NSW, Vic record 50 new deaths, 53,000 COVID cases

New South Wales has recorded another 32 COVID-related deaths, taking its toll for the pandemic to 951.

It follows the deaths of 36 people on Tuesday.

The state also recorded a further 32,297 positive tests in the 24 hours to 8pm on Tuesday.

That includes more than 10,000 positive rapid antigen tests from the previous seven days.

There has been a slight increase in the number of people in hospital with 2863 patients being treated, up from 2850.

There are now 217 people in ICU, up from 209.

Meantime, Victoria has recorded 20,769 new COVID-19 cases along with 18 deaths.

The state currently has 1173 people in hospital.

There are 125 patients in ICU with 42 being ventilated.

Fears Tonga disaster death toll will rise

Tongan officials have warned the death toll from the volcanic eruption and tsunami in the Pacific nation is only set to grow, as damage assessment begins.

As Australia prepares to send more aid to Tonga, authorities have confirmed the first casualty from the natural disaster, British charity worker Angela Glover.

The deputy head of mission at Tonga’s high commission in Australia, Curtis Tu’ihalangingie, said it would still be weeks before communication was fully restored in the country.

“Communication is on locally, so people can call one another in Tonga, but can’t all internationally, we still have limited access to Tonga,” he told ABC Radio on Tuesday.

“We still don’t have a direct communication with our government.”

All Australians have been accounted for in Tonga following the disaster.

There are normally about 300 Australians living in Tonga, but the number is estimated to be less due to COVID-19.

Mr Tu’ihalangingie said there was still uncertainty about the level of damage to Tonga, but basic supplies were needed.

“At this point (Tonga needs) water and also masks,” he said.

“The county was covered with volcanic ash and this is very alarming and dangerous, not only for young children but for everyone.”

Australia sent a P-8 plane to survey the damage on Monday, with further support on the way.

Pacific Minister Zed Seselja said critical supplies such as food, water as well as communications and clean-up equipment will be sent over on a C-130 plane once the airport in Tonga is able to reopen.

“There is still a significant amount of ash at the airport. It was hoped the airport might open today, but that’s more likely now to be tomorrow,” Senator Seselja told the Nine Network.

“We’ve offered $1 million in assistance at the moment, we’re looking to hear back from the Tongan government in some more specific detail.”

Initial data from Monday’s surveillance flight has come through, with on-ground efforts also being carried out by Tongan authorities.

Further supplies will be deployed to Tonga on HMAS Adelaide as early as Wednesday.

A major underwater telecommunications cable was damaged in the tsunami, and is expected to take at least two weeks to repair.

Senator Seselja said work was under way to get communication access to the Pacific nation.

“We’re working with Telstra to try and make sure we can get temporary equipment, so some better on-the-ground equipment can exist.”

With Tonga enforcing a strict border measure to help keep coronavirus cases out of the country, there are fears international aid efforts could lead to Tonga losing its COVID-free status.

“As much as we are going to send assistance, we will still need to follow the COVID-19 protocols to keep the people in the population safe, rather than us setting a system and there’s a tsunami of COVID hitting Tonga, Mr Tu’ihalangingie said.

“We hope to maintain that and we’re very appreciative of the understanding of the Australian government and partners.”

© AAP 2022

Aust flight to assess Tonga tsunami damage

Australia will send a surveillance flight to help Tonga assess tsunami damage after an underwater volcano eruption.

The P-8 plane is set to reach Tongan airspace by 9am on Monday to gather information on critical infrastructure such as roads, ports and powerlines.

The flight is part of a coordinated response by Australia and New Zealand, which will also send a surveillance aircraft on Monday.

“While communications remain limited we are continuing to receive regular updates through our High Commission in Tonga, with early reports of substantial ash coverage around (capital) Nuku’alofa and coastal inundation and damage to infrastructure,” a Department of Foreign Affairs statement said.

Australia is also preparing humanitarian assistance through a flight from Brisbane which should be ready to go on Monday but – like the surveillance flights – will be subject to weather conditions.

“Australia will work in partnership with other Pacific neighbours, including New Zealand, to support Tonga in a COVID-safe way,” the statement said.

“Tonga is part of our Pacific family and both the thoughts and the prayers of Australians are with the entire nation, which has been impacted by this natural disaster.”

Australians and officials living in Tonga have all been accounted for despite communications being disrupted in the wake of the tsunami that struck the country after the nearby underwater eruption.

The Bureau of Meteorology said the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha’apai volcano erupted at 3.10pm AEDT on Saturday, with tsunami waves observed in the aftermath.

Land warnings were issued earlier for Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island, however these were downgraded and replaced with marine warnings on Sunday morning.

Marine warnings were cancelled for the two islands on Sunday night but remain for coastal areas of NSW.

Tsunami warnings for Macquarie Island and coastal areas of Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania were cancelled on Sunday morning.

Countries around the Pacific were also on alert, with residents in parts of Japan advised to evacuate after waves of more than a metre.

© AAP 2022

Novak Djokovic

D-Day for Djokovic may not be saga’s end

Novak Djokovic faces another D-Day in his battle to land the chance to defend his Australian Open title – but there is still no guarantee it will mark the end of the drawn-out saga.

The Serbian champion was waiting to hear whether the Australian government will revoke his visa for a second time as the row over his medical exemption from the country’s COVID-19 inoculation rules dragged on into its second week.

Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, who has the discretionary power to cancel the visa, was expected to announced his decision on Friday.

Yet the unvaccinated Djokovic, who has now learned his first round opponent in the grand slam – probably next Monday or Tuesday – will be his fellow Serb Miomir Kecmanovic, is reportedly determined to continue the fight should the verdict go against him.

Multiple reports suggest that the government is leaning towards revoking the visa again and that Djokovic’s lawyers would immediately launch a legal appeal over any attempt at deportation, with the start of the grand slam less than 72 hours away.

Djokovic was continuing to practise at the Rod Laver Arena where he’s won his nine Australian Open crowns as if he were preparing as usual.

Yet the noise surrounding the 34-year-old’s potential reappearance continues to be deafening, with Djokovic’s cause clearly not helped by his admission that a wrong entry declaration had been made on his visa.

A box was ticked that confirmed he had not travelled abroad in the two weeks before leaving for Australia, even though he had actually been to Spain from Serbia.

He also acknowledged he shouldn’t have done an interview and photoshoot for a French newspaper while infected with COVID-19 before Christmas.

One online poll by the News Corp media group showed that 83% of respondents were now backing the idea of the government trying to deport Djokovic.

Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce said most Australians disapproved of Djokovic’s stance, saying: “Most of us thought because Mr Djokovic hadn’t been vaxxed twice that he would be asked to leave – well, that was our view, but it wasn’t the court’s view.

“The vast majority of Australians … didn’t like the idea that another individual, whether they’re a tennis player or … the king of Spain or the Queen of England, can come up here and have a different set of rules to what everybody else has to deal with.”

Top players were also continuing to have their say, with Stefanos Tsitsipas, one of Djokovic’s biggest rivals for the title, asserting on Thursday: “For sure, he’s (Djokovic) been playing by his own rules and has been doing what not many players had the guts to do.

“Especially after the ATP announced certain criteria for players to enter the country.”

All-time great Martina Navratilova had advice for Djokovic, saying that sometimes your personal beliefs have to be trumped by what’s good for the greater good, for those around you, for your peers.”

Urging him to “suck it up” and go home, she added: “Get vaccinated or just don’t go play.”

With AP and Reuters

© AAP 2022

Quarantine exemption about ‘managing risk’

Any expansion to what classifies an essential worker will be about managing risk and keeping Australia running amid widespread supply chain shortages, a leading epidemiologist says.

National cabinet will on Thursday discuss adding more industries and workers to the list of COVID-19 close contacts exempt from quarantine requirements.

Professor Catherine Bennett from Deakin University says the changes would not come from a starting point of zero risk and needed to be weighed up against the large number of critical workers being furloughed.

“People who might have had exposures won’t necessarily go on to have an infection but at the moment are out of the workplace and that is causing this widespread disruption,” she told the ABC ahead of Thursday’s meeting.

“It’s not going from zero risk … it’s actually saying we can select for people who are less likely to be infectious who can continue working if they have no symptoms.”

People exposed to the virus at home will often already be at work while infectious before the original case is even identified, Prof Bennett said.

Ministers have flagged the possibility JobSeeker recipients could be deployed into workforces to help ease staff shortages.

A plan to increase the hours international students are able to work to 40 hours a fortnight is also being considered as a way to alleviate pressure on sectors hardest hit by the virus.

Chair of the Australian Trucking Association David Smith told Sky News upskilling and retraining drivers with truck licences could help address distribution shortages.

Mr Smith estimated about 30 per cent of truck drivers had been taken out of action due to COVID-19.

“There is quite a number of people in Australia that have had, or got, a truck licence that don’t use them,” he said.

“We believe we could reintroduce people back into the workforce to alleviate some of the pain”.

Mr Smith said there were a number of Afghan refugees whose visas made it impossible to train as truck drivers.

“These people have already driven heavy vehicles in Afghanistan and trained by the Australian army but don’t have an Australian licence. We are calling on the government to relax those visa rules so we can train them up.”

A plan on how students can safely return to schools amid rising cases will also be thrashed out by leaders.

Principles for how schools would reopen and stay open in the wake of outbreaks have been finalised by federal, state and territory officials, before being put to national cabinet on Thursday.

It comes as more than 140,000 children aged between five and 11 were jabbed in the first three days of becoming eligible, including 55,570 on Wednesday alone, according to Health Minister Greg Hunt.

Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese says the Queensland government’s decision to delay the start of the school year was the right one.

He said other states and territories needed to make a decision based on health advice.

“Australians are voting with their feet literally, staying at home, they are making their own decisions and parents will make decisions in their interests of their children,” he told ABC News on Thursday.

“It is extraordinary that in the third year of the pandemic we have people getting their booster shot appointments deferred, we have children who can’t get their first shot causing anxiety for parents.

“The government needs to have that health assurance that it is safe.”

It comes as more than 92,264 new infections have been reported in NSW after residents rushed to post positive results from rapid antigen tests since the start of the year.

The dramatic rise in case numbers comes on top of another grim milestone as the state reported a record 22 lives lost in the 24 hours to 8pm on Wednesday.

There were 37,169 new cases and 25 deaths in Victoria.

© AAP 2022