunity to adjust.

“Everyone’s different in terms of their style and what they prefer … I would say [these tables] are slower so there’s an adjustment particularly for me.

“For example, the ball won’t come through, it will stop, so I need to remember to move forward more.”

The squad’s former tables will be donated to community groups, potentially enabling the next Milly Tapper to emerge.

“I started when I was eight years old in primary school at lunchtime sport for fun, so now I’ve been competing for close to 23 years,” Tapper said.

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Why Australia’s delayed vaccine rollout is likely to keep Maninder and his family apart for longer


In January this year, Maninder Mehta left his wife and kids in Sydney to travel to India to see his father who was gravely ill and in need of open-heart surgery. 

He also wanted to provide support for his 70-year-old mother, who has no other family in India. 

“Sadly, [my father] passed away after his surgery in February and this came as a shock to all of us, especially our mother,” Maninder told SBS News.

“Now my mother is in a most vulnerable position as she was completely dependent on my father, who was pretty active otherwise. [My family] wanted to take our mother along [back home to Australia] so we can grieve together as a whole family.”

But the closure of Australia’s international border has made Maninder’s wish difficult, even though his mother has a valid family sponsored visa.

He says his mother’s travel application has been denied nine times, despite assurances to the government the family will cover her medical and quarantine expenses. She’s also already had her first dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine.

For now, Maninder has begrudgingly decided to stay in India with his mother, leaving his wife and kids in Sydney alone.

“Why do I have to choose between my vulnerable mother and my young kids?” he said.

Happier times: Maninder and Shail Mehta with their parents and their sons.

Supplied.

Maninder’s brother Shail lives in Perth and was originally denied an exemption to travel on compassionate grounds while their father was critically ill. He was only granted a travel exemption after his father passed away.

Now in hotel quarantine in Australia, he worries for his mother and brother in India, where cases of coronavirus are rising.

“My mother has high blood pressure and is on diabetic medicine,” Shail said. “Our doctor has categorically told us that our mother is at risk of dying if her blood sugar drops and she often forgets to take the medicine because she is still grieving.”

The brothers had been hoping Australia’s vaccination rollout would soon open the country’s international border to cases like theirs.

But with the national program delayed following new advice surrounding the AstraZeneca shot, and as experts warn the reopening of international borders is dependent on strong vaccine uptake, the Mehta brothers are frustrated.

“This delay and mismanagement of supply and rollouts have further pushed us away from our family and kids back home,” Maninder said.

Shail said even though the number of new COVID-19 cases in Australia is low, the emotional impact of the border closures is anything but.

“You have the impact of COVID everywhere in our country in the form of families being devastated and businesses being devastated. Something has gone wrong here that we have put all our eggs in one basket with the AstraZeneca vaccine,” he said.

‘Behind the eight ball’

The Mehtas are not alone.

Tens of thousands of Australians stranded abroad are still waiting to return, and further delays to the vaccination program won’t speed up their trips home.

Other Australians are also waiting to travel overseas to see loved ones.

Epidemiologist Marylouise McLaws, a World Health Organization COVID-19 advisory panel member, said many Australian families have found themselves separated and in a tough position.

“We have not quite half of our population who have been born overseas, or have parents who were born overseas. For them not to [see family and friends] is very difficult,” she said.

Last week, the Pfizer shot was announced by the country’s vaccine experts as the preferred jab for adults under the age of 50. And as the government initially chose AstraZeneca as the backbone of Australia’s vaccine program, the new revelations surrounding blood clots have thrown it into disarray.

Professor McLaws said Australia is now “behind the eight ball” and it could be a year or so before international travel returns to normal. 

“Australians are good uptakers of vaccines and 85 per cent [of willing Australians] gives us any sort of herd immunity,” she said.

“At 85 per cent, we’d need 200,000 injections of both AstraZeneca and Pfizer per day to get finished in six months – and that’s not a reality because we don’t have the supply to reach this yet. We’re potentially talking about 12 months until we have 85 per cent of the population vaccinated who want to be.

“You can’t open the borders when a proportion of the population still haven’t had the vaccination. You want to make sure that everybody is vaccinated so they aren’t placed at risk.”

‘A failure’

Meanwhile, there are calls for an updated vaccine rollout plan to be made public in the wake of the slower-than-expected progress.

“That first [vaccine rollout] phase from August last year to March this year, the original target of four million vaccinated was clearly not met,” said Stephen Duckett, director of the Health and Aged Care Program at the Grattan Institute.

“It was a failure of logistics, a failure of getting the right model for the rollout and a failure of overhyping the vaccine program. There were failures of planning.”

A new rollout is being negotiated, but Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Monday refused to put a time on an updated program, saying targets are not practical given COVID-19 “writes its own rules”.

“You have to be able to respond quickly to when things change and we’ve had to deal with a lot of changes,” he said in a Facebook video.

“Rather than set targets that can get knocked about by every to and fro of international supply chains and other disruptions that can occur, we are just getting on with it.”

Dr Duckett said a lack of transparent targets could pose an issue for overall confidence.

“The virtue of no targets is that the government cannot be held to account for not achieving them,” he said.

“You can have no confidence that the government is planning the vaccine rollout if it hasn’t actually said what it’s trying to achieve by when.

“While we don’t have herd immunity, there is always a risk that a human system will fail, that hotel quarantine will fail, as we saw in Queensland a few weeks ago. This is why the vaccine is so important.”

A healthcare worker is seen handling an AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccination inside a vaccination centre.

A healthcare worker is seen handling an AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine

AAP

Dr Duckett said the vaccine delay will also be front of mind for Australians hoping to return to a “vaccine normal”, including the reopening of international borders.

“Last year the debate was, ‘we have to do all this until we have a vaccine, because once we have a vaccine everything will return back to normal’, so the whole population is waiting with bated breath,” he said.

“There are significant issues associated with the closed border – there’s lack of international tourism, lack of international students and that has flow-on effects into the hospitality sector and other sectors like accommodation and so on.”

National COVID-19 Commissioner Jane Halton on Monday called for calm despite rising concern about the state of Australia’s rollout.

“The trick now is for people just to calm down a little bit and get back to basics,” she told the Nine Network. “We need to vaccinate the nation, we need to have the vaccines to do that, we’re going to get Pfizer at the end of this year and there will be 40 million doses in total of Pfizer.”

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly says the initial phases of vaccinating quarantine, border, health, aged care and disability workers and residents remain on track to be completed mid-year.

Trade Minister Dan Tehan is set to travel to Europe on Wednesday to urge his German, Belgian and French counterparts to do what they can to increase vaccine production. 

Additional reporting by AAP.

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Australia’s $2 billion cannabis stock sector on a high


But the amount of capital invested in these companies currently dwarfs the revenues coming in. The 20 biggest ASX-listed companies with an exposure to cannabis have a combined market capitalisation of more than $2 billion.

According to Ibisworld, the sector’s producers are expected to generate $32 million in revenues this year.

Little Green Pharma is also somewhat of a novelty in the colourful, multibillion-dollar world of Aussie cannabis – a company not only breaking even, but eking out a profit in the first half of 2021.

Solomon acknowledges there’s still a big hill to climb before the sector pays for itself, but argues the investors now exposed to these companies are here for long-term growth.

“Now that the initial hype is gone, we’re getting to the next stage investors who actually want to see a return,” she says.

The path forward

A large cohort of Australia’s medicinal cannabis companies were founded with the express purpose of creating treatments for patients who have run out of other approved options.

The sector encompasses a range of businesses involved in the manufacture, distribution and export of cannabis flowers and oils as well as R&D-focused biotechs hoping drugs including elements of the plant will prove effective at fighting everything from chronic pain to mental health conditions.

Founders and investors in the space are often driven by finding solutions for patients who haven’t found any other options to treat pain, seizure or other health issues.

Cann Group chief executive Peter Crock

The office of drug control oversees production licences while the TGA regulates access to products via the special access scheme. Patients are able to access products via a doctor’s prescription in cases where there are no other available treatments.

And the past 12 months have been kind to the sector. At the end of last year, the TGA made a landmark decision to reclassify products that contain low-dose cannabidiol, or CBD, so that they can be sold over the counter in Australian pharmacies without a prescription.

It was significant validation for the sector, and big consumer names were on board. In February, unlisted firm Cannatrek announced it was partnering with Chemist Warehouse to supply pharmacy products to consumers.

Chemist Warehouse chairman and co-founder Jack Gance said the pharmacy chain was “delighted to be able to be leaders in this area” to bring cannabis products to consumers without need for a prescription.

Cannatrek boss Tommy Huppert admits that while the opportunity for these products is huge, it may be at least a year before these products are registered with the TGA to come to market.

No products were ready to be registered when the regulator agreed to the rule change last year, and companies are now working to bring products, and their evidence of effectiveness, to the regulator.

“It is quite a formidable pathway being presented,” he said.

The evidence hurdles

The other challenge for the sector is the question of evidence that cannabis actually works to solve pain and other ailments.

Earlier this month, the Faculty of Pain Medicine at the Australian and New Zealand College of Anaesthetists warned doctors to think hard before prescribing cannabis to patients for non-cancer treatment and outside of clinical trials, claiming there is not enough evidence that it helps with chronic pain.

In its own advice to patients, the TGA advises Australians “there have been very few well-designed clinical trials using medicinal cannabis, so there is limited evidence on its success in treating different medical conditions, or on effective forms and dosages”.

Outside of treatment for epilepsy, cancer and palliative care, more work needs to be done, the regulator said.

Some of the earliest movers in the medicinal cannabis space say they want additional clinical evidence more than anyone.

“That’s exactly what we are pushing for,” managing director of Cann Group, Peter Crock, says.

Cann was the first Australian company to be licensed to cultivate medicinal cannabis under the office of drug control rules. Crock says it’s critical that the sector focuses on the long game, which includes building evidence to get medicinal cannabis products recognised as registered medicines and give doctors the confidence to prescribe.

“It’s understood this isn’t going to be an overnight thing. It’s more important to do it correctly, and not foot-fault on the way through, than to rush through and blow yourself up.”

Cann is forecasting revenues of between $8 million and $10 million this financial year, after it exports cannabis product to German and UK partners later this year. A core part of its expansion strategy is a cultivation and processing facility in Mildura, for which the company secured $50 million in debt financing from National Australia Bank last year to help build.

‘Delivering on revenue is the number one thing they are looking for us to do.’

Peter Crock, Cann Group

While the company is hoping to grow revenues substantially in coming years, it’s also running at a half-year after tax loss of $9.4 million – $1 million more than the same time last year.

Crock says his investors seem happy with the way the company is investing in Australia, but the business won’t forecast its path to profitability or when that facility might pay for itself.

“I think the support we are getting [from investors] is showing confidence that we are [proceeding] in the right manner. Delivering on revenue is the number one thing they are looking for us to do.”

The long-term payoff

Pot stocks have long been a passion project for retail investors, who have seen both a long-term opportunity and the chance to buy in and out of small cap stocks as they chase short-term wins.

Investor Nathaniel Lee has positions in five ASX-listed cannabis companies, including Cann and Little Green Pharma.

He says he’s bought in and out of the sector over the past five years and is under no illusions that companies will make big profits in the next few years. Despite this, he sees long-term opportunity in the sector.

“What is good about it at the moment is lots of companies have been through that new idea phase, now they are consolidating,” he says.

Given that the Australian market is only a few years into researching cannabis-based products, there’s huge opportunity in the commercialisation phase for the sector which hasn’t even really begun.

“I just see it as a huge market from then on,” he says.

Entrepreneurs in the sector who have successfully built healthcare businesses in the past say local companies face barriers because they are not yet registered medicines.

“The biggest barrier is drug filing, a pathway that unlocks enormous potential but can only be
achieved through clinical validation,” says Medlab founder Sean Hall.

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“[It’s] a pathway ‘pot stocks’ are generally not taking. Drug filing involves creating a validated evidence package including longitudinal data-approved manufacturing protocols.”

Hall, who sold his BioCeuticals brand to Blackmores in 2012, now runs Medlab, which is focused on research and development of registered medicines in hopes of taking these global.

Solomon agrees it will be a couple of years before patients will be able to go into a chemist and see CBD oil on the shelves, but this doesn’t mean the sector isn’t succeeding. “The costs associated with this industry are really high, the regulatory compliance costs are huge. And you really need to have sales at scale,” she says.

“I don’t see that as an unfair thing, it’s just the industry we’re in. It’s not different from [any] other drug that comes to market.”

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Stawell Gift makes triumphant 2021 return as Australia’s richest footrace


The winner of the men’s event in the Stawell Gift says he trained religiously during lockdown, but nothing could have prepared him for the “amazing” victory as the race returned after being cancelled last year.

Victorian sprinter Edward Ware won the men’s event, while the women’s race was won by South Australian Hayley Orman.

Last year’s cancellation of the 120-metre, $40,000 race was the fifth in its history since 1878.

Ware, who ran in his third final, told Channel Seven he had trained hard during last year’s lockdown.

“Train in the morning, getting up at 6:00am, religiously doing sessions at quarter to seven, day in, day out,” he said.

“Didn’t come here expecting this … mate this is amazing.”

Orman, 27, said winning the race was a dream come true after a rocky season.

“I’ve been so injured. There was a period of time where I was like, I may as well write this season off, but I just didn’t give up and I believed in myself and it just happened,” she said.

“I just can’t believe it.”

A capacity crowd of 5,000 people watched the 139th Stawell Gift, including visitors from Melbourne.

Stawell cafe manager Matthew D’Rozario said the weekend had been even busier than 2019, when the Gift last ran.

“The whole area was fully booked and business was very good,” he said.

“We didn’t think it would be that big this year, so we want to say thanks to everyone who supported the Gift.

“We have had to get relatives from Melbourne up to help because of how busy we’ve been!”

It is tempting to think that 20-year-old Geordie Hore was destined to be a runner, being the son of Steve Hore and Emma Yeomans — both of whom also ran professionally in the 1990s.

Back for 2021 after being cancelled last year due to COVID-19, they are one of many examples of how the Stawell Gift is a family affair at its heart.

As a child, Geordie became familiar with the stories of his parents’ exploits, and of Cathy Freeman’s iconic 1996 run at the gift where she won a 400-metre event in 50 seconds with a 54-metre handicap. 

Incidentally, his mother was one of the other runners in that race.

But middle distance runner Geordie, who competed in two events at the 2021 gift, said his interest in running developed organically.

“It was never forced on me. I always seemed to enjoy running,” he said.

“Obviously with Mum and Dad having a running background, them being able to support me, was helpful because they knew the steps to take to become a good athlete.”

He is especially grateful to have had the expertise of two professionals close at hand last year when restrictions upended his typical training set-up.

His father Steve, who won three middle distance races in his days at the gift, is also Geordie’s coach. 

“If Geordie went out for a run I’d just jump on the bike and ride along next to him,” he said.

“Or if he was doing reps I’d be trying to push the pace a bit.”

The word “family” has a compound meaning when referring to Victoria’s running community, as Zoe Nicholson has found out in recent years.

The Ararat local won the 800-metre women’s final in 2017 only two years after switching back to running from cycling, which she took up after getting injured at Little Athletics as a girl.

“A couple of my best friends were running and I got into the school state relay team with them. I was training with them, and I continued training and got into the Victorian Athletics League. It just went from there,” Nicholson said.

“We’ve got a few people I train with running this weekend — Laura McDougall, Jess Burns, and my younger sister Caitlin, and a couple of boys all from the Stawell-Ararat area.

“I love running, so when I got injured the goal was to find my way back.

“Getting that push from my friends to come along to training really helped. I’m not sure if I would have come back without that.”

Nicholson bowed out of the gift on Sunday in heat five of the 400-metre Lorraine Donnan Women’s Handicap race.

While the men’s and women’s 120-metre races each Easter Monday are the Stawell Gift that turns runners into legends, the carnival spreads across three days and dozens of events at Stawell’s Central Park.

Steve Hore said the gift served as the final last race in the Victorian pro-running season.

“It’s like the grand final,” he said.

“You have a few lead-in races, but everyone wants to be peaking this weekend.”

He said the social aspect of running is what made the gift a tradition.

“Certainly over this weekend there are a lot of families involved,” he said.

Last year, like every other event that could not go online, the Stawell Gift was cancelled. 

Australia’s richest footrace, dating back to 1878, had only previously been sidelined for four years during World War II.

Even before COVID-19 there were no guarantees the gift would run long term.

It lost the support of major sponsors in February 2019, forcing it to reduce the prize money for the winner from $40,000 to $15,000.

This was restored later that month after an agreement between the state government, Northern Grampians Shire Council, and the Stawell Athletic Club, but in December of that year the athletic club rejected a long-term funding agreement from the government contingent on changes being made.

A breakthrough came last November when the club signed a sponsorship deal to keep the race televised, and to receive $1.22 million from the state government for four years.

A new organisation, Stawell Gift Event Management Limited, now oversees the race.

Its director is Dustin Lockett, a finalist at the gift in 1997.

He is confident the event’s long-term future is now secure.

“We are seeing the fruits of that labour in the six to eight months since the management team has come together,” Lockett said.

“We’ve brought in other partners and a new ticketing system we’ve never had before. That means we get data and things.”

Zoe Nicholson said having a local footrace being considered the ultimate was a special feeling for her and her stable.

But it was not the reason she was a runner.

“Whereas in running, as much as we have our own team, it’s very much an individual sport.

“If you don’t run well you’re only letting yourself down, so I think there’s less pressure in that instance.”

An Athletics Australia spokesperson told the ABC that anecdotally COVID-19 had seen an upswing in interest and participation in running for health and fitness — given it was one of the only activities people could undertake while restrictions were in place.

If data ultimately proves this to be the case, it will continue a trend that began in the early 2000s where solo sporting activities and non-sport related activities were more popular among Australians than team sports.

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The Aussie Camino is a picturesque pilgrimage inspired by Australia’s only saint, Mary MacKillop


For 1,000 years, millions of people have walked in each other’s footsteps on a revered pilgrimage trail in north-western Spain. 

The Camino de Santiago, or “The Way of St James”, is a network of routes across Western Europe leading to the resting place of the apostle Saint James the Great.

More than just a hike, people often embark on the 809-kilometre walk that leads them away from their daily routines and usual comforts for a variety of deeply personal reasons.

For Melbourne’s Luke Mills, it was a life-changing family tragedy that deepened his interest in “the Camino”, as the pilgrimage is colloquially known.

Mr Mills was grappling with his wife Gabriella’s unexpected death in 2008 and the reality of raising their three young children alone. 

He had heard about the Camino de Santiago in the 1990s and said the idea of people walking “hundreds and hundreds of kilometres to this place in Spain … just captured me”.

“There was a whole history behind it, it was wrapped up in the crusades, it was the Knights Templar, and there were castles and churches and things built along the way,” he said.

In the years after his wife’s death, Mr Mills’ yearning to walk the Camino grew — but he could not leave his grieving children or afford a plane ticket to Spain.

Then in 2010, Mary MacKillop was canonised as Australia’s first saint — and Mr Mills realised that Australia could offer its own Camino pilgrimage. 

The high school English teacher delved into Mary MacKillop’s life story and found the inspiration he was looking for.

Following in her footsteps, he charted a journey from Portland on the far south-western Victorian coast — where Mary had started teaching — to Penola, 160 kilometres away in South Australia, where she started the order of the Sisters of St Joseph. 

But when Mr Mills arrived in Penola after completing his first Camino in 2014, it marked a much longer journey than the distance he had just walked.

Planning that first pilgrimage with two workmates was a means of recovery for him.

“After that trip, the other two guys — Mick and Steve — were quite happy to leave it at that, but I wondered if there [might be] any more interest,” Mr Mills said.

He put the word out in a group email and within days had 33 keen responses.

Since 2014, Mr Mills has taken 400 pilgrims on the picturesque, 160-kilometre walk now known as the Aussie Camino.

While Caminos traditionally lead travellers to a place of spiritual significance, many of their walkers are not religious. Most are, however, open to soul-searching.

“It could be the loss of a job, the loss of a partner, the death of a friend or some major separation.”

For some, it’s about finding a clear path forward when they’ve lost their way.

Melbourne writer Sue Gunningham is walking the Aussie Camino, hoping to find a way to overcome writer’s block.

In the group of 11 walkers she has joined, she is one of the “non-believers”. Something that has not put her off.

“If you’re not a religious person it doesn’t appear to me that there’s a lot of praying to be done. In fact, when people get in at night they go straight to the fridge and get the beer out.”

One of those walkers enjoying a beer most nights is social activist Bernie Cronin.

The Catholic from Richmond, in Melbourne, describes the journey as a poet or a philosopher might.

“The human experience is sore muscles, blisters, driving wind, sunburn and so forth, but it’s this opportunity to be with oneself, to be with nature, and that is indeed at the heart of spirituality.

“People can … have the same experience whether they have a religious understanding or faith or not.”

Ian Baker has come from Darwin to trek the Camino for a second time after walking it with Mr Mills in 2019.

“I’m not a Catholic but I think there’s a big connectivity between the spirituality of walking and the religious beliefs of Mary MacKillop,” Mr Baker said.

“The momentum of every day, one foot after the other … and then you look back to where you’ve come from and you think, ‘My God that’s a long way back, did I walk that far?'”

The canonising of Mary MacKillop in 2010 really resonated with Mr Mills.  

“I thought at the time that it was a very significant occasion, but it was still a very Catholic story, it was confined a little bit to the Catholic community,” Mr Mills said.

“[I wanted] to recognise and celebrate the life of this woman in a much more Australian, mainstream sort of thing that everybody can enjoy.”

Along the way, walkers learn about MacKillop’s legacy of fighting for the rights and education of migrants, domestic violence victims, women in prison, and others less fortunate in the late 19th century.

She is also informally known as a patron saint of sexual abuse victims for her role in exposing a paedophile priest.

“She came up against a lot of opposition and I think for a lot of her life came up against a lot of men … who really made her life very difficult in many circumstances,” Mr Mills said.

It is a story Mr Cronin wishes all Australians would become familiar with.

“She responded to the provision of care for orphans at a time when governments didn’t do this kind of thing and that simple truth is something, we should all embrace,” Mr Cronin said.

As pilgrims make their way along the Aussie Camino, they traverse cliff tops, forests and farmlands, and pass lakes and blowholes. Sometimes all in one day.

“They’re quite overwhelmed by how beautiful and lovely it is and how much the landscape changes over the course of the trip.” 

Mr Mills stopped leading Camino groups in 2019.

“I was working full-time all through this and a few groups approached me and said, ‘We really like the idea of the Camino, can we take some groups out?’,” he said.

“These groups can probably take out more people than I can and they’re professional groups.

But Mr Mills had some conditions. He wanted the new organisers to keep some traditions of the Spanish Camino, to read morning reflections from St Mary, and to ensure the pilgrims carry a shell — the Camino symbol — and a passport to be stamped at the places they visit and stay as a physical reminder of their journey.

Mr Mills hopes others will enjoy the pilgrimage as much as he has.

“Caminos are good. They allow people to share, they allow people to ponder, and they’re very good for the communities [they visit],” he said.

So did Mr Mills ever make the trip to Spain and walk the Camino that led him to create his own pilgrimage in Australia?

He did,  in October and November of 2018, with his partner Shelley.

And it was just as profound and enriching as he had hoped it would be. 

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Leigh Sales grills Professor Brendan Murphy on Australia’s slow vaccine rollout


Australia’s vaccine rollout debacle has been labelled “amateur hour” as the government struggles to keep up distribution.

In a fiery interview with Leigh Sales on Tuesday night, Professor Brendan Murphy said he “rejected” the idea Australia was failing in its COVID-19 vaccination program, just hours after Scott Morrison failed to disclose how many domestically produced doses are being delivered each week.

The federal government has ordered more than 53 million doses of the jab, 50 million to be manufactured onshore. In January, it predicted four million Aussies would be vaccinated by the end of March.

RELATED: Fresh blow to Australia’s bungled COVID-19 vaccine rollout

RELATED: Speed of Australia’s vaccine rollout ranked 90th in the world

In March, drug manufacturer CSL said it expected to “hit a run rate of well over” a million doses per week by the end of the month. Rollout would be in rounds of 300,000 doses.

Out of the four vaccines Australia has secured, the AstraZeneca vaccine forms the bulk of the Federal Government’s $3.3 billion immunisation program.

However around 830 local doses were delivered in the first week of the program and it is not clear how many have been released since then.

Just 854,983 Australians have been vaccinated against coronavirus — 280,943 through GP and GP respiratory clinics and the other federal agencies. Those vaccinated through age and disability facilities is 112,830.

When pressed on why only two per cent of Australians had been vaccinated when other countries like America have jabbed at least 30 per cent, Dr Murphy said “the vast majority of GPs are incredibly happy with the rollout”.

Dr Murphy “completely rejected” Sales’ accusation that the Australian public sees the rollout as “anything other than amateur hour”.

He said Australia didn’t need to use emergency protocols “unlike other countries” to get access to vaccines earlier.

But he said he was confident Australians would have at least one injection by October.

“We are still on track to hit our target of every adult getting their first dose by the end of October.

He said the increased domestic vaccine supply was a “strategy” to help push the process along, but wouldn’t predict when at least 75 per cent of Australians would be fully vaccinated.

Dr Murphy echoed earlier comments by the PM that the reason Australia was behind its vaccination schedule was because international suppliers had not delivered as promised.

“Like other countries we have been constrained by international supply, which is why the wonderful starting up of the local production of CSL is what is now accelerating our program,” he said.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Prime Minister defended Australia’s coronavirus vaccine rollout, saying there was “no holdup”, even after the government has been forced to reconsider some goals.

He compared Australia to Germany, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan, and said Australia is better than they were at this stage of our rollout.

Yet the Prime Minister failed to confirm how many domestically produced COVID-19 doses are being produced and delivered every week.

“Well, it varies from week to week,” he said. “We are still in the early phases so it would be misleading, I think, to give you an average at this point.

“We know what we are hoping to achieve. But at this point, we are hoping to achieve the figures that have already been realised to some extent and that is around the 800,000 mark.

“That is achievable and we want to be able to try and keep achieving that, and if we can do better than that, then we will.”

Dr Murphy gave some insight on 7.30, confirming production had “quadrupled” over the last few weeks and “is ramping up significantly at the moment”.

“We have not been in a position where we’ve had to do things in a hurry,” he said.

Mr Morrison said it was a “good idea” to be more transparent on the issue and he would raise and discuss with premiers and chief ministers on Friday.

As for Australia’s own production of vaccine doses, Mr Morrison said experts would take their time making sure they were safe.

“There is no holdup. The release of vaccines has always been based on them completing those processes, so the fact that they actually have to get approved by the relevant authorities and do the batch testing is not a holdup,” he said.

“It is a necessary part of the process to guarantee Australian safety, so to describe it as a holdup would be incorrect.”

Mr Morrison said some 855,000 vaccinations had been done as of Monday.

— with Anton Nilsson, Newswire

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Australia’s cheapest airfares revealed as domestic flights hit four-year low


Flight price drops designed to lure travellers after COVID-19 lockdowns have contributed to the lowest domestic airfares in four years, new data reveals.

However, while flights might be cheap, travellers are being warned of higher costs they could be fronted with elsewhere as the tourism industry recovers from the pandemic.

An analysis of data from the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics by Finder shows airfares have hit their lowest point since 2017, with the “golden triangle” routes between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane all cheaper than they were in March last year, just as the pandemic hit.

In particular, the Melbourne to Sydney route – which was one of the world’s busiest air corridors before COVID-19 – costs around $128 to fly, which is the cheapest it’s been since July 2019.

Across Australia, the cheapest domestic flight route is Hobart to Melbourne at $98, followed by Avalon to Sydney at $99 and Adelaide to Melbourne at $110.

The rock-bottom prices is primarily how airlines are working to woo back air travellers as confidence builds around interstate travel.

The current price drops also follow a surge in airfares over the summer, Finder’s travel expert Angus Kidman said.

“With demand still substantially below pre-pandemic times, airlines are trying to entice customers with cheap flights and deals,” he said.

“Rex’s entry into the Melbourne to Sydney route has also sparked new competition and helped to lower prices.”

On Friday, Jetstar dropped prices on key routes to just $20 for Club Jetstar members in a 12-hour sale that follows a series of other mega-sales this month, while Virgin Australia and Qantas have also dramatically cut flight prices in sales of their own.

Australians will benefit from even cheaper flights from next month when 800,000 flight tickets to 13 key tourism areas will be sold at half-price under a Federal Government tourism recovery plan.

But Mr Kidman warned that while airfares may be cheap, travellers need to be aware of other costs.

“For those who have been anxiously waiting for the return of travel, the half-price flights deal is a great opportunity to be a tourist in your own backyard,” he said.

“Just remember that higher tourist numbers in those regions are likely to push up accommodation costs, so make sure you compare before booking.”

Lockdown restrictions and border shutdowns contributed to a dramatic fall in the total number of passengers on Australian domestic flights, more research by Finder shows.

Between 2019 and 2020, passenger numbers plunged from 61.4 million to 19.4 million – a fall of a whopping 68 per cent.

But domestic travel is winding up again with border restrictions easing and airlines returning more services to its network. The number of domestic routes rose from 113 in September to 142 in December, but still short of the 156 routes that operated across the airlines in December 2019.

An unexpected trend amid the decline and return of domestic air travel has been an improvement in flights taking off and landing on schedule.

Finder’s analysis of on-time departure and arrival metrics for all airlines and routes found they were at a four-year high – about 88 per cent of flights depart on time, and 88.3 per cent arrive on time.

However, flight cancellations are still high – 6.9 per cent of all flights were cancelled in January this year, compared to 2.8 per cent in January 2020.

With about half of Australians planning to travel domestically in the next 12 months, Mr Kidman said there were some key things travellers should do to make sure it goes smoothly.

Firstly, set yourself a realistic budget and stick to it.

“Try to avoid crowded areas where possible, and the steep prices they attract by steering clear of busy tourist destinations, cafe strips and shopping malls, especially at peak times,” Mr Kidman said.

He recommended travellers compare their options before booking car hire, hotel stays, sightseeing tours and other services, and to avoid super-tight connections.

As some uncertainly lingers amid the pandemic, Mr Kidman also recommended travellers have a good look at the fine print.

“Remember to check cancellation policies,” he said. “It’s easy to be wowed by a good price but these deals can come with strings attached, for example, no cancellations.

“Check how COVID restrictions are treated in that policy.”

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