Victoria opens borders to Greater Sydney and Brisbane

Victoria has continued its virus-free streak with no new cases of locally acquired COVID-19 as restrictions on gatherings and interstate travel relax.

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Shut the borders once and for all

Stop all incoming international flights until we get COVID-19 under control. That’s the harsh but necessary step many believe we must take, and it should have happened yesterday.

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Coronavirus updates live: Global COVID-19 death toll hits 2 million; anger over Victoria's borders as tennis players arrive; NSW considers vaccine phone 'ticks'

Global COVID-19 death toll hits two million as Victorian anger grows over border restrictions while tennis players enter the state. NSW considers vaccine phone ‘ticks’.

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Coronavirus live news: France should consider closing borders, says adviser; WHO team to arrive soon, says China | World news












France should consider closing borders, says government adviser


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Australia’s overseas arrival scheme overhauled in face of new virus strain

People wearing masks walk in Brisbane, Australia, Jan. 8, 2020. (Photo by Yuheng Wu/Xinhua)

Several measures to tighten Australia’s borders against the strain include halving arrival numbers limits, mandating face masks on all flights including domestic.

SYDNEY, Jan. 8 (Xinhua) — Fears that a more contagious variant of COVID-19 being reported in Britain could spread to Australia prompted an emergency meeting of state and territory leaders on Friday in order to bolster the country’s international arrivals process.

Shortly before the meeting, news emerged that the strain had been detected in a worker at a quarantine hotel in the state of Queensland, prompting an immediate 3-day lockdown of the state capital Brisbane.

Several measures to tighten Australia’s borders against the strain were subsequently announced by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, including halving arrival numbers limits, mandating face masks on all flights including domestic, and requiring passengers to return a negative test before they travel to Australia.

“What we do know is that this new strain is some 70 percent more transmissible than the previous strains of the virus (and is) likely to become (the) more dominant strain of the virus globally,” Morrison said.

“This virus continues to write its own rules and that means that we must continue to be adaptable in how we continue to fight it.”

A significant point of concern was that so far Australia’s international arrival and repatriation scheme has been plagued by issues leading to several serious outbreaks, the most severe of which was in the state of Victoria peaking at over 700 daily cases in early August.

More recently, an outbreak in the city of Sydney continued to yield new infections as of Friday, and totaled close to 200 community cases. The cluster of what is believed to be an overseas variant was detected in the city’s north shortly before Christmas, however health officials were unable to determine exactly how it entered the country.

People wearing masks walk in Brisbane, Australia, Jan. 8, 2020. (Photo by Yuheng Wu/Xinhua)

Biostatistician and epidemiologist at the University of South Australia, Prof. Adrian Esterman told Xinhua it was “absolutely imperative” that Australia keeps the new virus strain out of the country.

“As a country, we’ve done incredibly well, one of the best in the world. Both Melbourne and Sydney are in control through really good contact tracing, isolation and compliance with the population. But that might not work against the variant,” Esterman said.

Esterman blamed instances of the virus spreading from overseas into the community on gaps within the hotel quarantine system, aligning with the findings of a recent inquiry into the Melbourne outbreak.

The inquiry found that, “99 percent of Victoria’s second wave of COVID-19 cases in the community came from transmission events related to returned travelers infecting people working at (quarantine hotels).”

Based on the difficult lessons learned from Victoria’s outbreak and subsequent three-month lockdown, the state overhauled its quarantine system, making it stricter than that of other jurisdictions.

“For example, we’ve just seen the escape of the new virus strain in Brisbane and that’s because they’re only testing their hotel staff every week, whereas Victoria tests them every shift,” Esterman said.

One of the measures implemented by the leaders meeting on Friday was to ramp up the testing of hotel workers to a national standard of daily testing.

Regardless of the new measures, Esterman says that as long as there are people returning to Australia from overseas there will be a risk to the community.

“No matter how good your systems are it’s almost impossible to stop leaking,” Esterman explained.

“There could be just a few virus particles floating around in the air and someone walks through them and that’s it.”

People wearing masks line up in front of a supermarket in Brisbane, Australia, Jan. 8, 2020. (Photo by Yuheng Wu/Xinhua)

Figures for November 2020, revealed approximately 29,800 people arrived in Australia in November 2020, a 98.3 percent decrease compared with the same month in 2019 but still more than enough to see thousands of people testing positive while in hotel quarantine.

Roughly 22 percent, or 6,202, of Australia’s official COVID-19 infections were contracted overseas before showing up in the hotel quarantine system.

Among the measures announced Friday was a 50 percent reduction on international arrival limits, lasting until Feb. 15. While a number of states are already adhering to a reduced figure, the new rules will see the States of New South Wales, Western Australia and Queensland drastically reduce their intake.

University of Sydney epidemiologist, Dr. Alexandra Martiniuk told Xinhua it was wise for Australia to reduce international arrivals, as well as mandate masks on flights, while information regarding the new strains of the virus was still emerging.

“I do understand there are a few Australians overseas and particularly in Britain trying to get back and that probably is not good news for them. But I do think it is a wise decision by the government to do that,” Martiniuk said.

The reduction in passenger numbers reflects a continued concern by Australian leaders and health experts of the virus leaking through the quarantine system and into the community.

An empty street is seen in Brisbane, Australia, Jan. 8, 2020. (Photo by Yuheng Wu/Xinhua)

If the virus does enter the community again, Esterman says that current containment measures, for instance, those being deployed to handle the Sydney outbreak, will be insufficient to cope with more highly transferable strains of the virus.

“They’ve shown in Britain now that even with the current lockdown they’ve got until mid February, it is still not enough to stop the epidemic with this new variant,” Esterman said.

“That’s why they’ve done this three-day lockdown in Brisbane, which I think is very sensible. And it might end up being more than three days because if it does get out then Australia might be in deep strife.”

Martiniuk agreed that the new measures were warranted in the face of this latest challenge in the unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re going for a suppression strategy, so it’s hotel quarantine and transport workers and similar at airports, that’s really the risk,” she said.

“So it makes sense to try and batten down the hatches in those areas so as to stop these little embers that can burst into fire.”■

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Nursing shortage and new restrictions on Norwegian borders: Today’s news roundup

Local news today focused on the limited supply of qualified nurses in Finland and Norway’s newly imposed border crossing policy.  


Shortage of nurses drives Finland to look abroad

Finland is currently facing an acute shortage of nurses and care workers with the situation likely to worsen in coming years. The growing demand for nurses, coupled with a steady retirement rate has led to a strong decline in the number of caregivers available.  

The demanding nature of the work and comparatively low salaries also serve to discourage youngsters from taking up the profession. The scarcity is most strongly felt in the elderly care and homecare sectors. 

The shortage has compelled companies in the public as well private sector to hire foreign caregivers. An increasing number of private healthcare companies have employed nurses from the Philippines, with some even providing medical training and Finnish classes online.  

Norway gets soldiers to guard its borders with Finland

In a bid to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Norway is enforcing new restrictions on border crossing. According to a press release on the Norwegian Armed Forces website, soldiers will begin monitoring four border crossings between Finland and Norway from Tuesday onwards.

The defense forces, in cooperation with the police, will be in charge of the borders till at least 2 February. While the Utsjoki border will be completely shut, tourists may enter the country via the other three crossings, provided they produce proof that they tested negative for the coronavirus.



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Saudi Arabia opens borders to Qatar, ending bitter Gulf dispute

While the Saudi decision marks a major milestone toward resolving the Gulf spat, the path toward full reconciliation is far from guaranteed.

Following Kuwait’s announcement, the UAE’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Anwar Gargash, tweeted that his country was keen to restore Gulf unity. However, he cautioned: “We have more work to do and we are in the right direction.”

The lifting of the embargo by Saudi Arabia paves the way for Qatar’s ruler to attend an annual summit of Gulf leaders held in the kingdom’s ancient desert site of Al-Ula.


State-run Qatari media confirmed Sheikh Tamim would be attending the summit, a move that analysts say would have been domestically sensitive for him had the Saudi blockade still been in place.

This year, Egypt’s president has also been invited to attend the summit of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council, which comprises Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and Qatar.

The decision to end the Saudi embargo comes just weeks after President Donald Trump’s advisor and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, visited the kingdom and Qatar in a final push by the administration to secure a diplomatic breakthrough.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, meets with Senior Advisor to the U.S. President, Jared Kushner in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020.Credit:Saudi Press Agency

It also comes just ahead of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. Saudi Arabia may be seeking to both grant the Trump administration a final diplomatic win and remove stumbling blocs to building ties with the Biden administration.

At heart are concerns that Qatar’s close relations with Turkey and Iran have undermined regional security. Egypt and the UAE view Qatar and Turkey’s support of the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat and have deemed the group a terrorist organisation. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are primarily concerned with Qatar’s close ties with regional foe Iran.

Those simmering tensions came to a boil in the summer of 2017, when the four countries announced their blockade on Qatar and cut all transport and diplomatic links with it. The move frayed social ties, separating families who’d intermarried with Qataris. It also pushed Qatar diplomatically closer to Turkey and Iran, which both rushed to Doha’s aid with food and medical supplies that had been in short supply in the first days of the embargo.

Gas-rich Qatar also took an economic hit from the blockade, and its national airline was forced to take longer and more costly routes. It was unclear how the blockade would impact its ability to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The blockading countries made a list of demands on Qatar that included shuttering its flagship Al Jazeera news network and terminating Turkish military presence in Qatar, which is also home to a major US military base. Qatar has outright rejected the demands, and has denied that its support of Islamist groups indicates support for violent extremists.

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Tasmania’s tourism businesses struggle through summer as borders remain uncertain

It is harvest time at Bridestowe Lavender Estate in Tasmania’s north-east.

The purple fragrant buds usually draw in tourists from all around the world, all eager to pose for a photo in one of the largest lavender farms in the Southern Hemisphere.

But this year, things are very different.

With Australia’s borders shut, there are no international visitors, meaning numbers through the fields are the lowest they have been in 10 years.

It is disappointing, but not surprising, for managing director, Robert Ravens.

“We’re running at about 40 per cent of last year,” he explained.

“New Year’s Day for us is always our biggest or second biggest day … it rivals Boxing Day. We would normally see 12- to 15-hundred visitors Boxing Day and New Year’s Day.”

But on New Year’s Day 2021, roughly 800 visitors came through the gate.

“That was still a pretty big uptick on what we’d expected and we were very busy,” he said.

Managing director of Bridestowe Lavender Estate Robert Ravens said the number of visitors are the lowest they’ve been in 10 years.(ABC News: Jessica Moran)

The business heavily relies on tourists and was forced to adapt in March last year when restrictions first came into effect.

Now, 10 months on, Mr Ravens said it is still just as difficult for visitors to book holidays with certainty.

“I’m so disappointed with the state premiers and the inconsistent behaviours from state to state, the politicisation of COVID-19, it’s all bewildering to me.

“As a small business in Tasmania, it makes it really hard.”

He said the popularity of the signature purple lavender bear is helping keep the business afloat.

Chinese model Zhang Xinyu triggered the Bobbie the Bear craze after posting an image with the bear on social media in 2013.
Chinese model Zhang Xinyu triggered the Bobbie the Bear craze after posting an image with the bear on social media in 2013.(Supplied)

Bobbie the Bear was created as a fluffy solution to the excess of dried lavender, and the bear became an international hit after Chinese celebrities posted pictures of it on social media.

“There are many tales about it and we could write volumes on it, there was a Chinese chef to start off with, he popularised it, and then it moved onto a Chinese pop-star and then the President of China,” he said.

“So the bear is enduring and everyone comes here wanting one.”

Lack of international tourists welcomed by some

Sandy Hart from Launceston said she was surprised by the number of Tasmanians and mainlanders out and about in the lavender fields.

“It’s lovely, there’s space, you can see things,” she laughed.

“We had some visitors from Queensland staying and we encouraged them to come here yesterday. They put some great photos on Facebook and so we had nothing to do today so said let’s go,” she said.

“I love the colour, I love the perfume, it’s beautiful.”

Jenny Carpenter, also from Launceston, said the lack of crowds was appealing.

“I always like less numbers than more,” she laughed.

Cradle Mountain with Dove Lake in the foreground
McDermott tours to Cradle Mountain are down significantly this summer.(ABC News: Alison Branley)

Different story for Tasmania’s tourism operators

For family-run Tasmanian business, McDermott’s tours, bookings are down roughly 50 per cent down on previous years.

“It’s going okay, but nothing like it should be,” managing director Simon McDermott said.

Usually at this time of year their shuttle bus at Cradle Mountain would be packed, transporting around 3,000 people a day.

“And tour-wise anywhere between 15 to 20 tours a day on the road — now we’ve got one or two tours happening,” he said.

A man stands in front of a tour bus.
Scott McDermott says with the everchanging border situation people are uncertain about booking.(ABC News: Jessica Moran)

“It’s been a really different, and interesting time.”

He said at the start of 2020, it was looking like one of their biggest years, but then the pandemic hit.

“Everything went downhill from there, it was very scary to start with but I think we’re over that angst stage now and we’re just trying to work with the parameters we’re given,” he said.

“I think the Government is looking after us pretty well, and we’ve just got to stick it out and things will get better, I know they will.”

He said there is still a level of uncertainty from visitors booking with border restrictions constantly changing.

“There is a bit of angst around people wanting to book because they don’t want to lose their money or have money tied up in credit and those sorts of things,” he said.

“We’re just trying to be as flexible as possible for people.”

A silver lining for the events industry

For one popular wedding venue at least, bookings are up for next month.

“For the 2021 summer season we’re looking not too bad,” Josef Chromy events manager, Jackie Deverall, said.

“Our February is actually looking busier this year so if our borders stay open to the mainland then I suspect we should have one of our best Februarys in a few years.”

She said roughly 50 per cent of couples come from interstate so border changes are having a constant impact.

“Even local couples will have guests, friends and families coming from interstate so it does create uncertainty for them about if they’re going to be able to go ahead as planned and what the options are, if they can postpone or cancel,” she said.

“I think the end of this year, November especially, a lot of our weddings from last year have been moved to this year so we’re looking quite good for the end of 2021.”

First kiss for same-sex wedding
There could be a boom in weddings this summer with many that were postponed in 2020 going ahead this year.(Jarrod Lucas: ABC Goldfields-Esperance)

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States shut borders to NSW, Vic travellers

State and territories have continued to tighten their borders as more coronavirus cases emerge in NSW and Victoria.

The ACT has shut out NSW residents from the northern beaches, greater Sydney, the central coast and Wollongong unless they have an exemption. Those found entering without permission could be fined up to $8000.

ACT residents staying in NSW can still return home but need to notify the territory’s health department of their plans via an online form and then quarantine for 14 days.

Tasmania has barred anyone directly linked to the latest Victorian virus cases, listing exposure sites where confirmed cases are known to have been.

The locations rated “high risk” include a Thai restaurant in Melbourne’s southeastern suburb of Black Rock, which is linked to multiple positive cases.

The move followed Tasmania’s declaration of greater Sydney and the Wollongong area as medium-risk zones, requiring travellers to quarantine for 14 days on arrival, while those from Sydney’s northern beaches are barred from entering.

Victoria recorded 10 new cases of community transmission on Saturday, all linked to the restaurant.

Two of the cases were reported on Friday but counted on Saturday – a pair who ate at the restaurant on December 21 but were not contacted by Victorian authorities until 10 days later.

Victoria’s border is now closed to all travellers from NSW after its deadline of 11.59pm on Friday for residents to come home without having to go into quarantine.

Testing sites in Melbourne and surrounds saw long queues and delays as thousands rushed to get tested.

Victoria had gone 60 days without community transmission when the first few NSW-linked cases were reported on Wednesday.

NSW recorded seven new community cases on Saturday and Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced face masks would be mandatory for many indoor settings.

She had previously opposed the idea but said the change of heart balanced the health risk and security of citizens while allowing businesses to operate.

The Australian Medical Association commended the decision after calling for mandatory mask-wearing since the start of the northern beaches outbreak.

Western Australia reimposed a hard border with NSW on December 19 and then with Victoria on Thursday. The state recorded three new cases in overseas travellers on Saturday.

The Northern Territory has revised its public health orders and barred entry for all greater Sydney residents.

The NT recorded seven new positive cases on Saturday among Australians who came in on repatriation flights – one from London and six from Chennai, India.

South Australia has re-established its hard border with NSW, along with a 100-kilometre buffer for border communities. SA authorities are communicating with travellers about Victorian exposure sites via text message.

Queensland’s border is closed to anyone who has been in the COVID-declared hotspots of greater Sydney and surrounding areas in the past 14 days.

The state has not yet imposed border restrictions on Victorians but Chief Health Officer Jeanette Young said on Saturday she was “very concerned” at how the situation was escalating.

Queensland confirmed one new overseas-acquired case of COVID-19 on Saturday and maintained its streak of no community transmission.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Friday he respected the decisions of state and territory leaders to shut their borders but understood why people had been left frustrated.

“We must respect (the states’) jurisdictional authority,” he said.

The federal government had previously aimed for Australia to be fully open by Christmas.

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