As it happened: Victoria records 12 COVID-19 cases as Daniel Andrews flags further easing of restrictions; SA border opens to NSW as Australian death toll jumps to 861

Summary

  • Victoria has recorded 12 new cases and two more deaths. Premier Daniel Andrews has confirmed more lockdown restrictions will be eased this weekend, beyond those he previously flagged, after declaring the state is winning the battle against coronavirus. 
  • NSW residents can now travel to South Australia without needing to self-quarantine after border restrictions were scrapped this morning. Meanwhile, two leading epidemiologists say it is time to allow residents of regional Victoria to travel interstate. 
  • The Health Workers Union is demanding Victorian Health Minister Jenny Mikakos be sacked, saying locked-down residents are paying the price for her ‘breathtaking incompetence’. It comes the day of Ms Mikakos’ highly anticipated appearance before the inquiry into the state’s ill-fated hotel quarantine program.
  • A huge international study of a COVID-19 vaccine that aims to work with just one dose has begun. Meanwhile, a rapid test that can diagnose the coronavirus within 15 minutes could offer hope of a COVID-normal future for millions of locked-down Victorians.
  • The tally of confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide has passed 31.7 million. The global death toll has exceeded 973,000 after the US reached the grim milestone this week of 200,000 fatalities.

Recapping today's events

Thank you for following our live coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic on Thursday, September 24.

We'll be back tomorrow with our regular live blog and a separate blog covering Premier Daniel Andrews' appearance at the hotel quarantine inquiry at 2.15pm.

Here are today's major developments:

  • Victoria recorded 12 new cases, mostly from nursing homes and hospitals, and two more deaths. Mr Andrews confirmed restrictions would be eased more significantly than planned in the road map, but cautioned against expecting significant changes.
  • NSW reported two new cases, one a returned traveller in hotel quarantine and another in a man from south-west Sydney whose infection is under investigation. A bridal party of 20 will now be allowed to dance at a wedding and inter-school sports carnivals, choirs and music groups will recommence in term four under a raft of announcements made by NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
  • Queensland record no cases and marked its 14th consecutive day without community transmission. South-east Queenslanders will be able to host a party of 30 people at their homes from Friday night.
  • Thursday's attack on Health Minister Jenny Mikakos by a health union accusing her of "breathtaking incompetence" and demanding her sacking was dismissed by the powerful nurses’ union as an internal Labor factional hit.

Two crew aboard a bulk carrier anchored of Port Hedland have tested positive to COVID-19.Credit:Bloomberg

A team of nurses were flown to the vessel where the two men were tested.

Their positive tests were confirmed late on Wednesday evening. The other 19 men on board the ship have not been tested, but WA health authorities are preparing a rapid response team due to leave on Friday morning to deal with the incident.

Mr Cook said there was no reason for people in Port Hedland to be alarmed.

"This situation is very well in hand, any positive personal are being isolated and they will continue to be isolated," he said.

"This incident just goes to show how important the border situation is in keeping West Australians safe and keeping our economy going.

"We were informed by the ship's master they had a couple of unwell crew, we sent a helicopter out there with a couple of nurses to take the samples in relation to their tests.

"Bringing the rest of the crew and obviously the unwell crew off the ship may be an option that will be considered."

Read the full story here.

'Trust someone': AstraZeneca boss says transparency key for vaccine

The chief executive of AstraZeneca has said the public must trust that multiple regulators will review the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, confirming the company is still waiting for the US regulator to review safety data after its vaccine trial was paused.

Pascal Soriot told the World Economic Forum's Sustainable Development Impact Summit on Thursday the global biotechnology firm was considering how much transparency it could provide about its vaccine trials, after its phase 3 study was put on hold earlier this month because of an adverse reaction in a participant.

Pascal Soriot, AstraZeneca’s chief executive officer.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Trials have since resumed in the UK, Brazil and South Africa but Mr Soriot said at the summit that the Food and Drug Administration was still reviewing trial data for the US arm of the study. "We are waiting to hear their decision," he said.

The Australian government has inked agreements with AstraZeneca and CSL that would see CSL produce 30 million doses of the vaccine, which AstraZeneca is developing with the University of Oxford, if the project proves successful.

The pause of the trial prompted global calls for more transparency on how COVID-19 vaccines are developed.

Mr Soriot, who is also a director of CSL, said he understood the desire for that transparency but that the integrity of trials also had to be protected. "We are looking at how much transparency we can provide considering we are in a very special set of circumstances," he said.

Read the full story here.

Analysis: Factional games at play in health union's call to sack Jenny Mikakos

Earlier today, a blistering letter from the Victorian Health Workers Union to Premier Daniel Andrews emerged. The letter accused Health Minister Jenny Mikakos of "breathtaking incompetence" and demanded she be sacked.

The Age's investigative reporter Ben Schneiders's analysis, shared by the state’s nurses unions, was that the attack was driven as much by internal Labor factionalism than any industrial or policy grievances.

Read his piece here, and a snippet below:

If Lisa Fitzpatrick from the Australian Nursing & Midwifery Federation had called for Health Minister Jenny Mikakos to resign, she’d likely be clearing her desk by lunchtime.

That’s how influential and powerful the near 92,000-member-strong ANMF are in Victoria. They’re Victoria’s biggest union and have thrived while not being affiliated to Labor.

Health Workers Union Diana Asmar has called for Ms Mikakos to resign

But when the call for Ms Mikakos to quit came from the Health Workers Union (HWU) and its leader Diana Asmar, it was not treated anywhere near as seriously within the Andrews government.

Ms Asmar in her letter to Premier Daniel Andrews accused Ms Mikakos of “breathtaking incompetence” and described the union’s relationship with the government as “officially dead”.

In recent years the HWU, which claims about 14,000 members, has been home to a rogues’ gallery of Labor factional hacks and is up to its neck in often toxic internal party politics.

The right-faction HWU was aligned to former ALP powerbroker, now independent MP Adem Somyurek, whose recent demise after an Age investigation into branch stacking weakened the HWU and its backers.

Ms Mikakos is a senior left-faction minister, so is a factional rival to the HWU. The timing of the letter’s release – as Ms Mikakos was about to give evidence at the hotel quarantine inquiry –lends credence to a suggestion doing the rounds in Labor circles that this was more a factional hit than anything else. The HWU, of course, disputes this.

The HWU, which was previously known as the Health Services Union No.1 branch, has long been fought over as part of sub-factional warfare in Labor’s right at a steep cost to its low-paid members which include cleaners and orderlies. It was the union previously controlled by allies of the disgraced Kathy Jackson who Ms Asmar deposed.

Myanmar quarantines 45,000 to prevent outbreak

Myanmar has quarantined tens of thousands of people to prevent a coronavirus outbreak from overwhelming its fragile healthcare system but public health experts and doctors say the strategy is on the brink of collapse as infections surge.

The nation is housing more than 45,000 people, including COVID-19 patients as well as those yet to be tested, their close contacts and returning migrant workers, in buildings from schools and monasteries to government offices and tower blocks, mostly run by volunteers.

Even those with no symptoms or mild symptoms are hospitalised or quarantined, part of an ambitious plan to stop the virus swamping a chronically underfunded health system.

A man wears a T-shirt imprinted with an image of Myanmar’s leader Aung San Suu Kyi in July.Credit:AP

But the "maximum containment" strategy pursued by Myanmar since its first cases were confirmed in March could backfire if overburdened facilities put people off quarantine altogether, public health expert Kyaw San Wai told Reuters news agency.

"This strategy was implementable up to mid-August given Myanmar's low caseloads but as case numbers increased dramatically from late August, especially in Yangon, this approach quickly pushed both the health centres and quarantine centres to the brink," he said.

After weeks without a local transmission, Myanmar reported an outbreak in the western Rakhine state in mid-August that has since spread across the country.

On Thursday, authorities reported 535 new infections and three deaths, making a total of 7,827 cases and 133 deaths.

While some other Asian countries have pursued a strict containment strategy, elsewhere only more serious cases have been treated in hospital while others isolate at home.

"In other countries, they let people stay home and hospitalise them only if they are in a serious condition," said Dr Kaung Myat Soe, chief of a temporary hospital in the commercial capital of Yangon.

"In this country … we worry about young children or old people becoming casualties so we isolate them."

The number of people quarantined has more than doubled from about 19,000 in August to more than 45,000 as of Sept. 21, according to Ministry of Health data.

After decades of neglect under military rule, Myanmar's health system has been ranked among the world’s weakest.

As of early this year, there were 330 intensive care beds for the 54 million population. The World Health Organisation in 2018 put the number of doctors at 6.7 per 10,000 people.

Authorities are racing to build and requisition more facilities to accommodate the numbers.

Reuters

And then there was one … Andrews to take stand at hotel inquiry

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews will be the final person to take the stand at the state’s hotel quarantine inquiry on Friday after Health Minister Jenny Mikakos became the third minister this week to deny responsibility for key elements of the botched program.

Ms Mikakos told the inquiry on Thursday that she had not been involved in the hotel program’s set-up and did not seek updates on it until two months later, after the first coronavirus outbreaks, even though her health department was the lead agency.

Jenny Mikakos at the hotel quarantine inquiry.

She said she was never briefed on the operational plan for hotel quarantine and did not ask for one, and she admitted she did not know that private security guards were working in the hotels until some had contracted COVID-19 in late May, setting in motion Victoria’s second wave of infections.

Ms Mikakos took the stand under political pressure after the release of a scathing Health Workers’ Union letter which accused her of “breathtaking incompetence”. The letter forced another key union, the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation to come out publicly to back her, as did Mr Andrews, who said he had “confidence in all my ministers”.

With only one session left of the hotel quarantine inquiry, no government minister, nor police or emergency management bosses, has yet admitted they knew whose decision it was to use private security to guard returned travellers. The decision not to bring Australian Defence Force soldiers in to help is also mired in confusion.

ASX finishes well down at close of trading

The Australian sharemarket picked up after a dire start but still finished deep in the red on Thursday as a fresh US selloff sapped investor confidence.

The ASX 200 fell by as much as 1.7 per cent in a $30 billion opening dive but investors soon clawed back losses.

The benchmark index still finished down 48 points, or 0.8 per cent, at 5875.9 to keep Wednesday’s rebound rally to a single session.

The ASX 200 fell by 0.8 per cent on Thursday. Credit:Louie Douvis

All sectors ended lower, with tech darling Afterpay shedding 5.8 per cent and the gold miners losing their lustre.

Westpac – fresh from copping the biggest penalty in Australian corporate history – fell by as much as 2.3 per cent but trimmed its decline to 0.1 per cent by the close.

Weak manufacturing data helped knock the wind out of Wall Street’s sails, while Perpetual’s Matt Sherwood said in a note that concerns remain US markets are still overbought, despite a near 10 per cent selloff in recent weeks.

Further denting offshore sentiment was a plea from Fed chair Jerome Powell that more stimulus is needed to assist the world’s largest economy, in what is likely to be a long and slow recovery.

“This view contrasts with a lot of investors who had wagered that a combination of stimulus, virus control, and economic reopening would spark a large recovery,” Mr Sherwood wrote.

EY partner and investment banking veteran Duncan Hogg said local markets appeared content to follow the overseas lead amid a lack of other news.

He said volatility on the ASX would likely continue until the Federal budget is handed down on October 6.

“(The budget) may give people more confidence around where we’re going as a market generally,” Mr Hogg said.

“We’re all expecting a budget that is going to try and stimulate the economy. My view is that the opening the borders and the budget will hopefully build some positive sentiment leading into Christmas.”

The materials sector sagged by 1.5 per cent on Thursday with BHP, Rio Tinto and Fortescue Metals each losing between 0.2 per cent and 0.7 per cent.

Gold miners were hammered on softer precious metal prices, with Newcrest down 3.7 per cent at $30.69, Northern Star losing 3 per cent to $13.20, and evolution 5.3 per cent lower at $5.53.

Banks NAB and ANZ defied the wider ASX decline to rise 0.4 per cent and 0.1 per cent respectively, while Commonwealth Bank ended 0.1 per cent lower at $64.20.

Westpac initially fell 2.3 per cent to $16 after it confirmed it would pay a record $1.3 billion fine to AUSTRAC for breaches of money laundering laws.

The bank closed down 0.1 per cent at $16.37.

Among the other blue-chip firms, CSL dropped 0.3 per cent, Wesfarmers 0.2 per cent, Woolworths 1 per cent and Macquarie Group 0.4 per cent.

Afterpay weighed the tech sector down while energy stocks slumped by a collective 2.1 per cent.

There was rare support from Transurban, which rose 1.9 per cent to $14.72, and Fisher and Paykel, which jumped 1.8 per cent to $30.83.

Last year 80,000 students marched for the climate. In COVID-19, they're trying something different

School students made headlines last September when they skipped class and took to the streets by the thousands to demand action on climate change. Principals and politicians were divided over their protests, but what followed were some of the largest demonstrations in Australia's history.

But, like most things this year, the School Strike for Climate movement has been caught on its heels and forced to adapt.

Veronica Hester, Imogen Kuah and Natasha Abhayawickrama are leading student climate actions on Friday.Credit:Dominic Lorrimer

On Friday students will host their first in-person demonstrations since the pandemic struck, but they'll look different wherever you are.

More than 500 individual events are planned, ranging from a live-streamed Q&A and Instagram concert in Melbourne, to socially distanced protests in Sydney as well as Wollongong, Newcastle, Taree, Tamworth and Gosford.Images of student artworks and letters will be shared on social media, and calls made to the Prime Minister's office.

Seventeen-year-old Veronica Hester, who will be speaking in Sydney's CBD before rushing back to Gymea for her graduation ceremony, says the strikers' goals have shifted slightly too.

"As students we are surrounded by what happened with COVID, especially with school shutdowns. After COVID will be a time of recovery, and coming into a recession is a critical point in time to change the focus," she said.

"This is a time we've slumped and are going to be on an upwards trajectory. We've got to take that in the right direction. There'll be lots of funds to stimulate the economy, and we want those to be in renewable energy especially, pivoting our country towards its potential as a renewable superpower."

'It was a relief': Families reunite as borders – and the skies – open again

First-time parents Nina Lacy and David Pride have spent the past eight months with their son, Luca, in Sydney, but on Thursday they were on the first flight to Adelaide. For Luca, it was his first time in a plane – and also the first time he would meet most of his extended family.

The family bought tickets earlier this week when the easing of border restrictions was announced, but it was by chance they got the first Qantas flight out.

Nina Lacy and her eight-month-old son, Luca, have flown to meet her husband’s family in Adelaide. Credit:Brook Mitchell

The airline has not operated flights between Sydney and Adelaide since July.

"It was a relief [to get on the flight]," Ms Lacy said. "This time has been really hard for families, many of whom are still separated."

While many parents fear flying with infants, Luca only cried a few times. Ms Lacy said everyone on the flight had been happy, with a "shared sense a feeling of luck and just thankfulness that we were able to go somewhere".

Both grandparents were finally able to cuddle the newest member of the family after countless video calls over the past few months.

For Mr Pride and Ms Lacy, the trip to Adelaide is also a chance to have some alone time – the first in eight months as the rest of their family lives interstate or overseas.

Read the full story here.

NSW government confident on NYE fireworks

NSW Tourism Minister Stuart Ayres and Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore have met this afternoon to discuss whether the New Year's Eve fireworks will go ahead.

"We are pretty confident that we are getting close, obviously we are working with the City of Sydney Council," Mr Ayres told radio station 2GB.

Minister Stuart Ayres.Credit:Rhett Wyman

"The NSW government has said we'd like to see fireworks, we think it has been a very difficult year and the fireworks will be a great opportunity to see the back of 2020 and look forward into 2021 with a degree of optimism.

"We all know 2020 has been a very different year and if we were to have fireworks to celebrate New Years Eve it would be a very different celebration."

He said the council had raised concerns about the cost of a possible event, although the government was prepared to share the financial load.

"If those costs can be removed, then we get a bit more time to plan this event. If all those costs are absorbed by the City of Sydney Council, they are really being forced to make a decision now," he said.

"Whilst we know whatever type of event we run won't look the same, it will have drastically different numbers attending and we will restrict the numbers in the city, it also gives us a chance to evaluate where we will be."

He added the government had received advice from NSW Police and NSW Health to mitigate COVID-19 risks, but if outbreaks or community transmission occurred in December, the government would call off any event.

If the fireworks do go ahead, Mr Ayres said it would only be the midnight event.

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