UK doctors seek review of 12-week gap between vaccine doses

A medical staff member prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at Tudor Ranch in Mecca, Calif., Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

A major British doctors’ group is says the U.K. government should “urgently review” it’s decision to give people a second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine up to 12 weeks after the first, rather than the shorter gap recommended by the manufacturer and the World Health Organization.

The U.K., which has Europe’s deadliest coronavirus outbreak, adopted the policy in order to give as many people as possible a first dose of vaccine quickly. So far almost 5.5 million people have received a shot of either a vaccine made by U.S. drugmaker Pfizer and Germany’s BioNTech or one developed by U.K.-Swedish pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and Oxford University.

AstraZeneca has said it believes a first dose of its vaccine offers protection after 12 weeks, but Pfizer says it has not tested the efficacy of its jab after such a long gap.

The British Medical Association on Saturday urged England’s chief medical officer to “urgently review the U.K.’s current position of second doses after 12 weeks.”

In a statement, the association said there was “growing concern from the medical profession regarding the delay of the second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as Britain’s strategy has become increasingly isolated from many other countries.”

“No other nation has adopted the U.K.’s approach,” Dr. Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the BMA council, told the BBC.

UK doctors seek review of 12-week gap between vaccine doses
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a coronavirus press conference at 10 Downing Street in London, Friday Jan. 22, 2021. Johnson announced that the new variant of COVID-19, which was first discovered in the south of England, may be linked with a possible increase in the mortality rate. (Leon Neal/Pool via AP)

He said the WHO had recommended that the second Pfizer vaccine shot could be given up to six weeks after the first but only “in exceptional circumstances.”

“I do understand the trade-off and the rationale, but if that was the right thing to do then we would see other nations following suit,” Nagpaul said.

Yvonne Doyle, medical director of Public Health England, defended the decision as “a reasonable scientific balance on the basis of both supply and also protecting the most people.”

Researchers in Britain have begun collecting blood samples from newly vaccinated people in order to study how many antibodies they are producing at different intervals, from 3 weeks to 24 months, to get an answer to the question of what timing is best for the shots.

The doctors’ concerns came a day after government medical advisers said there was evidence that a new variant of the virus first identified in southeast England carries a greater risk of death than the original strain.

  • UK doctors seek review of 12-week gap between vaccine doses
    Resident Margaret Keating, 88, receives the Pfizer BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Abercorn House Care Home in Hamilton, Scotland, Monday Dec. 14, 2020. (Russell Cheyne/PA via AP)
  • UK doctors seek review of 12-week gap between vaccine doses
    A pharmacist prepares a syringe of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine Friday, Jan. 8, 2021, at Queen Anne Healthcare, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation facility in Seattle. Pfizer has committed to supply up to 40 million doses of its COVID-19 vaccine this year to a World Health Organization-backed effort to get affordable vaccines to 92 poor and middle-income countries. The deal announced Friday, Jan. 22 will supply the shots to the program known as COVAX. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
  • UK doctors seek review of 12-week gap between vaccine doses
    A health worker prepares the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine inside Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury, England, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Salisbury Cathedral opened its doors for the second time as a venue for the Sarum South Primary Care Network COVID-19 Local Vaccination Service. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
  • UK doctors seek review of 12-week gap between vaccine doses
    People sit and relax after receiving their Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination at Salisbury Cathedral in Salisbury, England, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. Salisbury Cathedral opened its doors for the second time as a venue for the Sarum South Primary Care Network COVID-19 Local Vaccination Service. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
  • UK doctors seek review of 12-week gap between vaccine doses
    Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during a coronavirus press conference at 10 Downing Street in London, Friday Jan. 22, 2021. Johnson announced that the new variant of COVID-19, which was first discovered in the south of England, may be linked with an increase in the mortality rate. (Leon Neal/Pool via AP)

Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said Friday “that there is evidence that there is an increased risk for those who have the new variant,” which is also more transmissible than the original virus. He said the new strain might be about 30% more deadly, but stressed that “the evidence is not yet strong” and more research is needed.

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Nuclear weapons, some enabled from Pine Gap, on wrong side of law


As of Friday, 22 January 2021, Australia will be on the wrong side of international law. This is the day the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons comes into force, having attained last October the threshold ratification by 50 member states of the United Nations.

Honduras was the 50th on 25 October, 2020; the 51st, Benin, followed on 11 December. The very first was The Vatican (Holy See) in September 2017.

A total of 86 countries have signed the treaty, the first step towards ratification. Australia isn’t one of them. Indeed, under the present government Australia has stood in the way of the development of the ban treaty and of debate in the Australian parliament about it.

This puts our country in conflict with its obligation – under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a party – to pursue negotiations on effective measures relating to nuclear disarmament.

If it were pursuing such measures,  Australia’s “greatest contribution”, argues the Nobel laureate ICAN – the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons – would be to renounce any role for nuclear weapons in the defence of the country and to join the ban treaty.

Under the treaty, Australia would have to desist from helping the United States with the possible use of its nuclear weapons, which is where the  issue becomes particularly relevant to Central Australia.

As Professor Richard Tanter has explained previously in the Alice Springs News, the American military base we host at Pine Gap has a critical role in US nuclear command, control and intelligence. This is specific to a discrete facility at the base, the Relay Ground Station (RGS) in the western compound.

He argues that an Australian Government, to become compliant with the ban treaty, could require the closure of the RGS without impacting the rest of the base, and that this is technically and strategically achievable without throwing the alliance into crisis.

The Relay Ground Station at Pine Gap. Far from closing, it is currently being expanded. Google Earth image, ©2020 Maxar Technologies, July 2020.

There is no hint of interest in going down this path from the present Australian Government. However, this might change with a future Labor government, the Labor Party having committed to sign and ratify the treaty. Indeed, Labor leader Anthony Albanese – who has described nuclear weapons as “the most destructive, inhumane and indiscriminate weapons ever created” – will speak at one the national events celebrating the treaty coming into force.

On the impact that ratifying the treaty could have on the alliance with the US he told the party’s national conference in 2018:

“I am a very strong supporter of our friends and our alliance with the United States, it goes beyond a relation between individuals. The fact is that we can disagree with our friends in the short term, while maintaining those relations.

“When other treaties such as landmines first came up, the United States and many other countries that ended up supporting it today were hostile to the idea.”

The present government, however, refuses to give serious consideration to the ban treaty – dispensing with it in just one paragraph on the Department of Foreign Affairs website, a paragraph “riddled with misrepresentations”, according to ICAN, which has published a succinct document to answer each, titled For the record.

This refusal puts us out of step with other allies and friends in the region: most of our Pacific neighbours have ratified the treaty, including Aotearoa-New Zealand.

Our immediate large neighbours to the north, Indonesia and The Philippines, have signed the treaty. Some south Asian states, like Bangladesh and Malaysia, have ratified it. 

No country with a nuclear arsenal has signed, nor have most NATO members, nor many of their military allies; on the contrary, they mostly boycotted the negotiations, which left the field largely to the countries of the Global South, typically excluded from playing a role in nuclear policy discussions.

Of the non-aligned EU member states, Austria and Ireland have ratified the treaty. Indeed, Austria has taken a leading role in negotiations and will host the first meeting of the “states parties” to the treaty within the year. Non-states parties could attend as observers.

One of the obligations the treaty places on its states parties is to seek universality, meaning that they must work to get states that are not party to the treaty to sign on and ratify.

Australia could thus come under increasing pressure at international and regional fora.

Meanwhile the treaty has popular support, says Gem Romuld, Australian director of ICAN, citing an IPSOS poll which asked whether Australia should sign and ratify the treaty: 71% answered yes (20% were unsure, 9% said no).

She says dozens of unions, religious, medical, humanitarian and environmental organisations have joined the movement to push for Australian ratification of the treaty, including the Australian Medical Association, Australian Red Cross and Australian Council of Trade Unions.

Some 88 federal parliamentarians have pledged to work for Australia to join the ban and some local governments are getting involved. In Hobart, for instance, the Lord Mayor will host a reception to celebrate the entry into force of the treaty.

In Alice Springs the Peace Action Think Tank (ASPATT) will host a film night this Saturday to raise awareness and mobilise support for Australia to ratify the treaty, while celebrating the historic occasion.

The 1989 film Fat Man and Little Boy, starring Paul Newman in a story about the Manhattan Project – the secret endeavour during World War 11 to develop the first nuclear weapons – will screen at the Alice Springs Cinema, 6pm ($15 at the door, cash only). It will follow a short film featuring Karina Lester (pictured, photo supplied). She is a Yankuntjatjara/Pitjantjatjara second generation survivor of the nuclear tests at Maralinga, which devastated her Country and were believed to have blinded her father, Yami Lester OAM. 

Says ASPATT’s convenor Jonathan Pilbrow: “Unfortunately, the threat of nuclear weapons does not belong to a bygone era, but remains a present and real threat of our times.

“The most powerful way to honour the victims and survivors of nuclear weapons is to progress the elimination of these abhorrent weapons.

“It will be a step towards addressing some of the wrongs of the past, and ensuring Australia doesn’t legitimise the use of nuclear weapons in any circumstances.”


Images, at top: Bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, photos by George R. Caron, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Below: Aftermath of the bomb in Hiroshima, August 1945, photo by National Fire Service photographers, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. For an unforgettable account of what it was like to live through the bombing and into its aftermath, see Hiroshima by John Hersey, Penguin Classics, first published in the New Yorker in August 1946. 

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The enormous gap in Australian Open prep for game’s biggest stars

As far as uneven playing fields go, it’s hard to look past the difference between the preparation for the lower-ranked players in hard, 14-day lockdown prior to the Australian Open and the treatment of the game’s biggest stars.

As 72 players enter the halfway point of their time in strict quarantine, superstars Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams, Dominic Thiem, Naomi Osaka and Venus Williams are currently enjoying a preparation that is as close to normal as is possible in the COVID-19 world.

Tennys Sandgren, who is one of the 72 in hard quarantine, has detailed the difference between his preparation and the build up of the lucky few in Adelaide.

“We’re all aware of the level of preferential treatment the top players get. And I’m not saying it’s undeserved, either,” Sandgren told the Herald and The Age.

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The gap between Australian house prices and incomes is only likely to grow | Australian economy

Australians love of housing continues with even more vigour during the Covid recession – powered by government incentives and record low interest rates, which look set to remain low for many years.

In November a record $23.96bn in new housing loans were taken out. This record reveals how weird this recession is – there is higher unemployment, but it is mostly driven by forces that have little to do with the underlying strength of the economy.

It means that for those still with a full-time job things are pretty good – especially if you are thinking about buying a home.

And so in November last year, the level of new housing loans was 24% above where it was 12 months earlier:

The big boost has come from owner-occupiers – up 31% over the 12 months compared to just a 4% growth for investors.

This lack of investor loans however is just a continuation of what has happened since 2016 when the surge of apartment building came to an end. In November the total of owner-occupier loans was 38% above what it was in January 2017, while investor loans were down 38%:

And among owner-occupiers the big surge has come for those looking to build a new home.

It has to be said that the government’s homebuilder grant of $25,000 for new builds and substantial renovations has worked as intended.

Since it came into effect in June last year, the number of home loans for the construction of houses has doubled from 3,491 in June to 7,107 in November.

So great has been the surge of home loans to build houses that in November the number of such loans was well above even the level that occurred during the GFC when the Rudd government also introduced measures to boost housing construction:

And yet there has also been a big jump in the purchase of established homes. This is less to do with government policies and grants and more to do with the record low interest rates.

It is true that even before the pandemic interest rates were at record lows, but the impact of the Reserve Bank dropping the cash rate to 0.1% might have had the opposite psychological impact that pushing it to 17% in 1989 had.

Back then rates were already high but that final increase knocked the stuffing out of those with a mortgage, and it scared the hell out of those thinking about taking out a home loan.

Similarly, if you were ever worried about holding off taking out a loan because of fears about interest rates, the RBA cutting the cash rate to 0.1% removed them. Even the most risk averse borrower was thinking now it’s the time to take out a loan.

For many this has not just meant a home loan but also a car loan – the number of which has completely recovered from the drop in April last year:

Partly this is because the option of a big spend on an overseas holiday has completely dried up, and as a result loans for travel remains barely above zero:

But will these low rates last?

We know that increases in home loans lead to an increase in house prices, and the Reserve Bank would not wish for a divergence of house prices while unemployment remains high – for such a level is unsustainable and risks a collapse once government grants end.

It also will lead to a decrease in housing affordability as incomes will not keep pace with house prices.

In the past that would have meant an increase in rates, but not now.

Shane Wright reported on Monday in the Sydney Morning Herald that the RBA is instead looking at tightening lending standards should house prices continue to rise.

It will need to do this because there is no prospect at the moment of any increase in wages and inflation that would force the RBA to lift rates.

The most recent market inflation expectations suggests inflation growth will be well below the RBA’s target of 2% throughout this year:

Last November, the Reserve Bank announced that it “will not increase the cash rate until actual inflation is sustainably within the 2 to 3 per cent target range”.

This was a change on its previous advice that it would not do so until it was “confident that inflation will be sustainably within the 2–3 per cent target band”.

As of now, actual inflation has not been above 2% for over five years – and when it was wages growth had been long above 2%:

The RBA has noted that to get inflation back above 2% “wages growth will have to be materially higher than it is currently” and this “will require significant gains in employment and a return to a tight labour market”.

In essence that means unemployment back around 5%. As a result the RBA “is not expecting to increase the cash rate for at least three years”.

And so home loans are likely to continue to grow and so too will the gap between house prices and household income.

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US Declassifies Strategy, Revealing Yawning Gap Between Rhetoric and Reality – The Diplomat

Just eight days before Joe Biden is inaugurated as president of the United States, the Trump administration declassified the strategy it purports to have followed in its policies towards Asia.

Called the “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific,” the President’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien said that the “the document is being released to communicate to the American people and to our allies and partners, the enduring commitment of the United States to keeping the Indo-Pacific region free and open long into the future.”

The timing of the release seems more likely to be intended to pressure the in-coming Biden administration to perpetuate some of the Trump White House’s policies, or to burnish the professional reputations of national security officials tainted by Trump’s behavior and scandal.

Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger, who oversaw much of the strategy’s development as the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia, resigned from the White House last week after a deadly pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol.

The framework lists three overarching challenges in the Pacific: maintaining the United States’ strategic primacy in the region and promoting a liberal economic order against China’s illiberalism; ensuring that North Korea does not threaten the United States; and promoting the United States’ global economic leadership and fair trade.

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Separate from the merits of these objectives, the Trump administration made little progress towards achieving any of them and made some situations much worse.

Trump’s often capriciously pursued trade war against China broadly failed and likely cost the United States economically far more than it did China, and for marginal, if any, strategic benefit.

The world is broadly much more skeptical of China’s global objectives and concerned about its illiberal and unchecked influence. However, this awareness and concern has been driven far more by China’s own behavior, such as its treatment of the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang, the political repression of Hong Kong, its economic punishment of Australia, and its abrasive “wolf warrior” diplomacy, than by U.S. leadership or policy.

The Trump administration’s legacy on the Korean Peninsula is much worse. After coming close to sparking a war with North Korea over the reclusive state’s nuclear weapons program in 2017, Trump engaged Kim Jong Un in a series of not very serious diplomatic summits that failed to produce any agreements. North Korea meanwhile unveiled a number of advanced new nuclear-capable missiles, including a giant intercontinental ballistic missile likely capable of hitting anywhere in the continental United States. Instead of bolstering its relationship with South Korea, the Trump administration repeatedly antagonized it with demands to pay the United States more money to support American troops stationed there, while also threatening to bring many of those forces back home and threatening South Korean car manufacturers with trade tariffs.

Instead of bolstering the United States’ economic leadership, the Trump administration presided over its retreat from the global economic order. In spite of China’s widespread economic coercion and disturbing violations of human rights, it has succeeded in leveraging international disappointment and skepticism of the United States from Trump’s policies to cement itself more securely into the global economy. Since Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, Southeast Asia assembled a new regional trade partnership with China, and the European Union concluded a new investment agreement with China over objections from incoming Biden officials.

The Biden administration now faces an even more fractured world from which it might try to assemble an international block against coercive Chinese policies.

The strategy’s goal of maintaining “primacy” in Asia is consistent with Trump’s own sometimes cartoonish military boasts – like the “super duper missile” – and the Pentagon’s goal of maintaining military “overmatch” against any potential adversary. But this overarching goal is not quite aligned with the strategy’s military tasks.

The strategy names two military goals for deterring or prevailing against China in a conflict: to deny China air and sea dominance within the first island chain in a conflict, and for the U.S. military to dominate outside of the first island chain itself. Successful denial does not require military primacy or overmatch and the Pentagon’s own plans suggest that the primacy and overmatch rhetoric belie its more modest approach.

Contesting Chinese dominance inside the first island chain is why the U.S. Army is pursuing new long-range rockets and artillery and is behind the Marine Corps’ expeditionary island base strategy and purchase of mobile missile systems.

But even though these efforts align with the White House strategy, it is questionable whether the strategy is responsible for them. Most of those new weapons systems and warfighting concepts began being developed during the Obama administration and reflect geographic reality more than the Trump team’s strategic innovation.

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If anything, primacy is even further out of reach after Trump’s four years in office than it was at the beginning. Despite coming in with promises of building a 350-ship fleet and successive plans for a 400 or even a 500-ship navy, the Trump administration never submitted a budget proposal to match its sound bites.

Incoming Biden administration officials appear skeptical that these more grandiose military goals are either affordable or necessary to balance China and protect U.S. interests in Asia.

At its best, the “Framework” reads as a collection of the United States’ enduring interests and policies in Asia grafted onto the outgoing President’s bombastic rhetoric and transactional worldview. The result was a strategy that could not achieve Trump’s own idiosyncratic goals and struggled to maintain the geopolitical position he inherited.

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How Iceland Is Closing the Gender Wage Gap

Iceland’s equal pay for equal work system is still in the early stages, but initial signs suggest that requiring organizations prove they compensate employees fairly may be very effective. Much more effective, in any case, than the alternatives currently in place elsewhere. Introduced in 2018, the policy requires companies and institutions with more than 25 employees to prove that they pay men and women equally for a job of equal value. If companies show they pay equally for the same positions, they receive certification. Beginning in 2020, certification became a requirement and companies without certification incur a daily fine. The few issues that have thus far emerged, such as the burdensomeness of the process for managers, are start-up problems, moreover, not long-term consequences. And what’s more: the system has stimulated both-in-firm and societal discussions about how jobs are valued, based on what criteria, and whether these criteria are still relevant in the current society and labor market.

In most countries, men and women doing the same work earn different amounts. This discrimination is popularly known as the gender pay gap. And despite efforts to close it, particularly amongst advanced industrial countries, it persists. Part of the problem is that policy solutions to eradicate unequal pay have focused on changing individual workers’ behavior. More often than not, women are tasked with entering male-dominated professions; or female employees are expected to more effectively assert themselves in the workplace. There may be a better way.

In 2018, Iceland introduced the first policy in the world that requires companies and institutions with more than 25 employees to prove that they pay men and women equally for a job of equal value. The policy is implemented through a job evaluation tool called the Equal Wage Management Standard, or simply, the system. If companies show they pay equally for the same positions, they receive certification. Beginning in 2020, certification became a requirement and companies without certification incur a daily fine.

Both workers and managers have reported that this job evaluation tool improves the work environment and increases women’s trust in their employers and wage policies. But how exactly does it do that? And can its success be replicated?

When I recently conducted the first qualitative analysis of the system, I charted how key economic and political stakeholders in Iceland viewed the consequences of this novel equal pay legislation. From this analysis I found three main factors that enabled the Iceland system’s success and which could similarly ensure successful implementation of equal pay for work of equal value in other places, too.

1. Shift the burden of proof to the employer
Usually, the employee must present evidence of inequality in the workplace, but under Iceland’s system, the employer is responsible for evidence that employees are paid fairly. They do this using a two-step job evaluation system to disassociate work tasks from skills, an exercise the managers I spoke to said generally proves difficult. Still, this two-step system forces managers to value the task itself regardless of who is currently in that position. And though managers agreed that the process was burdensome, they appreciated the positive outcomes it resulted in: a straightforward structure, absolving some of the responsibility of individual managers; a confidence in the abilities of — and amongst — new hires; an increase in trust in the employer amongst female employees; and a sense of pride amongst all employees for being part of such a progressive project.

2. Demand evaluation and compliance
Research on voluntary employer job evaluation schemes in Canada point to the importance of an effective enforcement system to limit the deterrent effect of the legislation. This is also the case in the Icelandic example. After the implementation process, the system obliges employers to obtain certification from an accredited body to evaluate whether their equal pay scheme meets the system’s requirements. Previous research indicated that equal pay certification schemes are only effective when strongly enforced. The case at hand mandates that employers undergo an external certification process that checks whether their salary system pays equally for work of equal value. In the case of non-compliance, the state issues a daily fine of USD 500.

3. Create transparent pay systems
When companies increase accountability and clarity in their performance award system, differences in pay are reduced. Iceland has made transparency mandatory by requiring organizations to create a traceable pay system. Employees now have the right to ask the employer to inform them of the wages and terms under which they are employed. Thus, employers cannot demand that employees enter into wage agreements that includes a provision not to reveal their contents. Such provisions are unlawful and therefore have no validity, shifting the burden of proof from employee to employer and forcing companies to develop or re-think their job evaluation systems.

While Iceland’s system is still in the early stages, initial signs suggest that requiring organizations prove they compensate employees fairly may be very effective. Much more effective, in any case, than the alternatives currently in place elsewhere. Companies and institutions adopt the measures needed to receive certification, organizational operations run more smoothly, and employees are happier. The few issues that have thus far emerged, such as the burdensomeness of the process for managers, are start-up problems, moreover, not long-term consequences. And what’s more: the system has stimulated both-in-firm and societal discussions about how jobs are valued, based on what criteria, and whether these criteria are still relevant in the current society and labor market.

Understandably, all of this positively impacted the organizational culture and shows that the process of wage formulation between a manager and an individual is never a technical matter — instead, a social process predominates in determining salary. This underlines the importance of the system: a pay raise or promotion depends on pre-defined and mutually agreed criteria as opposed to a manager’s mood or personal preferences, recognition, or an employee’s negotiation skills or vocalness about accomplishments.

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Beware the gap between the grim reality of COVID and market optimism

Given the social, political and economic strife ushered in by the pandemic, it seems like quite the disjuncture. So why are traders not slumping into their Bloomberg terminals clutching their brows as markets rise and fall?

A few reasons, really.

The markets are positive a worldwide rollout of COVID-19 vaccines will be in full swing by mid-year. So much so that Qantas has started selling international tickets for flights in July. But given the warning WHO scientists issued last week that even with a vaccine, hotel quarantine will be a fixture for years to come, demand for the carrier’s flights could be crimped.

Another key reason is that central banks around the world including the US Fed and the Reserve Bank of Australia have been hard at work undertaking a mammoth quantitative easing (QE) program. Quantitative easing involves central banks buying large amounts of government bonds or other investments from banks to inject more cash into markets.

With more cash, banks can then loan more to businesses which in turn can expand their operations, increase sales and hopefully employ more staff.

RBA governor Phil Lowe and his deputy Guy Debelle. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

QE also drives down interest rates and in an already low interest rate environment, investors are finding that one of the few places where they can bank on respectable returns are stock markets.
Given markets are forward looking generally, the impact of QE has been priced into the value of many companies even if they are yet to report increased output as a result of the program.

There are some nascent signs QE and other stimulus measures are working. Fresh data out over the weekend shows global manufacturing improved in December with factories in Asia and Europe increasing their output as 2020 drew to a close, according to surveys of purchasing managers.

But QE doesn’t work if banks stop lending. And with the UK entering lockdown, Germany extending its pandemic-related restrictions and Japan about to declare a state of emergency, there is plenty out there to worry the international banks.

In Australia, the impact of the end of bank and landlord forgiveness periods in March and the phasing out of JobKeeper could crimp the recovery and make banks more risk adverse in their lending practices. While the surge in COVID-19 cases in Sydney and Melbourne appears to be losing force, it is a reminder that an economy-crippling return of the virus is always possible.

But there’s a new, unexpected element that could have a major impact on markets in the coming days. Once again, and indeed not for the first time this week, all eyes are on the US state of Georgia.

Georgia’s Senate runoff elections were expected by pundits and traders to provide a result where the Republican Party retained control of the US Senate. The markets usually prefer Republican-controlled senates that pass stimulus bills quickly and don’t introduce new regulation. The final composition of the senate will have a big say in just how the Biden administration wields its power.


And as it was with the US elections last November, Georgia may yet throw up some unexpected results.

The Republicans candidates –party stalwart Senator David Perdue and relative newcomer Senator Kelly Loeffler –were expected to snatch at least one of the two available seats, securing a Republican majority. Market watchers believe some traders are so convinced of a Republic victory it has added between 6 per cent 10 per cent to the market.

However, an increasing number in the market believe Democrat candidates Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff could take both seats, a sentiment that was reflected in Wall Street’s slip at the start of the week. Experts suggest the US market could suffer a downdraft of as much as 10 per cent if the Democrats pull off an unlikely win.

Like us all, traders are vulnerable to becoming armchair epidemiologists and armchair psephologists. It doesn’t mean they’re right. But given the gulf between market expectations and the grim reality of the coronavirus, and 2020’s ability to produce out of the blue results, it really is anyone’s guess.

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The PS5 and Xbox Series X Are Closing the PC-Console Gap

Every time a new console launches, PC gamers—like myself—are quick to remind the gaming community that our platform of choice offers more power and versatility than even the newest, shiniest console. That’s still true this time around, but things feel a little bit … different.

In fact, the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X are more powerful than both of the midrange gaming PCs in my office—which would have been unheard of in the PS4 and Xbox One days. While the PC still has a big leg up in terms of performance range—that is, you can spend more to get more—the latest consoles are more PC-like than ever, and are closing the performance gap more than their forebears did.

When Sony announced the PlayStation 4, hardware experts knew it was going to be on the underpowered side. AnandTech noted that console makers weren’t taking CPU performance seriously enough, and that the GPU was equivalent to a Radeon HD 7850 or 7870—then $140 and $170 graphics cards. That’s lower than a midrange price point, which means you could build a PC that’d beat the pants off the PS4 and Xbox One pretty affordably—indeed, many games had lower framerates, downgraded graphics, or both compared to halfway decent PCs at the time. (This wasn’t true across the board—some notorious PC ports had their own issues—but it’s clear that even a midrange PC would get you more raw power to play with.)

Part of this was due to Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), the semiconductor company that has designed the processors and graphics chips inside Sony and Microsoft’s consoles for the last two generations. “When the last-gen consoles launched, AMD was in bad shape,” explains Brad Chacos, senior editor of gaming and graphics at PC World. “They were still running their old Bulldozer architecture, which was a big gamble that did not pay off for them.”

That failure had them playing second fiddle to Intel for years in the PC space, and the Jaguar processors inside the PS4 and Xbox One were toned-down, power-efficient versions of that already weak product. So while developers were able to optimize games for that set hardware, it still couldn’t hold a candle to a well-built PC.

This year, as Chacos puts it, AMD is “firing on all cylinders,” with their latest Ryzen 5000 processors beating Intel across the board for the first time in a decade and a half. And since those chips also reside in the PS5 and Xbox Series X—as opposed to the old, almost tablet-esque Jaguar processors in last generation’s consoles—they can come much closer to the performance you’d find in a good gaming PC.

It’s not just the processors and graphics chips, though. Solid-state drives, or SSDs, have finally come to consoles as well, providing the fast loading times we’ve been enjoying on PC for years. SSDs also allow for faster patch downloads and snappier fast travel, which are real quality of life improvements that made previous consoles feel old and slow out of the gate. Put all that together, and the latest consoles look a whole lot like gaming PCs in terms of graphical prowess.

To be fair, this year’s consoles are also a bit more expensive than their predecessors—$500 for the top-tier PS5 and Xbox Series X compared to the $400 PS4 and Xbox One (post-Kinect removal). That higher price tag gives the manufacturers some wiggle room to include more powerful hardware—but Chacos notes that these consoles are still “exceptional values,” particularly given the fact that PC hardware has been outrageously marked up in 2020 (thanks, Covid-19). $500 may be more expensive than last gen, but it’s a compelling price for the graphical fidelity you get, and the digital PS4 hits that old $400 price point with the same performance as the $500 version. (Though I’d argue that Sony’s offering that lower price in hopes you’ll pay more for digital games in the long run.)

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How Indigenous-led childcare centres could help close Australia’s education gap

When Wayne Griffiths first went to primary school, it was a terrifying experience.

“I grew up in a little town called Curlewis [in northern NSW], and my first day at school was so traumatic I cried most of the morning and eventually I had to be taken home by my eldest brother,” he recalls.

“That was the case most of the days that week. I didn’t know what school was, I didn’t have access to any early childhood settings, and it was just horrific for me.”

These days Wayne, a Kamilaroi man, runs the Winanga-Li Aboriginal Child and Family Centre, which provides child care and early education to Indigenous and non-Indigenous children up to five years old.

There are centres in his town of Gunnedah as well as Brewarrina and Lightning Ridge in NSW.

Wayne is a passionate advocate for early childhood centres led by Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander people.

He says 97 per cent of Winanga-Li staff come from an Aboriginal background, which makes members of the local community feel safe to send their children to attend.

“Kiddies have fantastic access to educators, people that grew up in those communities, that attended schools, they have a total understanding, and some really high-quality formal training in helping to develop those kids in that setting. What a great opportunity it is for them.”

Wayne, and many other experts working in this space, believe that early childhood education, particularly via centres led by First Nations people, is the key to closing the gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

While more and more centres like Winanga-Li have been opening up around Australia, significant barriers remain.

The challenge of remote living

Richard Weston is the chair of SNAICC, a national non-government peak body representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island children and their families.

He says there are around 300 early childhood education and care services targeted at Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children around Australia, which include small services like playgroups, mobile services and creches.

When it comes to services like Winanga-Li, which provide long day care and other integrated support services for children and families, the figure is closer to 100 centres.

An early childhood educator teaches her class about seasons and the weather.(Supplied: Wayne Quilliam/SNAICC — National Voice for our Children)

Richard says many more are needed to ensure First Nations children get the best start in life.

“What we know is that the remoter a community is, the more difficult it is to access quality education, particularly in these early years,” he tells ABC RN’s Life Matters.

“So there is a big challenge there for our system in ensuring that our children, and particularly Aboriginal children because more Aboriginal children live remotely, have access to culturally attuned, culturally appropriate services, and that we are able to recruit and train more local people that can work into those services.

“There’s really strong reasons for doing that because Aboriginal people are more likely to access services where their own people are working.”

In a submission to an inquiry by Federal Parliament’s House Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training, looking at Education in Remote and Complex Environments, SNAICC highlighted research that found Indigenous children are 2.5 times more likely than other Australians to be behind in two or more developmental milestones when they start school, partially because they’re less likely to attend early childhood centres.

Community-led solutions

A young Indigenous girl with curly hair and bright eyes smiles widely for the camera.
A community-led organisation is more likely to get Indigenous families through the door, experts say.(Supplied: Sarah Francis/SNAICC — National Voice for our Children)

One of the reasons Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children can end up attending less early childhood education is that their parents don’t feel safe sending them to mainstream services.

SNAICC says this can be because of past and ongoing experiences of racism, and this can contribute to their children starting school behind their peers.

Reba Jeffries can attest to the resulting developmental delays.

She is a Wiradjuri woman who was born and raised in Brewarrina, in Northern NSW, and now manages Winanga-Li’s centre there, the Brewarrina Aboriginal Child and Family Centre.

Reba wasn’t comfortable sending her daughter to the local mainstream childcare service. Instead, she wanted to send her to a First Nations-led centre.

Her daughter’s first taste of early childhood education came in September this year, when the Brewarrina centre began providing those services.

“That change has happened in a few months. It’s the benefit of being surrounded by other kids too.”

Emma Beckett manages the Nikinpa Aboriginal Family and Child Care Centre in Toronto, near Newcastle in NSW.

She agrees a community-led organisation is much more likely to get Indigenous families through the door, because parents are more likely to trust the staff.

“With a lot of Aboriginal people, they feel other Aboriginal people understand them and know where they are coming from. So they are more likely to talk about difficulties in their life with their kids, because they think we will understand.”

Emma says her centre applies trauma-based practices when educating the children, and they have higher numbers of staff than many mainstream services.

“We don’t just look at the needs of the child, we are often supporting the family with anything that improves outcomes, such as how to navigate the NDIS, we will help a family navigate the system,” she says.

Cultural connections

First Nations-led early education centres can also provide cultural links for children who live with family members who are not Indigenous, as well as a safe environment for children who have disruptions early on in their lives.

Annette cares fulltime for her two grandchildren, who have both lived with her since they were babies.

Three women stand indoors with two young children. Everyone is smiling.
Annette with her grandchildren Charlotte and Jamain, and Winanga-Li educators.(Supplied: Winanga-Li Early Learning & Care Centre)

The kids come from a First Nations background through their fathers, and this was one of the reasons Annette wanted to send them to the Winanga-Li centre.

“It was important for me that they have a cultural connection to their fathers’ culture through the childcare centre,” she says.

“They come home and say ‘I learned this Aboriginal word’ and I say ‘OK!’. They take it all in.”

‘Families benefit when child care is free’

The Standing Committee’s report, tabled last month, detailed several recommendations specifically aimed at First Nations children and staff in early education.

These included providing up to 30 hours per week of subsidised early education and care for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.

Richard says subsidising child care is a good first step, but the pandemic offered a better idea.

“With the impact of COVID-19, our services have reported that some families really benefitted when child care was made free,” he explains.

Richard would like to see any subsidies expanded to also include First Nations children in urban areas, where there are also “significant barriers to access”.

The Standing Committee also called to support the development and training of a First Nations early education workforce.

That recommendation is likely to be welcomed.

Reba says in Brewarrina, her centre faces significant barriers helping its staff to gain their qualifications whilst working.

“The girls, my staff, get two hours to study per week so they can access their assessments and their course work and get as much of their work done as they can at work, and then they can come in after hours and on the weekend,” she says.

“The need for qualifications is a challenge because not everyone has internet access or computers at home.”

Because of this, the centre has provided the staff who are studying with laptops.

Emma agrees more funding is needed across the country, so that more Indigenous-led early education centres can be set up and help to close the gaps in outcomes between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

“There are plenty of areas that could do with another Aboriginal-controlled early education centre. But it’s a big investment to open these services and, we just don’t have the money.”

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If China stops taking Australia’s coal, will other countries fill the gap?

Chinese state-owned media appeared to confirm a ban on imports of Australian coal this week.

Australian officials are now trying to figure out how serious the threat is, and its implications.

If China stops taking Australia’s coal, will other countries fill the gap? Could Japan, India and South Korea?

What’s happened?

A state-owned tabloid in China, The Global Times, this week reported China’s top economic planner was allowing the country’s power plants to import coal without clearance restrictions from several countries “except for Australia.”

It appears to confirm that the unofficial ban China placed on Australian coal imports in recent months has become official.

It’s part of rapidly escalating trade tensions that have seen China slap restrictions on a range of Australian imported goods including barley, wine, meat, and lobster.

Australia’s Government is still mulling the development, and it is unsure what type of coal is in the firing line.

But Simon Birmingham, the Trade Minister, says if the story is accurate it would appear China is using discriminatory trade practices against Australian imports.

He has reminded China of its obligations under international trade rules.

How much coal is involved?

In 2019, Australia exported $64 billion worth of coal.

Japan was Australia’s largest customer, accounting for 27 per cent of our total coal exports (worth $17 billion).

China came in second, accounting for 21 per cent of our coal exports (worth $13.7 billion).

India was third, accounting for 16 per cent of our coal exports (worth $10.5 billion).

However, Australia exports two types of coal — thermal coal and metallurgical coal — and the value of each export is different.

Thermal coal is the type used to generate electricity.

Australia is the world’s second-largest thermal coal exporter, accounting for 20 per cent of the world’s supply (behind Indonesia, which accounts for 41 per cent).

In 2019, Australia exported $22.7 billion worth of thermal coal, with the bulk going to Japan.

Japan accounted for 43 per cent of Australia’s exports, worth $9.6 billion, while China accounted for 18 per cent, worth roughly $4 billion.

The other type of coal Australia exports is metallurgical coal, otherwise known as coking coal.

It is used to make steel (along with iron ore).

Around 780 kilograms is needed to make one tonne of steel in a blast furnace.

Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of metallurgical coal, accounting for 55 per cent of the world’s supply in 2019 (with the United States in second, at 15 per cent).

In 2019, Australia exported $41.2 billion worth of metallurgical coal, with most going to India.

India accounted for 24.6 per cent of Australia’s exports, worth $10.1 billion, while China accounted for 23.6 per cent, worth $9.7 billion.

On Tuesday, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said Australia was active in a number of markets, and it would continue to export coal to Japan, Korea, and India, and there had been strong growth in demand from Vietnam recently.

However, he was still trying to figure out what China was intending to do, including if its ban would extend to both types of coal.

“It is obviously a concern,” he told radio station 2GB in Sydney on Tuesday.

“Particularly a concern in that it appears to be an action being taken, if we are to believe the media reports, in quite an opaque way, that makes it challenging to be able to take it up to China through the World Trade Organization or other means.”

Vessels stuck off the coastline

In September, news was already filtering into Australia of an unofficial coal ban on Australian coal by Chinese officials.

In November, Bloomberg reported that, according to its analysis of shipping data, more than 60 vessels carrying Australian coal had been queuing for a month or longer in Chinese waters, refused permission to offload their cargo.

“Aussie coal producers might be looking at other destinations for coal, such as Japan or India but, given the quantum of impact, they will likely trim production as well,” Adhinav Gupta, a research analyst at Braemar ACM Shipbroking, told Bloomberg.

Now in December, thermal coal exports to China from Newcastle, Australia’s busiest coal terminal, have completely stopped — no ships have left for China this month and none are scheduled to leave before Christmas.

The Federal Government won’t say how many ships carrying Australian coal are currently waiting in Chinese waters, but the number has stopped increasing now that ships have stopped leaving Australia.

More than 100 bulk carriers are scheduled to depart Newcastle this month carrying coal to Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

Can Australia’s other coal customers fill the gap left by Chinese demand?

Coal producers are not keen to talk about the current situation, but they will be looking to shift their orders to other customers in the short-term, if possible.

Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have been stable customers of Australia’s, and Vietnam has become an important purchaser.

However, analysts say moves by foreign governments to cut emissions in coming decades do not bode well for Australia’s coal exporters in the long-term. Top customers such as Japan and South Korea are planning to reach a target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The office of Australia’s chief economist, in the latest Resources and Energy Quarterly (September), warned such long-term trends would constrain thermal coal prices in the future.

“Europe and South Korea are looking to reduce thermal coal consumption, while the world’s two largest consumers (China and India) have signalled their intention to reduce thermal coal imports by increasing domestic production,” it said.

“Competition from liquified natural gas is also expected to weigh on thermal coal demand, especially while LNG prices remain near record lows in spot and short-term contract markets.”

According to the office, thermal coal prices have stabilised at their lowest level in 14 years this year and, at current prices, “around one-third of mine production supplying the seaborne thermal coal market … is uneconomic,” and “a significant proportion of Australian thermal coal is loss-making”.

“In mid-August, Peabody announced a 50 per cent reduction in the workforce at its 2.5-million-tonne-per-annum Wambo mine. This follows a production halt at the mine since 19 June,” it said.

“Also in August, Glencore — Australia’s largest supplier of thermal coal — announced plans to reduce its overall Australian output by about 12 per cent relative to 2019 output.

“The cuts will focus on lower-quality coals that face the largest oversupply, and follow temporary operational stops at some Glencore mines.”

The office has forecast a large decline in Australia’s thermal coal export revenue, from $25.9 billion in the 2018-19 financial year to $20.4 billion in 2019-20, to $14.5 billion in 2020-21, before a slight increase to $16.8 billion in 2021-22.

What’s Labor saying?

Madeleine King, the Opposition’s spokeswoman for trade, says the Federal Government must make “trade diversification” a national priority and develop a genuine plan to guide Australia through this troubling period.

“Billions of dollars in trade and thousands of Australian jobs are at risk from these trade tensions,” Ms King said.

“The coal mining sector employs 46,000 Australians, with the export value of Australian thermal and metallurgical coal to China worth $14 billion a year.

“Under this government, Australia’s economic relationships with some of our most important neighbours, including India and Indonesia, have gone backwards.”

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