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COVID-19 in Australia

Weekly COVID news at a glance

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1   Victoria’s new hotel quarantine accommodation plan

The Victorian government is continuing to investigate new hotel quarantine accommodation options, with a pet quarantine complex in Mickleham among the locations being considered.

The site, located in Melbourne’s north, was one of a few preferred sites being assessed as an alternative to hotel quarantine. Other locations included Avalon Airport and a youth jail site in Cherry Creek, but a source close to the government told The Age both have now been assessed as being unsuitable.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews had previously said the government’s plan is to build cabin-style units, similar to quarantine accommodation currently being used in the Northern Territory. Plans for new facilities emerged as a solution to quarantine issues following repeated transmission leaks of COVID-19 from hotel quarantine in both Victoria and other states.

 

 

2   Viral fragments in wastewater found in Vic suburbs

Victorians in Melbourne’s Western and North-Western suburbs are being asked to get COVID-19 tested following the discovery of strong viral fragments in wastewater in the area.

As an extra precaution, health officials have asked 246 close contacts of a recent positive case that arrived in Victoria from Perth to get re-tested for the virus despite previously returning a negative result.

COVID-19 viral fragments have also appeared in wastewater in several locations including. Benalla, where there have been repeated detections, and several other western, northern, north-western and outer eastern suburbs. Health authorities say the fragments are most likely coming from a non-infectious person who is shedding the virus from a previous infection. People in the areas of concern should continue practicing COVID-safe rules and get tested if they show symptoms of the virus.

More information on those locations can be found on the Department of Health website, or by calling the Coronavirus hotline on 1800 675 398.

 

 

 

3   New grant program for manufacturing businesses

A new Victorian government grant program is supporting manufacturers in expanding their businesses.

Manufacturing businesses can apply for up to $500-thousand-dollars in support as part of the Business Competitiveness Program. The Victorian Government said the funding is to help manufacturers implement new technologies and processes, covering up to a third of project costs.

Applications for a grant can be made through the BUSINESS.VIC.GOV.AU/MIDF webpage.

 

 

 

4   Extension of funding for telehealth medical appointments 

The federal government has announced it will extend funding for telehealth medical appointments until the end of the year.

The government quickly rolled out telehealth subsidies in March 2020 as the pandemic took hold, so Australians could continue to access health services during lockdowns via phone or video call appointments. The Federal Budget in May will see a six-month extension of the Medicare arrangements in place, allowing people to continue to have subsidised telehealth appointments.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt made the announcement and noted that telehealth appointments have been ‘life-changing’ for Australians over the past year, allowing people to continue to access health services safely from their homes.

 

 

 

5   AstraZeneca affected the vaccine rollout plan

Vaccination rates remain low across Australia after the program reset in early April due to issues raised with side-effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

While the AstraZeneca vaccine is no longer recommended for people aged under 50, it is being recommended for those over 50 and will be available to that sector of the public from next week through GP clinics.

The federal government has now abandoned all its initial targets for the rollout which were already falling short. In total, just over 2-million doses of COVID-19 vaccines have so far been delivered nationwide.

 

 

 

 

6   Reliance has dropped on the AstraZeneca vaccine

People in disability care homes with complex needs will now receive Pfizer vaccines, regardless of their age, as Australia reduces its reliance on the AstraZeneca vaccine.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities will also be given priority for Pfizer shots. But those who have already received their initial AstraZeneca vaccine dose will still receive their second shot.

Doctors are now urging the government to change the current distribution of vaccine doses, with some GPs receiving too many doses while others don’t get enough.

National Cabinet has decided GPs will receive more doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine, while Pfizer is primarily being used for frontline workers at state vaccination hubs.

 

 

 

 

 

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COVID-19 in Australia

Travel bubble between Singapore and Australia will revive international student sector

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A proposed travel bubble between Australia and Singapore will revive the international student industry.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison flagged his ambitions for the travel arrangement in his meeting with his Singaporean counterpart last week but has warned it could be “some time” away.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton hopes a proposed travel bubble between Australia and Singapore will revive the international student industry.

 

/  Lee Hsien Loong and Scott Morrison

 

/  Defence Minister Peter Dutton

 

“The international student numbers have dried up, so to see that start again will be important and there are many Australian jobs that hang off that industry,” Dutton said.

“Importantly, the next step from there as the prime minister pointed out yesterday would be the trialling of this passport, the vaccination passport, so we can have the free arrangement.

“It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but let us work toward it as quickly as we can.

“Singapore is a great partner to work with, they are very reliable, they have a great health system and a great tourism destination, as has Australia for those tourists that want to get out of Singapore and come to a great country like Australia.”

Mr Morrison revealed work to create a passage between the two nations after he met last week with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

“I welcome the fact that we will now work together to put the infrastructure in place, to put the systems in place to enable us to open up in a similar way that we’ve been able to open up to New Zealand from Australia when we’re both in a position to do so,” Mr Morrison said in a joint address following the sixth Singapore-Australia Leaders’ Meeting.

“There is still some time before we reach that milestone, but there is nothing impeding us, as we’ve discussed today, from getting on with the job of putting systems in place that will enable such a bubble to emerge between Singapore and Australia as it does now occur between Australia and New Zealand.”

Priority will be given to students from Singapore “to be able to return to Australia to complete their studies”, Mr Morrison said.

Mr Morrison was on his way to the UK for the G7 summit. His stop in Singapore was understood to be the first of a foreign leader in the country since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

He stressed that any travel bubble would be opened only in a “safe and calibrated manner… when both sides are ready.”

Singapore has fully vaccinated 1.9 million of its 5.5 million population, or 33%, while Australia lags at 650,000 people having received both jabs out of a population of 25 million, or just 2.6%.

“Neither of us has identified a benchmark rate on vaccination when it comes to the decision that would be taken around a travel bubble,” Morrison elaborated. “But this is something that I think will continually be informed by the medical evidence as time goes on.”

 

/  Singapore Travel Pass app

 

 

Singapore has already adopted the Travel Pass app developed by the International Air Transport Association and trialled by more than 20 airlines as a standardised way to record and share the results of COVID-19 tests along with vaccination records.

The Australian government has also opened talks with IATA about using the Travel Pass – which Qantas is also trialling – as a  ‘vaccination passport’ to help unlock overseas travel.

The Government is also considering a pilot program that would let fully vaccinated Australians travel overseas from August.

The scheme could allow them to fly to selected countries, including low-risk destinations, and return without facing quarantine provided they show a negative COVID result on arrival.

It’s suggested that the trial could be rolled out alongside the introduction of an ‘amber’ grading for less risky countries, which would sit between the current ‘green’ category which for now applies only to New Zealand, and ‘red’, which today is basically the rest of the world.

Travellers arriving from ‘amber’ countries would face far less stringent quarantine rules.

 

 

 

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COVID-19 in Australia

250 International students to Sydney every fortnight

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There is a proposal to return some international students to NSW universities as a joint undertaking between the NSW Government, Study NSW and all NSW universities. It aims to progressively, and safely, return international students enrolled in our universities to NSW so they can continue their studies on campus. The proposal has been submitted to the Australian Federal Government for approval.

 

 

 

Initially the pilot program will welcome 250 students a fortnight back to all Universities in NSW, increasing to 500 by the end of 2021. Students who must undertake face-to-face learning to complete their degrees will be prioritised as part of this plan. Eligible students will also be required to complete the mandatory 14 day quarantine period.

This pilot program is supported by the University sector and will be run in parallel to the current arrangements to return Australian citizens to Australia. All costs will be managed by the University sector. The proposal has been approved by NSW Health and NSW Police. 

 

 

Who will be eligible to return?

To be eligible to return to Sydney, students must satisfy and agree to some basic requirements:

  1. Only a small number of students will initially be eligible to return.
  2. Students will need a valid Australian Student Visa.
  3. Students will need to return a negative COVID-19 test pre-departure.
  4. Eligible students will be contacted by the University once the proposal is approved.

What happens next?

The proposal will wait the Australian Federal Government’s approval and all students will be kept up to date with information as it is available.

The universities will make direct contact with students who are eligible to participate in the program via their official University email.

 

How can I register my interest?

At this stage students cannot register their interest for the program. Eligible students will be contacted directly by the universities via their official university email. 

Speaking in Sydney, New South Wales Treasurer Dominic Perrottet said this will not impact the number of people returning to the state on other commercial flights.

“This won’t come at the expense of returning Aussies. We will continue to bring back 3,000 people per week – well more than any other state,” he said.

The treasurer added that taxpayers won’t fund the accommodation of returning international students in the state.

 

/  New South Wales Treasurer Domini Perrottet

 

 

 

 

Universities are expected to foot their quarantine bill as students will stay at a purpose-built accommodation and follow the same quarantine protocols as other returning international travellers, Mr Perrottet explained.

But many say it has come a bit late. Many students said the government should have acted faster. Students enrolled in university in other states, says other Australian states should also follow New South Wales and bring back students from overseas.

The education industry in New South Wales had generated $14.6 billion in 2019. The arrival of international students could particularly benefit the state’s hospitality and retail sectors – where international students work in large numbers – have been struggling with workforce.

“International education is our second-most valuable export and we need to do what we can to help students return and revive this sector as quickly as possible,” Mr Perrottet added while making this announcement.

“Typically, we have more than 250,000 international students studying in NSW each year, and they directly supported over 95,000 local jobs before the pandemic. If we don’t act fast, students will turn to other overseas destinations, and it could take the sector decades to recover.

“That’s why we’ve developed a pilot plan supported by NSW Health and NSW Police that enables 250 international students to come to Sydney per fortnight from mid-year, in a gradual approach that will enable us to closely manage the process and ensure community health is not compromised,” he elaborated.

 

 

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COVID-19 in Australia

COVID-19 digital vaccination

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Australians fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can now use a digital certificate as proof of vaccination.

 

A digital vaccine certificate

For those who have had both doses of an approved vaccine – currently Pfizer or AstraZeneca – the COVID-19 digital certificate will be automatically generated and available through their Medicare account.

The proof of vaccination can be accessed and downloaded on a smartphone app or found online.

Minister for Government Services Linda Reynolds said the record made it easy for people to show their coronavirus vaccination status “anytime, anywhere”.

The certificate features the person’s name, date of birth and the dates of their vaccination injections. The validity of the certificate is protected with a holographic coat of arms watermark and unique document number.

 

When is the certificate issued?

The COVID-19 digital certificate is automatically generated after the second dose of an approved vaccine. 

Hank Jongen, Services Australia general manager, told ABC Radio Melbourne the best way to access the digital certificate is through the Express Plus Medicare smartphone app.

“Link Medicare to your MyGov account. Once you’ve done that, download the app because that means the evidence is there in the palm of your hand,” he said.

The certificate can also be found online by logging into Medicare via MyGov, and going to “immunisation history”.

Mr Jongen confirmed Medicare accounts must be linked to MyGov before the vaccine certificate can be accessed.

For those unable to find the certificate online or via the app, an immunisation history statement can be requested from your vaccine provider or the Australian Immunisation Register.

The certificate will still be available for those who have opted out of My Health Record, as the Australian Immunisation Register is a separate database.

A vaccine passport program could be key to avoiding coronavirus restrictions like border closures, but there is concern about who the winners and losers would be.

 

Discrimination concern

At the moment the proof-of-vaccination certificate is just that – evidence of your vaccination status.

But there is speculation it may be used as a vaccine passport – a ticket to travel or access venues or services under pandemic restrictions.

Mr Jongen said while he was unsure exactly how the certificate might be used, it was being released now in preparation for what may come.

Last month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he believed “Australians would support” a system that allowed an alternative to restricted travel from COVID hotspots. 

If Australia did adopt a vaccine passport program it would not be a first. China, Israel and the EU have established similar schemes.

Maria O’Sullivan, deputy director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University, said a temporary vaccine passport program could be worth it if it kept the economy open.

But she has concerns that young people, rural residents and other groups at the end of the vaccine delivery queue may be left behind.

“It’s a social equity issue,” she said.

“I don’t see how we could restrict people from businesses or work if they haven’t been given the chance to be vaccinated yet.”

Dr O’Sullivan said any vaccine passport program would have to be “carefully implemented” to avoid discrimination concerns.

 

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