Canavan calls to halt AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine rollout
QLD has 'major concerns' about PNG spread
Australia will step up its support for Papua New Guinea amid concerns that coronavirus is spreading there and could jump to Queensland.
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has revealed that travellers from PNG account for half of the COVID-19 cases in the state's hotel quarantine system.
State and federal authorities are on high alert for cases in the Torres Strait, where Australia's most northern islands are just a short boat ride from the PNG mainland.
Travel between Torres Strait and PNG villages has been banned since the start of the pandemic, but there are fears the virus could spread into the state across the porous border.
According to The Australian, cabinet's national security committee discussed the crisis at a meeting on Monday night and Foreign Minister Marise Payne will announce on Tuesday that more Australian medical assistance teams will deploy to PNG.
There will be an effort in the coming days to ramp up the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines to the country's health workers, many of whom are already infected.
The Queensland Premier has revealed that in recent COVID testing support for PNG, Queensland Health identified 250 positive cases in just 500 tests.
"We have major concerns now about what is happening in Papua New Guinea," said Ms Palaszczukon Monday.
"PNG is on the doorstep of the Torres Strait and Queensland and I hope that I will be able to speak to the Prime Minister or the Prime Minister's office in the next 24 hours just to talk about our concerns there (and) have a look at the flights coming in."
PNG's high commissioner to Australia, John Kali, has sought urgent help from Australia for COVID-19 assistance. Australia has pledged $144m for COVID-19 vaccinations in PNG over three years as part of a $500m health security package, but the federal government has been under pressure to deliver more.
There are concerns that the public fueneral for former Papua New Guinea prime minister Michael Somare in Port Moresby may have been a 'super-spreader' event for the virus.
The official number of COVID-19 cases in PNG is 2173 but is thought to be much higher due to low testing rates.
NSW SECURITY GUARD TESTS POSITIVE
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has revealed there are no additional cases of COVID-19 after a hotel quarantine security guard, who tested positive for the concerning UK strain of the virus, was included in today's numbers.
The premier addressed reporters and announced that only one locally acquired case was recorded overnight.
A 47-year-old man who works as a security guard at two quarantine hotels in Sydney tested positive for the virus on Saturday night after contracting it from a returned traveller staying at the Sofitel Wentworth where the man was working on Friday.
NSW Health officials said genomic sequencing determined the man to be positive for the UK strain of COVID-19, which is believed to be up to 70 per cent more transmissible than other variants.
"While the source of the new case's infection is still under investigation, genomic sequencing results received last night show a match to the viral strain of a COVID-positive returned traveller who was in the Sofitel Wentworth quarantine hotel while infectious," a NSW Health alert detailed.
"The genome sequencing results indicate the strain found in the hotel quarantine guest and security guard is the more transmissible B1.1.7 variant of the virus (also known as the UK variant).
"Testing continues on close contacts of the case, who remains asymptomatic. The man's household contacts have all tested negative, and will continue to self-isolate for 14 days.
"We're pleased about those numbers but encourage everyone with the mildest symptoms to come forward," Ms Berejiklian said on Monday.
"I wasn't commenting yesterday on this, but I will say while it is always concerning to have a case outside of overseas travellers, it is not surprising; we always know it is a high risk."
THREE LINKED TO QLD HOTEL CLUSTER
Authorities are concerned COVID-19 could once again be spreading through the same hotel that was at the centre of Brisbane's snap three-day lockdown in January, after three cases were linked to the quarantine facility via genomic sequencing.
More than 300 test results of close contacts and hotel quarantine staff and guests are pending, as millions of Queenslanders anxiously await news of whether they will endure another lockdown.
It comes after a doctor at Brisbane's Princess Alexandra Hospital and a second guest at the Hotel Grand Chancellor were linked to a returning traveller who had contracted the UK strain of the virus.
Six new cases were confirmed in Queensland on Monday morning, but they were all detected in hotel quarantine.
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said none of the new cases were of concern, but that the next 24 hours would be "crucial", as authorities confirmed three cases have been linked to the Hotel Grand Chancellor.
A female doctor at the PA Hospital said to have used "appropriate" PPE was exposed to the virus while treating the first patient on Wednesday before spending Thursday out in the south Brisbane community.
She was tested on Friday morning after developing symptoms and returned a positive result later in the day.
As a result, patrons at the Morning After cafe at West End from 2pm to 3.15pm, Corporate Box Gym at Greenslopes between 5.45pm to 7pm, and the Stones Corner Hotel from 6.30pm to 7.45pm on Thursday have been ordered to get tested immediately and isolate.
At least 272 community contacts have been traced and 160 staff and seven patients were identified as close contacts of the doctor at the hospital, with test results expected to begin trickling in on Monday.
As of Monday morning, 86 people who were tested have come back negative.
Three of the doctor's close contacts had "most reassuringly" tested negative as of Sunday, according to deputy chief health officer Sonya Bennett.
"That's not to say that they're completely out of the woods - we'll continue to monitor them while in quarantine, and we also expect to get test results back from those community contacts in the next few days," she said.
Dr Bennett confirmed on Monday morning that genomic sequencing had shown a second guest at the Hotel Grand Chancellor had contracted the same strain of COVID-19.
The two cases were staying on the same floor of the hotel, and authorities are scouring over security footage to determine if there is a chain of transmission.
As a result, the facility has entered a 72-hour lockdown, with no guests allowed to leave and no further guests admitted until Wednesday.
More than 160 people are currently staying at the hotel, with more than 200 guests and staff who have left the hotel since March 5 ordered to go into home isolation.
The same hotel was the centre of Brisbane's snap three-day lockdown in January.
Dr Bennett said she didn't perceive there to be a risk to the community, but would not pre-empt whether Brisbane would go back into lockdown.
"There is clearly a lot we don't yet know and there will be work going on first to manage the public health risk … If we get positive tests in … we can understand if there is any risk to the community," she said.
"Certainly with the healthcare worker in the hospital we haven't seen any positive cases yet and that is a good sign.
" … They are being treated as a cluster but they are separate (incidents)."
As of Monday, there are 38 active COVID-19 cases in the state.
COALITION SUPPORT SLUMPS
The Coalition is now facing a challenge as popular support for the Liberal and Nationals parties has dropped three points to 39 per cent, the lowest since the 2019 election.
According to an exclusive Newspoll in The Australian, Labor and the Coalition neck-to-neck with Labor's primary vote lifting two points, to 39 per cent.
This is the first time in the electoral cycle that the two parties are on equal footing.
In a dramatic turnaround, Labor has an election winning lead of 52-48 per cent on a two-party-preferred basis, a four point reversal.
As party leader Scott Morrison still enjoys record high support at 62 per cent.
Mr Albanese recorded a four-point rise to 42 per cent in approval and a fall of four points in disapproval.
On the head-to-head measure of who would make the better prime minister, Mr Morrison suffered a four-point fall to 56 per cent while Mr Albanese gained four points against his rival to 30 per cent.
While the federal government has delivered good news on jobs and the economy, sexual assault allegations and the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine have taken their toll.
The margin between the two parties is at its narrowest since pre-pandemic levels.
The last time the Coalition significantly fell behind Labor on two-part-preferred support was over Mr Morrison's handling of the bushfire crisis.
TRACES FOUND IN VIC
Victoria is once again on high alert after COVID-19 traces were detected in the wastewater of 14 Melbourne suburbs.
On Sunday, Victoria's chief health officer Brett Sutton said the fragments "may be due to a person with COVID-19 being in the early active infectious phase."
Professor Sutton also said it was possible that "someone is continuing to shed the virus after the early infectious period."
The samples were taken between March 7-11. Residents of the 14 suburbs are being encouraged to be on "high alert" and to present for testing if even mild symptoms are detected.
The suburbs on alert include: Laverton, Laverton North, Werribee, Balwyn North, Blackburn North, Box Hill North, Bulleen, Doncaster, Doncaster East, Donvale, Mitcham, Mont Albert North, Nunawading, and Sunbury.
PM RECEIVES SECOND JAB
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has received his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine.
Mr Morrison received the booster jab at Sydney's Castle Hill Medical Centre on Sunday, three weeks after getting the first dose on February 21.
Mr Morrison received the second dose at flanked by his chief health officer Paul Kelly.
Speaking after receiving his jab, Mr Morrison said Australia would not have had a vaccine program had it not been for local manufacturing.
He confirmed Australia will produce more than 50 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, and called Australia's vaccination procurement a "herculean" effort.
PM ON VACCINE DELAY: 'I TOTALLY REJECT THAT'
Scott Morrison says he was "misunderstood" over expectations all Australians would be fully vaccinated by the end of October, saying he meant Australians would have received their first dose by then.
Health Department secretary Brendan Murphy on Thursday poured cold water on the government's aim to have all Australians vaccinated by October deadline, admitting the rollout could drag into next year.
Just hours before, the prime minister said it was the government's "hope and … expectation" the October deadline would be met.
But Mr Morrison, who has repeatedly spruiked the timeline, claimed on Friday he had never said all Australians would receive both required shots by then.
When asked by a reporter about the apparent inconsistencies in the government's statements on the October time frame, Mr Morrison was adamant.
"No, no you're misunderstanding me: The first dose will be administered by the end of October. That's what I meant," Mr Morrison said.
The reporter shot back: "When are you going to be honest with people?"
"I am being, right now," the PM retorted
"The information we have been given has not been consistent," the reporter said.
"I totally reject that," Mr Morrison said.
"We were clear a month ago that the October deadline would not include the second dose."
But that comment differs to statements he made earlier in the year.
The prime minister told Sky News on February 1 the government planned to "get through it all" by October, and that "we might get there even sooner".
Three days later, he told news.com.au: "By October, we anticipate that we would have worked right through the population."
But he said revelations in February the AstraZeneca jab was more effective after 12 weeks, rather than four as initially expected, had forced a recalculation.
Mr Morrison said he "totally rejected" suggestions his messaging had been unclear.
He claimed Health Minister Greg Hunt confirmed on February 16 that administering second doses by the end of October "wouldn't be possible".
"We were clear a month ago that the October deadline would not include the second dose," he said.
"(Greg Hunt) said that a month ago, and that's what Professor Murphy said yesterday."
But Mr Hunt did not rule out second doses being administered by the October deadline, only saying the government would "look at what (the development) means in regards to the second dose".
He did, however, confirm that Australians could "at least" be assured of a first dose by then.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce stood alongside Mr Morrison on Thursday, saying the airliner's assumptions were based on the assumption "we have the full adult population vaccinated" by October.
"We've been assuming (the rollout) is working … I think the government's plan (is) that 20 million people are vaccinated by the end of October," he said.
The government had ordered over 3 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, but has been stymied by supply chain issues in Europe.
Mr Morrison said 300,000 doses had been distributed across Australia, with another 400,000 to go out imminently, but conceded that figure was "a lot less than we anticipated".
"That obviously has an impact on the amount of doses available in the early stages of the rollout," he said.
The government has predicted one million vaccines will be administered a week once jabs produced onshore entered circulation later this month.
BIG STEP TO REOPENING OVERSEAS TRAVEL
Qantas officials believe their first customer trial of a digital health passport on a flight from Germany is a major step forward in the push to get Australians travelling internationally again.
The airline's QF116 repatriation flight from Frankfurt to Darwin touched down on Friday morning, and passengers on-board were the first to trial the CommonPass digital health app.
Those on-board were invited to use the CommonPass app to show their negative COVID-19 test result, but the app aims to eventually incorporate proof of vaccination.
The CommonPass smartphone app, designed by Swiss-based company Commons Project Foundation, is a secure app that connects customers to certified testing labs so results can be uploaded to their phone.
CommonPass assesses whether the individual's COVID-19 test results or vaccination records come from a trusted source and satisfy the health screening requirements of a country they want to enter.
CommonPass delivers a simple yes or no answer as to whether the individual meets the current entry criteria.
Passengers can show border officials proof of a negative COVID test result before their flight, a requirement within 72 hours of entering Australia.
Qantas successful trialled CommonPass with flight crew in February and said digital vaccine passports would help its quest to resume international travel by late October.
"We want to get our international flights back in the air and our people back to work, and a digital health pass will be a key part of that," Qantas chief customer officer Stephanie Tully said.
"COVID test results and proof of vaccine will be required in many countries for quarantine-free travel, just as it has been for polio and yellow fever vaccinations in the past.
"During the trial, customers travelling on our international repatriation flights (will be) invited to download the CommonPass app on their device.
"Longer term we'd like to integrate the technology with our existing Qantas app so that our customers can manage all parts of their journey in the one place.
"Ultimately we're focused on ensuring that the process will be as seamless as possible for our customers to share this information so they can travel internationally again."
Commons Project Foundation chief executive Paul Meyer said the CommonPass app's trial with travellers repatriating to Australia would pave the way for Australians to leave the country later this year.
"As we initiate the upcoming trials with Qantas, we aim to provide Australians with a secure, private and trusted experience as they return to their home country," Mr Meyer said.
"We look forward to supporting the efforts of Qantas, the Australian government and the nation's healthcare system to safely reopen the country to international travel."
Qantas will also trial another digital solution to COVID-19 travel, the IATA Travel Pass.
Air New Zealand will test the IATA app on flights between Auckland and Sydney for three weeks in April.
PREMIER'S PARENTS' DIG AT GLADYS
The NSW parents of West Australian Premier Mark McGowan did not mince words as they defended his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, taking a dig at their own state leader in the process.
Mary and Dennis McGowan drove to WA in a caravan, arriving this week from Coffs Harbour just in time for Saturday's state election.
Mr McGowan on Friday took his elderly parents to tourist attraction Kings Park, where they told reporters they were extremely proud of the way he had dealt with coronavirus.
The couple even said their son had done a better job than NSW counterpart Gladys Berejiklian.
"Much better," Dennis said and pointed to "the results".
The couple said they rarely saw West Australian news in NSW, but their son - who has continued to make headlines about the hard border - had been on television during the pandemic.
Dennis said they tried to "avoid any political discussion" at the Coffs Harbour RSL.
Mary then humorously added: "We only go for the meat raffle."
The couple, who last saw Mr McGowan in January 2020 for Dennis's 80th birthday, also said they had no difficulty getting across the state border with the G2G pass.
Mr McGowan joked his parents liked Western Australia better than NSW, but when he was asked by a reporter if that was true, Dennis paused then said he would "pass on that one".
"Let me answer that," Mr McGowan interjected, drawing laughs.
Mr McGowan's parents joined him on election night in 2017, when Labor ended Colin Barnett's reign, and said they were feeling more confident this time.
The Premier said he was looking forward to spending more time with his parents after the election.
"I don't know what's going to happen on Saturday but after that, normally, it will be busy whatever happens, but certainly we're going to make sure we have some lunches and dinners," he said.
"Mum and dad are going to go and visit the museum today and I think they are going to take the kids to the zoo."
Labor is expected to be easily re-elected on Saturday, with Liberal leader Zak Kirkup already conceding his party cannot win.
He could also lose his own seat of Dawesville, indicating he would not return to politics if that happened.
- additional reporting Heath Parkes-Upton
Originally published as QLD has 'major concerns' about PNG spread