Australia news LIVE: COVID-19 cases continue to grow in NSW, Victoria and Queensland; second Ashes test continues in Adelaide

Australia news LIVE: COVID-19 cases continue to grow in NSW, Victoria and Queensland; second Ashes test continues in Adelaide

December 20, 2021

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Key posts

  • NSW, Victoria push for coronavirus booster vaccine interval to be shortened to four months
  • No restrictions for SCG cricket crowds despite rising COVID-19 cases in Sydney
  • ‘Huge’ potential for COVID infections to escalate if public health measures not reinstated
  • Health Minister urges parents to ‘embrace COVID-19 vaccination’ for kids from January 10
  • England may tighten COVID restrictions after Christmas as Omicron sweeps Europe
  • ‘You need that third dose for better protection against Omicron’: infectious disease expert
  • The morning’s headlines at a glance
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Analysis: We still don’t know the most important thing about Omicron

The spread of the Omicron coronavirus variant in NSW is causing what commentators say is its signature look – a close-to-vertical upwards line of cases. It makes for a striking graph.

Daily infections in the state have risen 10-fold from 251 at the start of December when Omicron was initially detected, to pandemic records of more than 2500, as the virus spreads with unprecedented speed when Australians are eager to finally move on with their lives.

Anyone from the Prime Minister down will tell you that the real measure of the seriousness of the COVID-19 situation is the number of people so ill that they need to go to hospital or receive medical care.

As NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said on Monday, the 33 current ICU presentations was the “key metric for the state”.

But despite a persistent narrative that Omicron may be milder than previous strains, scientists say they don’t actually know this yet.

This means we don’t know how many of these thousands of new cases will develop into serious bouts of illness needing medical care, and how at risk our hospitals are of being pushed beyond the brink.

Crucially, even if Omicron is milder, even significantly so, the virus is spreading to so many people so quickly that it could result in more people getting severely unwell from COVID-19 overall due to the sheer number of people with the disease.

Read the full analysis here.

NSW, Victoria push for coronavirus booster vaccine interval to be shortened to four months

Australians may soon have to get a third dose of a coronavirus vaccine to be considered fully vaccinated, as NSW and Victoria urge Prime Minister Scott Morrison to agree to speed up the schedule for booster shots when national cabinet holds an emergency meeting tomorrow.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard and his Victorian counterpart Martin Foley have written to federal Health Minister Greg Hunt calling for the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation to make “specific determinationsfor both states to have a fast-tracked booster program ahead of “a very challenging holiday and summer period”.

Health ministers (L-R) Brad Hazzard, Greg Hunt and Martin Foley.Credit:

Mr Hazzard told this masthead this would be critical in “beating the new strain.”

“I worry that ATAGI are holding back on giving what is logical advice for earlier boosters because of concerns that pharmacies and GPs will be shutting down for Christmas,” he said.

“There needs to be careful explanation that while there may be wait time in some places, people should still be eligible from the four-month mark.”

Under the current rules, Australians aged 18 and up are eligible for a coronavirus booster shot at least five months after their second dose.

Separately, Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, and his state and territory counterparts have advised all jurisdictions to mandate masks in indoor settings across the country.

“Masks should be mandated in all indoor settings including retail, hospitality when not eating or drinking, and entertainment facilities,” the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee said in advice to the Prime Minister and state and territory leaders.

Masks are already mandated in some indoor settings in Victoria and Queensland, including shops. As of today, masks are also mandatory in all indoor settings in Tasmania.

Each of those states imposed the mask rules in response to rising coronavirus case numbers in recent days.

But masks are not required in most hospitality and retail settings in NSW, which is leading the nation in new coronavirus infections. They are only required on public transport, in airports and on planes, and for unvaccinated indoor hospitality staff. Masks remain strongly encouraged in NSW in settings where people cannot maintain social distancing.

No restrictions for SCG cricket crowds despite rising COVID-19 cases in Sydney

The Sydney Cricket Ground will remain without crowd restrictions for the New Year’s Test and Big Bash matches despite rapidly increasing COVID-19 infections across Sydney.

A crowd of 12,000 is predicted for the Sydney Sixers’ clash with the Adelaide Strikers at the SCG on Tuesday night while up to 40,000 a day are expected for most days of the fourth Test starting on January 5.

Sources with knowledge of the situation said as the NSW Government was focused on hospitalisation rates, and not case numbers, there were currently no plans to reduce capacity at the SCG for the Sydney Test or for Big Bash games.

It comes after the acting Premier of Victoria, James Merlino, said on Sunday there would be no reduction of capacity for the Boxing Day Test at the MCG.

Since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted across NSW in mid-December, coinciding with the rapid spread of the more infectious Omicron strain of the virus, daily infection numbers have soared.

About 12,500 people have tested positive to the virus in the state over the previous six days, with cases above 2500 for a second successive day on Monday. The previous Sunday saw just 595 cases.

Read the full story here.

Moderna COVID-19 vaccine booster dose ‘appears protective against Omicron’

A booster dose of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine appeared to be protective against the fast-spreading Omicron variant in laboratory testing, the company said on Monday.

It also said the current version of the vaccine would continue to be Moderna’s “first line of defence against Omicron”.

Moderna says a booster shot of its COVID-19 vaccine appears effective against the Omicron variant.Credit:Leon Neal

The company said a two-dose course of its vaccine generated low neutralising antibodies against the Omicron variant, but a 50-microgram booster dose increased neutralising antibodies against the variant 37-fold. A higher, 100 microgram booster dose of the same vaccine drove antibody levels even higher – more than 80 times pre-boost levels.

The vaccine maker said the decision to focus on the current vaccine was driven in part by the rapid spread of the recently discovered variant. The company still plans to develop a vaccine specifically to protect against Omicron, which it hopes to advance into clinical trials early next year.

Read the full story here.

Reuters

‘Huge’ potential for COVID infections to escalate if public health measures not reinstated

The “huge” potential for end-of-year festivities to drive an unprecedented spike in COVID cases is fuelling calls for the immediate reinstatement of face masks in all indoor settings and a rethink on crowd numbers in bars and at the Boxing Day Test.

As Victoria reported another 1302 cases on Monday, including 37 instances of the highly contagious Omicron strain, and NSW recorded 2501 new cases, a growing chorus of pandemic advisers are warning authorities to act now to slow down the spread of the variant as cases soar exponentially overseas.

Melbourne University professor James McCaw – a member of the Australian Health Protection Committee, an expert panel that advises the federal government – said there was “huge potential for case numbers to reach unprecedented levels” if governments waited until more was known about the severity of Omicron.

He estimated it would take between one and three weeks to get a clear indication of whether Omicron caused more severe disease than its predecessors, with data being collated in Britain now, considered to be the best indicator.

Read the full story here.

Health Minister urges parents to ‘embrace COVID-19 vaccination’ for kids from January 10

Health Minister Greg Hunt has urged Australian parents to embrace the COVID-19 vaccination for young children, as the latest official data shows continuing high levels of standard childhood vaccinations for this age group.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration provisionally approved the Pfizer vaccine for use among 5 to 11-year-old children two weeks ago after research showed it was up to 91 per cent effective in children and bookings are open, with appointments available from January 10.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

Young children will receive one-third doses of the Pfizer vaccine for adults and teens, in two separate jabs, given eight weeks apart.

“Our world-leading childhood vaccination rates of over 95 per cent for other medical conditions gives us great confidence that families will embrace COVID-19 vaccination for children when they become available in the coming weeks,” Mr Hunt said.

Official data shows 95.12 per cent of five-year-old children in Australia have received all doses on the childhood immunisation schedule – which provides free vaccines against serious diseases including hepatitis B, whooping cough, measles and polio – exceeding the national target of 95 per cent and achieving herd immunity.

But leading vaccine expert University of Sydney Professor Julie Leask said Australia would be “lucky” to achieve 95 per cent coverage of five-to-eleven-year-olds with a COVID-19 vaccine.

“I certainly hope we will get close,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

“We may not quite reach 95 per cent.”

Read the full story here.

England may tighten COVID restrictions after Christmas as Omicron sweeps Europe

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says he is considering a range of measures to keep the Omicron coronavirus variant under control and has cautioned that further restrictions might be needed.

Britain has reported record levels of COVID-19 cases over the past week, with officials and ministers warning that hospitalisations are also rising.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson is struggling to handle the latest wave of coronavirus cases in the UK.Credit:AP

Speaking after a more than two-hour cabinet meeting to discuss the latest COVID-19 situation, Johnson said the situation was “extremely difficult” and that hospitalisations were rising steeply in London.

“We will have to reserve the possibility of taking further action to protect the public, and to protect public health and the NHS (National Health Service), and we won’t hesitate to take that action,” Johnson said.

“We are looking at all kinds of things to keep Omicron under control and we will rule nothing out.”

British media said ministers had pushed back against the prospect of new restrictions in England before Christmas and that curbs, lasting between two weeks and a month, were now more likely to be introduced after, possibly from December 28.

Read the full story here.

Reuters

‘You need that third dose for better protection against Omicron’: infectious disease expert

As we reported yesterday, the architect of a report that underpinned the Morrison government’s COVID-19 response has urged Australia to keep some restrictions as concerns escalate over the Omicron strain.

Doherty Institute director Sharon Lewin called for the return of mask-wearing indoors and stopping large gathering at pubs and nightclubs.

As Linda Morris and Jenny Noyes reported, Professor Lewin was joined by Professor John Kaldor and Professor Greg Dore, epidemiologists at the Kirby Institute, based at the University of NSW, in a joint call for a rethink of the reopening plans.

Leading infectious disease expert, Professor Sharon Lewin.Credit:Simon Schluter

Professor Lewin was asked by ABC News 24 this morning about a push by the Premiers to speed up the schedule for coronavirus vaccine booster shots from five months after a second dose to four months. She was also asked whether the Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation should advise that three doses are now required to be considered fully vaccinated against the virus.

“These are difficult decisions,” Professor Lewin said. “Australia has done incredibly well getting so many people their first two doses.

“At the moment there’s a gap of five months to get the third dose. We have to make that really easy for people to access. Certainly you get much better immunity after your third dose. You need that third dose for better protection against Omicron. And deciding whether that makes you fully vaccinated or not will be a decision for national cabinet.”

Professor Lewin said that the advisory group, ATAGI, “are weighing up a number of factors: how quickly your antibodies drop, and they start lower with AstraZeneca, and therefore they’ll be lower at four months, how much safety data we have at giving the booster earlier and ability to deliver it.

“We’re weighing all of these things up. We are learning from overseas the booster dose gives you that additional protection against Omicron that we want. These are difficult decisions being weighed up by all the best evidence available and availability of vaccines and that may well change the current recommendation of five months, it may well change in coming days.”

Asked about the language of “personal responsibility” being used by NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who have both said people can choose to wear masks and impose other restrictions upon themselves without being told, Professor Lewin said: “Look, in an ideal world, of course we trust that people will do the right thing. However, rules are changing constantly.

People are confused. And they want to know what they can and can’t do. All along in this pandemic, we have had most of our policies informed by the best science, and very clear instructions what you and can’t do. We’re in a position at the moment where days really matter.

Having the right policy, right now, making it really clear to people what you can and can’t do, is something I strongly support. That includes a simple intervention like mask wearing, we’ve become very used to. I know it’s not the way we like to live but we have become used to it. We need leaders to tell us where and where we can’t wear those masks. My decision to not wear a mask doesn’t just affect me, it affects everyone around me.

The morning’s headlines at a glance

Good morning and thank you for reading our live coverage of the day’s events. I’m Michaela Whitbourn and I’ll be keeping you informed of the latest news throughout the day.

Before the day gets under way, here’s what you need to know:

  • Australia’s Chief Medical Officer, Paul Kelly, and his state and territory counterparts have advised all jurisdictions to mandate masks in indoor settings across the country. “Masks should be mandated in all indoor settings including retail, hospitality when not eating or drinking, and entertainment facilities,” the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee said in advice to the Prime Minister and state and territory leaders. Read more from Dana Daniel, Lucy Carroll and Timna Jacks here.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

  • Meanwhile, Dana Daniel, Lucy Carroll and Timna Jacks also report that Australians may soon have to get a third dose of a coronavirus vaccine to be considered fully vaccinated, and Premiers will urge Prime Minister Scott Morrison to agree to speed up the schedule for booster shots when national cabinet holds an emergency meeting tomorrow.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison waiting to receive his COVID booster shot in November this year.Credit:Kate Geraghty

  • Masks are already mandated in some indoor settings in Victoria and Queensland, including shops. As of today, masks are also mandatory in all indoor settings in Tasmania. Each of those states imposed the mask rules in response to rising coronavirus case numbers in recent days. But masks are not required in most hospitality and retail settings in NSW, which is leading the nation in new coronavirus infections. They are only required on public transport, in airports and on planes, and for unvaccinated indoor hospitality staff. Masks remain strongly encouraged in NSW in settings where people cannot maintain social distancing.

International arrivals no longer need to isolate for 72 hours in NSW and Victoria.Credit:Brook Mitchell

  • As of today, NSW and Victoria have scrapped the mandatory 72-hour isolation requirement for international arrivals. Under the new rules, travellers must get a PCR test for COVID-19 within 24 hours after arrival in those states and isolate until they receive a negative result. Under the old rules, travellers have to isolate for 72 hours regardless of when they received their negative test result. International arrivals will still be required to produce a negative pre-departure test, within three days of boarding their flight, as well as on day six if travelling into NSW or between days five and seven if in Victoria. Hotel quarantine remains in place for travellers who are not vaccinated.

Rafael Nadal has tested positive to COVID-19.Credit:Getty Images

  • Twenty-time grand slam winner Rafael Nadal has tested positive for COVID-19 upon arrival in Spain after making his comeback from injury in an exhibition event in Abu Dhabi last week, Reuters reports. Nadal had said after the tournament in Abu Dhabi that he could not guarantee he would make the trip to Melbourne for next month’s Australian Open. Read more here.
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