EXCLUSIVE: Georgia Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue are backing calls for leniency for a U.S. teenager jailed in the Cayman Islands for violating the British territory’s COVID-19 quarantine regulations.
In a letter to the acting consul general of the U.S. Embassy in Jamaica, the senators express their support for the family of 18-year-old Skylar Mack.
“We appreciate the efforts of U.S. Embassy Kingston and the U.S. Consular Agency to provide consular services and protect the legal rights of Ms. Mack as a U.S. citizen,” the letter dated Christmas Day states. “We encourage you to continue these efforts and to convey to the Governor our support for her family’s call for leniency.”
GEORGIA STUDENT’S JAIL SENTENCE IN CAYMAN ISLANDS REDUCED TO 2 MONTHS AS FAMILY PLEADS FOR HER RELEASE
Mack, a Georgia resident and U.S. citizen, was sentenced to four months in jail on Dec. 15 for violating the territory’s strict regulations. The sentence was reduced to two months this week by an appeals court.
Mack, along with her boyfriend Vanjae Ramgeet, pleaded guilty to breaking the mandatory two-week quarantine after they arrived in the islands on Nov. 27 and then attended a jet ski event in which Ramgeet was competing.
According to the Cayman Compass, the judge who handed down the initial sentence said the offense was “as flagrant a breach as could be imagined; it was borne of selfishness and arrogance.”
Mack’s grandmother, Jeanne Mack, said she has reached out to the White House for help with getting the young woman released.
“She’s devastated. She’s terrified. She’s having anxiety attacks,” Jeanne Mack told “Fox & Friends” Tuesday. “She’s not eating. She’s not sleeping. She says every time she eats, she just gets sick.”
CONCEALED-CARRY PERMIT HOLDER SHOOTS, KILLS SUSPECT INSIDE STORE, POLICE SAY
The senators said that they recognized that the threat of COVID “should not be understated” and that they support the right of the Cayman Islands to enact regulations and “impose fair sentences against those who violate such restrictions.”
“Ms. Mack has admitted guilt, regrets her actions, paid a substantial fine and has been incarcerated for over a week,” the letter from the senators, who both face closely-watched runoffs next month, said. “However, it is the sincere hope of her parents that she can safely and expeditiously return home to continue her studies as a pre-med student at Mercer University.”
“Her family has also expressed serious concern about her safety, as she has received numerous threats against her life following the publicity of her case,” they wrote.
Mack and Ramgeet were the first to be sentenced under the strengthened Cayman Islands law, which originally called for a $2,400 fine and up to 6 months in jail. Penalties were boosted to up to two years behind bars and a $12,000 fine.
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The Caymans, a Caribbean territory with nearly 62,000 people, has reported more than 300 coronavirus cases and two deaths.
Mack’s case drew outrage from Eric Trump, the president’s son, who last week called the sentence “infuriating.”
“Skylar is an 18 year old girl who left her hotel to watch her boyfriend compete in a jet ski competition… 4 months in jail?!” he tweeted.
Fox News’ Paul Best and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
A South Australian wind farm operator has been fined $1 million for contravening national electricity rules in the three years leading up to the 2016 statewide blackout.
The company accepted it failed to protect against “abnormal voltage”
The court found the breach of national energy rules was not deliberate
The company was also ordered to pay $100,000 in court costs
The Australian Energy Regulator (AER) launched legal action against Snowtown Wind Farm Stage 2 (SWF2) last year, after turbines shut down unexpectedly.
The company was accused of supplying electricity to the grid despite not having protection system settings approved by the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO).
According to the judgement, SWF2 was a wholly owned subsidiary of Trustpower Limited, a publicly listed New Zealand power company, at the relevant time.
The AER also launched legal action against three other wind farms — Hornsdale, Pacific Hydro’s Clement’s Gap and AGL’s Hallett farms — but the outcomes of those cases have yet to be determined.
The blackout occurred on September 28, 2016, when extreme weather, described at the time as “twin tornadoes”, caused major damage to electricity infrastructure, knocking down huge transmission lines.
The AER said a subsequent loss of wind generation then triggered the blackout, which left 850,000 customers without power.
SWF2 accepted the $1 million penalty for failing to adequately protect its wind farm from “abnormal voltage”.
Justice Richard White said the contravention was “not deliberate” and the company “took prompt steps to rectify the situation”.
The Federal Court today ordered the company — which has 90 wind turbines in SA’s mid north — to implement a compliance program and hire an independent “compliance expert” to ensure it abides by the rules in the future.
The expert will then provide a written compliance report to the court after six months.
Justice White said the wind farm had low-voltage protection systems fitted to each of its turbines to protect “against abnormal voltage excursion of the power system” — but they were set at a lower threshold than required by the National Electricity Rules (NER).
“The ability of wind farm turbines to continue operating (‘to ride through’) periods of voltage fluctuations … is an important requirement for their connection to the power system in the NEM (National Electricity Market),” he wrote in his judgement.
He said the NER “imposes an obligation” on generators of electricity, such as SWF2, to have protective systems in place to deal with episodes of abnormal voltage in the power system.
“The purpose of such systems is to ensure that the generating units remain in continuous operation during specified disturbances and thereby to assist AEMO in maintaining power system security,” he said.
“On 28 September 2016, six under-voltage disturbances occurred on the power system within a period of approximately 90 seconds.
“In response to the sixth under-voltage disturbance, the [low-voltage protection system] was activated on 34 of the 37 turbines then in service, with the consequence that they shut down and ceased to supply active power to the power system.
Justice White ordered SWF2 to pay the “Commonwealth of Australia a pecuniary penalty of $1 million in respect of the contravention”.
He also ordered SWF2 to pay the AER’s court costs of $100,000.
It is the first time China’s Foreign Ministry has specifically mentioned the deals.
“The China-Australia FTA makes it clear that the FTA should provide convenience for investors in both countries and continues to screen investments at lower threshold,” Wang said.
“So, what’s done by the Australian side went against the FTA. Because of these discriminatory actions, Chinese companies’ investments in Australia have nosedived since 2017, and the number of last year decreased by 85 per cent compared to the 2016 level.”
The Foreign Investment Review Board [FIRB] did not recommend blocking either deal, leaving the Australian government vulnerable to China’s claims of political interference.
The board was split on whether the CK takeover of APA would be contrary to the national interest. The deal would have created a mega-energy infrastructure provider through a $20 billion network of power plants and gas. The board was unable to reach a unanimous recommendation.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission [ACCC] said it would not oppose the acquisition after the CK consortium entered into a court-enforceable undertaking to divest some of its gas assets in Western Australia.
The $600 million bid for Lion Dairy by Mengniu Dairy was blocked in August by Frydenberg. FIRB and Treasury had recommended the sale go ahead and the ACCC approved the deal. It would have seen Mengniu take over Lion’s milk, iced coffee, yoghurt and soy milk portfolio. No agricultural land was part of the sale.
Frydenberg said at the time that the deal was “contrary to the national interest” but has not elaborated how the purchase would have threatened competition or national security.
The treasurer was contacted for comment.
The dispute follows months of rising animosity between China and Australia over the Australian government’s decision to block Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from the 5G network, its push for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus and criticism of China’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
Chinese state media on Monday confirmed Australian thermal coal has been blocked from entering Chinese ports, hobbling at least $4 billion a year in exports.
Wang told reporters on Tuesday night he was unaware of the specific situation and referred them to China’s Customs Department.
“Recent measures taken by the Chinese authorities on some imported products from Australia are in line with China’s laws and regulations and international practices,” he said. “They are also responsible steps to safeguard the interests of domestic industries and consumers.”
The trade dispute now covers more than $20 billion in Australian exports.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday said that if the reports of a ban on Australian coal were accurate that would “obviously be in breach of our free trade agreement”.
“Australia’s sovereignty is never for sale,” he said. “What we are looking for is ensuring that we can continue on with what has been a very mutually beneficial relationship.”
Eryk Bagshaw is the China correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Due to travel restrictions, he is currently based in Canberra.
China appears to be breaching its trade deal with Australia by taking a series of “disruptive and restrictive measures” against Australian exports, the Morrison government has said.
As concerns grow among Australian exporters about the impact of a widening range of actions, the trade minister, Simon Birmingham, told the Senate on Wednesday all dispute settlement options were on the table.
The concerns were echoed by Prof Rory Medcalf, the head of the Australian National University’s national security college, who said Beijing was “turning economic goods into goads of coercion” under Xi Jinping’s leadership.
Chinese authorities suspended imports from a sixth Australian red meat processing plant this week, as Australian wine exporters scrambled to find alternative markets after being hit with hefty tariffs.
China has generally defended its trade measures on technical grounds and has denied engaging in a politically motivated campaign of “targeting” of Australian exports, but it has argued it is up to the Australian side to take concrete steps that would allow high-level dialogue to resume.
Birmingham was required to attend the Senate on Wednesday to make an explanation about the China-Australia free trade agreement (Chafta) after the upper house passed an order to produce documents last week.
Birmingham said the Australian government had “become increasingly concerned about a series of trade disruptive and restrictive measures implemented by the Chinese government on a wide range of goods” from Australia.
Those disruptions had “increased significantly in recent months”, he said. “In the view of the Australian government, the targeted nature of Chinese government measures on Australian goods raises concerns about China’s adherence to the letter and spirit of both its Chafta and its [World Trade Organization] obligations.”
He said Australia had raised these concerns with Chinese officials on multiple occasions in both Canberra and Beijing and had spoken up at the WTO committee on trade in goods on 25 November.
Those concerns were about barley, wine, meat and dairy establishments, live seafood exports, logs, timber, coal and cotton.
Birmingham said Chafta included a structure of regular meetings that were meant to create an ongoing dialogue between the two countries but China’s lack of engagement in recent years had prevented the use of those structures.
He said Australia would “continue to raise issues of apparent potential or discriminatory actions targeted against Australia” and was “considering all dispute settlement options in order to support our exporters and to ensure they can compete on fair terms”, including challenges through the WTO.
Medcalf, the ANU professor, argued that “much of the China trauma our diplomatic and economic relations are going through at present” would be seen, down the track, as part of Australia building up its national resilience.
He said many people had opinions about whether the Australian prime minister, ministers or officials “could have chosen this word or that word slightly differently” in managing the China relationship.
But, speaking to an audience that included the head of the foreign affairs department, Frances Adamson, Medcalf argued the differences between the two countries were largely structural and driven by profound changes in China over the past decade.
“I do have a strong view that structurally, if it wasn’t going to happen this year, it was going to happen,” Medcalf told the National Press Club. “That’s not nice news to all the producers and all those in our economy who are being deeply affected by this. But I think it’s the reality.”
Medcalf said there was no easy “reset” available.
“If we expect in 2050 the Australian economy to look exactly the same as it does now, then we should simply be focusing on a reset at all costs, but we’ll lose our national identity in the process and I defy any government to make that choice.”
The independent senator Rex Patrick, who initiated the order to produce documents on Chafta, said he was pleased to hear Birmingham “acknowledge the clear pattern of China’s action in what is a coercive trade campaign”.
“Both the Coalition and Labor were naive in negotiating a free trade agreement with a regime with no respect for the rule of law,” Patrick said.
Advocates of Chafta note the total value of Australian goods and services exports to China has nearly doubled from $87bn in 2015 to $169bn last year.
Labor’s trade spokesperson, Madeleine King, who told Guardian Australia last week the government should not walk away from Chafta, said on Wednesday the Coalition needed to do more to manage the relationship.
King said a Labor government would work with exporters “to build relationships and secure the markets that Australian jobs depend on” and “work with other allied and aligned countries who also face the challenge of a more assertive China”.
The Morrison government has largely enjoyed bipartisan support in its approach in managing relations with China, with some arguments around the margins concerning tone, leadership, and the role of outspoken backbenchers.
Beijing has repeatedly pointed to Australia’s own anti-dumping investigations against Chinese products. Last month China’s foreign ministry argued it was Australia that had undermined cooperation and open trading principles by blocking Chinese investment projects on “ambiguous and unfounded” national security concerns.
Against the backdrop of increasing tensions between the two countries, Greg Moriarty, the head of Australia’s defence department, on Tuesday evening accused China of acting in a “disturbing” manner and complicating Australia’s security environment by building military infrastructure in disputed parts of the South China Sea.
UPDATED | Chief public health officer professor Nicola Spurrier has this evening personally apologised to a South Australian man who was wrongly accused of breaching quarantine when he visited numerous shops while infected with COVID-19.
Her apology comes after health authorities this afternoon revealed the man was never directed to go into quarantine, despite Spurrier saying yesterday that he “unfortunately… did not spend the whole time in quarantine” after being identified as a contact of a confirmed case.
SA Health yesterday said the man, aged in his 30s, was self-quarantining after attending the Intensive English Language Institute at Flinders University, but went out on Sunday November 22 after receiving an initial negative test.
But today deputy chief public health officer Dr Emily Kirkpatrick told reporters the man had not breached quarantine as widely reported, after being identified as a “casual contact” of a confirmed case at the Intensive English Language Institute.
“For this particular cluster associated with the school we did not require them as casual contacts to go into a set mandated quarantine period under the Emergency Management Act,” she said.
“I think that’s really important to understand here. There was not a specific direction served to this individual to undertake quarantine.
“This individual was identified as a casual contact and so was asked to undertake a test and go into isolation. He was never given a formal direction to go into quarantine for 14 days. This individual did get tested on day one and isolated until his test result came back and it came back negative.
“He’s gone and had a test on day 12 following the advice from SA Health. He has isolated until that result has come back and it has come back positive.”
Spurrier this evening issued a statement apologising for the “miscommunication”.
“To clarify and after reviewing Communicable Disease Control Branch (CDCB) processes, as a casual contact this individual was never directed to quarantine by SA Health or SAPOL and therefore has done nothing wrong,” she said.
“He received communication from the Intensive English Language Institute as requested by CDCB, in which he was advised to get tested and isolate, which he did straight away.
“There was no further communication from SA Health with this individual following his negative test result.
“He has not breached quarantine and he has been fully cooperative with our contact tracing efforts which are aimed at stopping the spread of the virus any further.
“I would personally like to apologise for this miscommunication and thank him for continuing to work with us.”
It came as authorities reported no new cases of COVID-19 in SA today.
But public health alerts were issued yesterday after it was revealed the man visited Big W Brickworks, Torrensville (12.15pm to 12.50pm), Foodland Norwood (1.20pm to 2pm) and Kmart Kurralta Park (2.45pm to 3.10pm) on November 22 while infectious.
SA Health says people who visited those “high risk” locations at the specified times must get tested immediately – even if they don’t have symptoms.
The man visited a number of other locations for a shorter period. Those who visited the locations at the same time are being asked to get tested if they have symptoms:
On The Run, Hilton (12.05 pm – 12.15 pm), Anaconda, Mile End (12.55 pm – 1.05 pm), Guzman y Gomez, Glandore (2.45 pm – 2.50 pm) and Glenelg Boost Juice Shop (3.20 pm – 3.30pm).
SA Health has also issued a quarantine alert for the Intensive English Language Institute at Flinders University between November 13 and 28.
Anybody who visited the campus and those in their immediate household must self-quarantine for 14 days. Those who attended the campus must also get tested on day one and 12 of their quarantine.
Authorities set up additional pop-up testing clinics outside Big W Brickworks and Kmart Kurralta Park.
Australian Medical Association state president Dr Chris Moy earlier told InDaily he understood the man believed he was doing as he should.
“My understanding is the individual did the right thing, quarantined (as a casual contact of an infected person) and then went and had a test which came back negative and then the day the lockdown ended, misunderstood that that meant it was ok – a negative test and lockdown over – he could go out,” he said.
“And then the next day, he developed symptoms and did the right thing which was actually quarantine and then later got a test which was positive.”
Moy said that meant he would have been infectious the day he went out to various shops.
“The message is if you have been told to quarantine you quarantine for the whole period irrespective of if you get a negative test in the interim because that does not mean you can’t become positive later in your quarantine period,” he said.
“I think there’s a general misunderstanding out there.
“The other lesson to be learnt is that for all those people that haven’t been wearing masks out there, if you’d worn a mask in that situation you would have reduced your odds of getting infected and that’s why we need everybody to start wearing a mask, do the physical distancing and stick with the program.”
Kirkpatrick said the man was “given information via a text message” advising him to get tested and go into isolation.
“Further advice was then not given to this individual after he received his negative test result and my understanding is that he has then assumed he is then free to move about the community,” she said.
Asked if that meant he should have received further information after his initial negative test asking him to isolate for longer, Kirkpatrick said: “I’m sure we’ll be looking at this in more close detail particularly upon reflection, certainly when we debrief and we undertake a full analysis of what has occurred as part of this Parafield cluster.”
She said SA Health had “widened the net to include those casual contacts under our Parafield cluster direction so that will ensure now that there’s no need to differentiate between casual and close contacts”.
“Everyone is included under that direction and required to get testing on day one and 12,” she said.
“So there shouldn’t really be any confusion now going forward with this particular site.”
Asked about the public anger directed at the man, after the initial impression from authorities that he had breached quarantine, Kirkpatrick said “I think we often go out looking for where we can blame”.
“You can understand why the community may be feeling frustrated or angry towards this individual,” she said.
“But what I really want to emphasise here is this person has done the right thing, got tested on day one and 12 and were part of a casual contact group with a lower risk profile.
“We are not about blaming individuals here. We’re about making sure that people go and get tested.”
Police Commissioner Grant Stevens said the man had done nothing wrong.
Moy said it wasn’t helpful to look for people to blame.
“People need to stop focusing on the person and blame and actually focus on what they can do,” he said.
“Worrying about who to blame is not going to help us at this moment in time. We really need people to focus.
“Individuals doing their bit could be the difference between us having a Christmas that’s actually going to be pretty normal and us having a Christmas where we’re going to be in lockdown.”
The easing of restrictions will go ahead tomorrow.
Changes include increasing the caps on funerals and private functions to 150 people, permitting licensed venues to serve alcohol to standing people outdoors and allowing community sport. Home gatherings will still be limited to 10 people.
“At this point we’re aiming for the 1st of December to take that next step before we get back to where we want to be by mid-December,” Stevens told ABC Radio this morning.
“This time, because of that person having come forward, we are right on top of this hopefully, and the advice has gone out to the community and if people follow that advice there’s a good chance that we might stop any further spread if it’s out there.”
The new restrictions will be in place for two weeks.
Stevens told reporters this afternoon that authorities would consider increasing the number of people allowed to gather at people’s homes to 50 in time for Christmas.
Currently, only 10 people are allowed to gather at a private residences.
“I think it’s very high on the agenda that we’ll lift the number of people who can be at homes,” Stevens said.
“It goes back to 50 at a home – we’re hopeful on December 14.
“If you’re catering that’s big enough.”
Meanwhile, Flinders University expects it will be able to reopen its Sturt Campus on Wednesday after a deep clean.
Senior Deputy Vice Chancellor Professor Clare Pollock told ABC Radio the majority of students had not visited the campus, as most classes are not running during exam time.
She said “probably around 200 or so students might have been in that area”.
It comes after authorities last fortnight sent the state into a brief lockdown after a man who tested positive to the virus allegedly failed to disclose his employment at the Woodville Pizza Bar coronavirus hotspot.
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The Queensland government will wait another week before making a decision on reopening its border to greater Adelaide “before Christmas” as thousands of visitors from southern states prepare to flock to the Sunshine State.
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk urged people in the SA capital to be patient after a briefing with the chief health officer Jeannette Young.
She said Young and Queensland Health needed more time to assess the coronavirus cluster in Adelaide.
“Of course we do have that aspiration that everyone can travel freely before Christmas, so I’m just asking people to please be patient for another week so they can do some further detailed analysis about that,” Palaszczuk told reporters.
Queensland closed the border to 20 local government areas in greater Adelaide on November 16 after the cluster emerged.
Young was concerned that large numbers of people in Adelaide were still being asked to self-quarantine and that pop-up testing sites were still being rolled out.
“It looks good there now at 33 cases related to that cluster (but) they still are continuing to have cases and continuing to have areas of concern,” she said.
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SA’s top public health officer has apologised to the man who went shopping while infectious with COVID-19 after it was found “he did nothing wrong.”
SA Health’s Chief Public Health Officer Nicola Spurrier said the man “was never directed to quarantine by SA Health or SAPOL and therefore has done nothing wrong” because he was a casual contact.
“There was no further communication from SA Health with this individual following his negative test result,” she said.
“He has not breached quarantine and he has been fully cooperative with our contact tracing efforts which are aimed at stopping the spread of the virus any further.
“I would personally like to apologise for this miscommunication and thank him for continuing to work with us.”
The reversal came as authorities announced the state was on track to ease restrictions on Tuesday, after recording zero new infections on Monday.
On Sunday, it was announced that a man had breached his quarantine and gone on a shopping spree, visiting seven businesses across Adelaide while infectious on the previous Sunday.
Hundreds of shoppers have been asked to get tested if they attended the same locations as the infected man.
The man, in his 30s, is a student at the Intensive English Language Institute located at Flinders University’s Sturt campus.
On Monday SA’s deputy chief public health officer Emily Kirkpatrick said the man was a casual contact who had in fact done the right thing by getting tested on day one and day 12.
The man was told to get tested and self-isolate until he received a negative result, and get another test 12 days later.
He tested positive to the day-12 test.
“He was never given a formal direction to quarantine for the 14 days … He did get tested on day one and isolated until his test results came back negative,” Ms Kirkpatrick said.
“This person has done the right thing and was part of the casual contact group under a lower risk profile so it is important to emphasise we’re not about blaming individuals. We’re about making sure people go and get tested.
“We at SA Health have cast the net widely to make sure we are not missed individuals as part of this … so that will ensure there is no need to differentiate casual and close contacts.
“Everyone is included under that direction and required to get tested on day one and 12 so there should not be any confusion going forward.
“It has been a very confusing two weeks for the community … so fingers crossed we get through this quickly.”
Police Commissioner Grant Stevens, who is also the State Coordinator, said he was “pleased to announce” there would be no late changes following the promising zero cases on Monday.
“I’ve had discussions with (SA) Health over the weekend and today and we’re still on track for midnight tonight to take that first step towards where we want to be by December 14,” he said.
Under the changes, a 1 per 4 sqm density will remain for indoor activities but a 1 per 2 sqm rule applies outdoors and stand-up drinking will be allowed.
A patron cap in licensed premises will be removed on the proviso that QR code readers are used at all venues.
Funerals and private functions can have up to 150 people with stand-up drinking, while weddings, also capped at 150, can have drinking and dancing.
However, a cap of 10 people remains for home gatherings.
Community sport will resume under modified plans to limit potential virus spread.
A SA Health COVID management plan will need to be approved for gatherings of up to 1000 people and at nightclubs.
Masks are also required in Allied Health, residential care, and personal care services.
The border with Victoria will open at midnight on Monday.
“We still require people to do the online pre approval process … It will be as streamlined as possible,” Commissioner Stevens said.
“One major factor for us (police) is the volume of people travelling to and from SA. We don‘t want to inhibit people anymore than we need to but we need to know that what we’re doing does something to minimise risk.’
There were 4234 tests conducted on Sunday, something Ms Kirkpatrick was thrilled about.
She again urged anyone experiencing the mildest of symptoms to get tested immediately and stressed the importance of wearing a mask.
“We’ve seen a fantastic uptake of testing this morning and yesterday so very pleased to see that,” she said.
“We are expecting to see that number significantly higher tomorrow as we see more results coming through the laboratory.”
People were seen queuing at the Thebarton and Kurralta Park pop up testing sites early Monday morning.
Ms Kirkpatrick said the testing site at the Thebarton Community Centre will remain open until Friday.
The state’s total number of coronavirus cases remains at 561, with 14 considered active.
There are 33 cases still connected to the Parafield cluster, with about 1300 people quarantining over links to the group.
CoronaCheck is RMIT ABC Fact Check’s weekly email newsletter dedicated to fighting the misinformation infodemic surrounding the coronavirus outbreak.
You can read the latest edition below, and subscribe to have the next newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.
With lockdown easing in Melbourne, low case numbers recorded nationwide and most state borders set to re-open by Christmas, COVID conspiracy theorists have turned their attention to the most visible remaining preventative coronavirus measure in Victoria — masks. We’ve taken a look at a claim that “no mask, no entry” policies in Victoria are illegal, and check what the latest fact checks are saying about mask safety.
Also in this edition: in a break from wall-to-wall US election coverage, we’ve gone to London to bring you the latest death statistics and case numbers from the UK.
Did health officials in Victoria update their directive on mandatory mask wearing?
A document purported to have been issued by the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) suggesting businesses could be breaching discrimination laws by refusing service to non-mask wearers is being shared widely across Facebook.
The document claims that DHHS directives, issued on October 11, warned that Victorian businesses displaying “no mask, no entry” signage or that refused service to those not wearing a mask were in breach of Commonwealth discrimination laws.
“Signs saying ‘no mask, no entry’ are a breach of section 6 & 24 of the Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act,” the document notes.
But does the document originate from the DHHS, and did the department update its advice on October 11 in relation to masks?
Well, no. A DHHS spokeswoman confirmed to Fact Check that the department was not the source of the document.
“This is not an official DHHS legal document,” she said, adding that it was “important that information about coronavirus is obtained from trusted medical sources, such as state and Commonwealth government websites”.
The department did issue new directives relating to face coverings on October 11. The changes, however, did not relate to anti-discrimination laws, as the document circulating on Facebook suggests.
Rather, the update makes wearing a “fitted face covering” mandatory, whereas previously, Victorians could use any type of cloth face covering, such as a bandanna.
As to the document’s claim that a refusal of entry or services to someone who is medically exempt from wearing a mask constituted a breach of the Commonwealth Discrimination Act of 1992, experts told Fact Check such a case would need to be tested in the courts.
Piers Gooding, a research fellow at the Melbourne Social Equity Institute and University of Melbourne Law School, told Fact Check it was possible businesses refusing entry could be in breach of such laws but that it seemed unlikely.
“It could potentially be considered ‘indirect disability discrimination’ to outright refuse entry to people who are not wearing masks when some people may have a legitimate exception that is directly related to their disability,” he said in an email.
Dr Gooding explained that “indirect discrimination” occurred when a business or entity had a blanket rule that precluded some people (in this case, those with disability) from accessing the premises or service, and then failed to make reasonable adjustments..
But he noted there were several complicating factors that could exempt a mandatory mask policy from discrimination laws — in particular, provisions for the protection of health and safety.
Dr Gooding said that, ultimately, this would need to be determined by the courts.
Belinda Smith, an associate professor of law at the University of Sydney, told Fact Check that businesses were in the difficult position of having to balance multiple legal obligations when it came to enforcing face coverings on their premises.
“It causes some problems because the store owner has obligations to not discriminate, and also ensure the health and safety of workers and customers while also complying with the health directions.”
She added that questions of discrimination normally came down to “tests of reasonableness”.
In the Victorian context, where health directives explicitly exclude those who have a medical exemption and do not require them to provide evidence, a blanket ban enforced by a business could be deemed unreasonable and found to be in breach of the Commonwealth Discrimination Act.
“The law says that if you impose a requirement or condition of entry that particularly impacts people with disability, then the requirement or condition must be reasonable.”
Dr Smith added that in high-risk locations (for example, medical settings), this could differ and may be considered reasonable.
The latest on masks
While genuine medical conditions make it difficult for some people to mask up, rampant online misinformation may be playing a role in why people are resistant to face coverings.
Take, for example, a claim shared on Facebook that mask wearing causes similar symptoms to COVID-19 due to the presence of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), a synthetic material used in the making of non-stick cookware and more commonly known by the brand name Teflon.
Fact checkers at Lead Stories found that while some masks were sprayed with PTFE, health problems associated with such masks would not arise until temperatures hit 300 degrees Fahrenheit (149 degrees Celsius).
“Mask wearers would suffer bodily tissue degradation, similar to cooking, well before PTFE might become a concern,” Lead Stories noted.
Meanwhile, fact checkers at AFP have been busy debunking a number of claims stemming from a viral German-language video in which a neurologist suggests wearing a mask could cause neurological damage.
In claims translated into English and shared widely on Facebook, Margareta Griesz-Brisson posits that not only do masks fail to protect against COVID-19, but mask wearing could also lead to oxygen deficiency, carbon dioxide intoxication, and the killing of brain cells.
However, experts told AFP that masks were capable of blocking air-borne particles carrying COVID-19, and that wearing a mask had no effect on oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in the body. This, in turn, meant nerve cells in the brain would not be harmed.
The fact checkers also found there was no basis to a claim shared on Twitter that most deaths that occurred during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic were the result of bacterial pneumonia caused by mask wearing, a fact of which US infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci was supposedly aware.
“The unmasked buried the masked in the ‘Spanish Flu’. What did people in #masks die from?,” queried a Twitter user. “Bacterial pneumonia. Who knew this and wrote about it in 2008? Dr. Anthony Fauci.”
Speaking to AFP, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), of which Dr Fauci is the director, said the apparent source of the claim “has nothing to do with masks”, adding that the study “analysed data from fatal 1918 infections and showed that the majority of cases were associated with secondary bacterial pneumonias”.
With experts estimating that as many 100,000 people a day could be contracting COVID-19 in England, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has placed the country into a one-month lockdown during which people may only leave home for essential shopping, exercise, education or work.
The decision comes amid a slew of widely shared misinformation about the severity of the pandemic in the UK, with a number of claims regarding the “true” death toll spreading online.
Full Fact took a look at one false claim circulating on Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp that suggested just 21 people were dying of COVID-19 each day in England, while other illnesses were responsible for hundreds of deaths a day.
The fact checkers found that while the figures shared for the number of daily deaths caused by cancer (450), Alzheimer’s (192), heart disease (174) and stroke (99) were in the ballpark, at the time the claim was shared to Facebook, 142 people diagnosed with COVID-19 were dying each day on average.
The fact checkers also found that the UK as a whole was not on track to record a lower-than-average number of deaths in 2020.
“Unless deaths decline sharply, the UK death toll is likely to be its highest in decades,” they concluded.
Fact checkers at Reuters also debunked a claim suggesting the number of Brits who had died of COVID-19 was as little as 1,438, finding the figure in fact referred to the number of people with no underlying health conditions who had died of COVID-19 in English hospitals.
According to the fact checkers, as of October 27, there had been 61,116 deaths involving COVID-19 across the UK.
In other news
Scott Morrison’s plan for a gas-led economic recovery has alarmed some scientists and political figures, who say such an approach will only add to the challenge of tackling climate change.
In a recent tweet, Greens leader Adam Bandt said coal and gas must be kept in the ground “to have any chance of stopping runaway global warming”.
While the methane contained in natural gas is significantly more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of its impact in warming the atmosphere, the debate in Australia has primarily focused on using gas to generate power, particularly to back up — or “firm” — intermittent renewable energy.
For electricity generation, gas is, on average, less emissions-intensive than coal, even after factoring in “fugitive emissions” lost in the transportation of gas, as well as other “upstream” and “downstream” sources of emissions linked to power generation.
Analysing the 2018-19 emissions data for 82 gas and coal-fired plants, Fact Check found that on average, gas generators were found to be significantly less emissions intensive than those fired by coal.
The averages, however, masked significant variations in the performance of individual plants, which show that gas is not always cleaner than coal for power generation.
For example, Australia’s “dirtiest” gas plant, Barcaldine in central Queensland, produces almost double the emissions per kilowatt hour of electricity generated than Australia’s dirtiest brown-coal fired plant, Victoria’s Yallourn power station.
Moreover, the analysis is clouded by scientific uncertainty relating to fugitive (and deliberately released) emissions linked to the extraction, processing, storage and transportation of gas.
Edited by Ellen McCutchan with thanks to Sonam Thomas and Marco Holden Jeffery