Australia

What we know today, Thursday October 15

Welcome to your serving of the day’s breaking news from South Australia, the nation and abroad. Follow this post for live updates through the day.

Travellers drive spike in SA infections

The three latest coronavirus cases reported in South Australia yesterday are pushing the state’s infections this month towards levels not seen since the pandemic’s peak in April.

The new cases – three women aged in their 20s, 30s and 60s who have recently returned from overseas – take the number of new infections in the state this month to 12, the highest since August when 13 cases were recorded.

All three travelled on the same flight and returned positive results from their day one tests of their 14-day hotel quarantine

There have been six new infections reported in the past week and 12 so far this month – just one short of the August figure, which is the highest month for new infections in SA since the virus peaked in April.

The increase in infections coincides with the state government’s recent decision to increase the number of returned overseas travellers it will take into hotel quarantine.

There are now six active cases in SA, bringing the total number of cases in the state to 479.

However, all of the infections are contained within hotel quarantine and SA Health says they do not pose a serious threat to the community.

Of greater concern to the state is the increasing number of locally acquired cases in NSW, which has an open border with South Australia.

NSW reported 14 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday, 11 of which are locally acquired.

The new figures have raised alarm bells among state leaders, with embattled NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian saying NSW has reached the same tipping point it did in July after the Crossroads hotel cluster.

The new figures have prompted the NSW Premier to push back the easing of restrictions on group bookings, wedding attendees, and the four-square metre rule for indoor dining.

Grants keep home builders in business

The State Government has received more than 1100 applications for the $25,000 HomeBuilder Grant, which it says will kickstart a wave of residential construction work over the next 12 months.

The Federal grants, which are managed by the states, were opened in June. To be eligible, contracts must be signed between June 4 and December 31 this year, and construction must commence within three months of the contract date.

Treasurer Rob Lucas said of the 1100 applications, 64 grants had been or were about to be paid while another 159 applicants had received conditional approval.

Of these, some are also receiving the State Government’s $15,000 First Home Owner Grant – providing them a combined $40,000 head start into home ownership.

“HomeBuilder is a welcome shot in the arm for our state’s critical housing and construction sector, which supports thousands of local jobs – from carpenters, plumbers and bricklayers to electricians, architects and other suppliers,” he said.

Lucas said he had written to Federal Minister for Housing and Assistant Treasurer, Michael Sukkar, seeking a blanket extension of three months to the construction commencement requirement for all HomeBuilder applicants in SA.

If approved, this would mean that all local HomeBuilder applicants would have six months in which to commence construction from the date of signing the build contract.

Health chief’s revelation puts WA hard border under attack

Western Australia’s hard border stance is set to face further scrutiny after the state’s chief health officer contradicted claims by the premier.

In evidence before a parliamentary committee on yesterday, WA chief health officer Dr Andy Robertson said he was open to considering travel bubbles with other jurisdictions that had also gone at least 28 days without community spread.

All states and territories besides NSW and Victoria had met that benchmark, he told state parliament’s Education and Health Standing Committee.

Robertson also said he was generally satisfied with other states’ border arrangements, adding that many had duplicated those of WA.

Speaking in parliament hours later, Premier Mark McGowan maintained Robertson had “expressed concern” about other states’ border arrangements.

Earlier this month, the premier claimed to have been advised other states’ border arrangements were “not as strong as ours”.

WA is set to hold a state election on March 13, prompting suggestions the hard border will remain in place until after the poll in line with McGowan’s tough stance on COVID-19.

Opposition health spokesman Zak Kirkup said the premier had been “caught out”.

“It’s been made abundantly clear that the border arrangements that are put in place in Western Australia haven’t been based on the health advice but have in fact been a political decision that’s been made by the premier and the government,” he said.

While McGowan has maintained that the health advice has been the only factor keeping the borders closed, Robertson conceded there may be other elements in play.

With people in NSW free to enter lower-risk states such as South Australia, Robertson said he remained concerned about WA’s susceptibility to the virus because restrictions on physical distancing had largely been removed.

“I think it is a tightrope that we’re walking,” he said.

“Obviously as other jurisdictions have got (outbreaks) under control, there’s a lot less cases, the risk has substantially decreased.

“We need to have a better understanding of where the epidemiology is going in NSW and Victoria, whether it continues to fall.”

He also declared it was achievable for all states and territories to achieve 28 days with no community spread by Christmas.

Unemployment rate tipped to rise

Economists are forecasting Australia’s unemployment rate rising to 7.1 per cent when labour force figures for September are released today after the surprise drop to 6.8 per cent from 7.5 per cent in August.

Employment expectations centre on a 35,000 fall.

The weaker tone of the report is expected to reflect Victoria’s harsh stage four COVID-19 lockdown during the month.

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for SA was unchanged from July to August at 7.9 per cent – but that figure handed the state the highest jobless rate in the country, well above the next highest, Queensland, with 7.5 per cent.

In last week’s budget, Treasury predicted the unemployment rate will be around eight per cent by the end of 2020 before finishing the financial year at 7.25 per cent.

It does not expect the rate to be below six per cent until 2023/24 when policy will again fixate on returning budget surpluses.

Reserve Bank Governor Philip Lowe will get his first opportunity to respond to last week’s Federal Budget when he addresses day 2 of the Citi conference just hours before the jobs figures.

Lowe will also be able to reply to persistent speculation the central bank is about to cut the cash rate to 0.10 per cent from 0.25 per cent, while making similar adjustments to its three-year bond yield target and its term funding facility rate for banks.

There is also talk it will start buying five- and 10-year bonds in a further move to keep market interest rates low while pumping liquidity into the system.

Interest rate speculation, a tax-cutting budget and success in containing COVID-19 has seen consumer confidence surge to its highest level since July 2018, suggesting a positive outlook for household spending.

“Such a rapid turn in confidence may suggest a sharp bounce back in activity is in store for the fourth quarter, which would be further assisted if restrictions were eased further in Victoria,” National Australia Bank economist Tapas Strickland said.

Households forego essentials to pay rent

A reduction in income during the COVID-19 pandemic has led to almost 40 per cent of Australian rental households not being able to afford essentials after paying rent, new research has found.

The research from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute and led by the University of Adelaide surveyed 15,000 public and private renting households across all Australian states and territories during July and August 2020.

It found that as a result of the COVID-19 lockdowns, Australian tenant households earning less than $90,000 per year had higher rates of reduced working hours (up to 26 per cent of households), temporary job loss (up to 16 per cent) or reduction to overall income (up to 11 per cent) when compared to higher income households.

The ‘Renting in the time of COVID-19: understanding the impacts’ study found one in six respondents had accessed government income assistance, such as JobKeeper or JobSeeker, for the first time, with low-to-moderate income households having a higher need for assistance.

“COVID-19 has been devastating for many Australians but those in the rental sector have been particularly impacted,” University of Adelaide Professor of Housing Research Emma Baker University said.

“The pandemic, and the subsequent economic and social lockdown has rapidly changed our housing system: the way we use our homes, our ability to afford them, and the role of government safety nets.

“The pandemic has placed many people in the rental market at risk; they face uncertainty, tenure insecurity, financial hardship and significant mental health effects.”

WHO flags global virus death surge

The World Health Organisation’s chief scientist has raised concern that the recent global increase in new COVID-19 infections will be followed by rising deaths that currently number about 5000 every day.

Cases are surging, with nearly 20,000 infections reported in the UK on Thursday and Italy, Switzerland, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Russia among countries reporting a record high number of new cases.

More than 38 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus globally and nearly 1.1 million have died, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.

“Mortality increases always lag behind increasing cases by a couple of weeks,” Dr Soumya Swaminathan said during a WHO social media event.

“We are still losing approximately 5000 people a day…so we shouldn’t be complacent that death rates are coming down.”

European countries are extending restrictions well beyond social life to close schools, cancel surgeries and enlist legions of student medics as overwhelmed authorities face their nightmare scenario of a COVID-19 resurgence at the onset of winter.

The Czech Republic, which has Europe’s worst rate per capita, has shifted schools to distance learning and plans to call up thousands of medical students.

Hospitals are cutting non-urgent medical procedures to free up beds.

Poland is ramping up training for nurses and considering creating military field hospitals, Moscow is to move many students to online learning and Northern Ireland is closing schools for two weeks.

Major European economies such as Germany, Britain and France have so far resisted pressure to close schools, a move that during the spring lockdowns created hardship as many parents juggled child care and work from home.

In Germany, politicians are debating whether to extend the Christmas-New Year school break to reduce contagion, though critics say there is no evidence schools have been hot spots.

The Netherlands returned to partial lockdown on Wednesday, closing bars and restaurants, but kept schools open.

European infections have been running at an average of almost 100,000 a day – about a third of the global total – forcing governments to tighten restrictions while attempting to calibrate them to protect health without destroying livelihoods.

The United Kingdom, France, Russia and Spain accounted for more than half of Europe’s new cases in the week to October 11, according to the WHO.

India confirmed more than 63,000 new cases of the coronavirus on Wednesday, an increase of more than 8000 from the previous day but still far fewer than it was reporting a month ago, when the virus was at its peak in the country.

The Health Ministry reported 63,509 new cases, raising India’s total to more than 7.2 million, second in the world behind the US.

The ministry also reported 730 fatalities in the past 24 hours, raising the death toll to 110,586.

 – with AAP and Reuters

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