Saturday, May 02, 2009

Feds hose down swine flu panic

There is no reason to believe it is any worse than any other flu

DOCTORS have been warned by the Federal Government not to over-prescribe drugs for swine flu as a split over prevention measures emerges in Queensland.

Queensland chief health officer Jeannette Young has encouraged people to stockpile food in the event the killer disease strikes the state but Federal Health Minister Nicola Roxon yesterday dismissed the advice.

"People might like to think about having a few extra cans of food in their pantry, some frozen vegetables in their freezer. So that people just think a little bit ahead of what might come," Dr Young said. "If this pandemic arrives, if this new strain arrives in Australia and circulates widely and causes problems, then we will be giving messages for people not to do shopping as frequently as they do normally. "So maybe only doing it once a week to just decrease the numbers of people in our shops."

But with 120 suspected cases in Australia, including 10 in Queensland, and no confirmed cases, Ms Roxon said the measure was unnecessary. "We're certainly not advising people that there's any need at this stage to make particular provisions in their own pantries," Ms Roxon said. She also highlighted concerns over the sales of Tamiflu and Relenza – drugs the World Health Organisation has recommended that people take if they are suspected to have swine flu.

She said she had received advice that their sales had increased up to four-fold and she hinted new guidelines may have to be introduced for doctors who are prescribing the drugs. "We're asking GPs to exercise some additional care, given that there seems to be a little bit of a rush on these products," Ms Roxon said. "We need people to be respecting the importance of using those anti-virals when they're needed and not unnecessarily hoarding them if they are not needed."

The caution came as pharmacies across Brisbane reported selling out of face masks and anti-bacterial gels. Craig Coffey, chemist and owner of Coffey Pharmacy in inner-city Kangaroo Point, said he had sold two dozen boxes of masks. "We've had a lot of tourists coming in, who are very conscious of the flu," he said.

Many chain pharmacies have scrambled to get further supplies from wholesalers, with the masks varying in price from $1.50 to $6 each. As swine flu fear grips Queensland, sales of anti-bacterial gels and wipes have also skyrocketed and sold out in many areas. One pharmacy in the CBD ordered 400 small bottles of anti-bacterial gel and sold out within a day. [Since a virus is not a bacterium, that is quite pointless]


Kevin Rudd's push for missile supremacy

THE navy will acquire a formidable arsenal of long-range cruise missiles for its new submarines, destroyers and frigates, able to strike at targets thousands of kilometres from Australia's shores. The new-generation submarines and major surface warships will be fitted with land-attack cruise missiles with ranges of up to 2500km as Australia becomes the first regional defence force to have the potent weapons system. The cruise missiles will give the Government "options to conduct long-range, precision-strike operations against hardened, defended and difficult-to-access targets, while minimising the exposure of ADF platforms and personnel to attack by enemy forces", the defence white paper says.

Reflecting the Government's consciousness that the planned maritime defence build-up could provoke criticism from regional neighbours, the white paper asserts that acquisition of land-attack cruise missiles is "fully consistent with Australian treaty obligations and customary international law".

The core of the Government's thinking about the far more potent next-generation defence force is that the risk of a major conventional war in the Asia-Pacific region cannot be ruled out. "It would be premature to judge that war among states, including the major powers, has been eliminated as a feature of the international system," the white paper says. "Shows of force by rising powers are likely to become more common as their military capabilities expand. Growing economic interdependence will not preclude inter-state conflicts or tensions short of war, especially over resources or political differences."

The Defence Department, with a current annual budget of $22billion, has been charged with the massive task of finding up to $20 billion in savings and efficiency gains over the next decade to pay for more than $100 billion worth of hi-tech equipment.

The Rudd Government has also decided it will produce a new defence white paper every five years to update national security risk assessments and keep abreast of the rapidly changing strategic dynamics in the Asian region.

"Force 2030 ... will be a more potent force in certain areas, particularly in undersea warfare and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) surface maritime warfare, air superiority, strategic strike, special forces, ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance) and cyber warfare," the white paper says. "It is conceivable that, over the long period covered by this white paper, we might have to contend with major power adversaries operating in our approaches - in the most drastic circumstance, as a consequence of a wider conflict in the Asia-Pacific region."

The white paper embodies Kevin Rudd's pledge to maintain an annual real increase of 3 per cent in the Defence budget until 2018 and 2.2 per cent beyond that to 2030.

The Royal Australian Navy has emerged as the biggest winner from the new defence blueprint, to be launched in Sydney today by the Prime Minister, with both its surface and submarine fleets set for dramatic expansion from 2020. As previously detailed in The Weekend Australian, the new white paper, titled Force 2030, will double the number of submarines to 12 and replace the Anzac-class frigates with eight larger ships equipped with helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and sophisticated anti-submarine sonars.

The RAAF will get about 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters starting with three squadrons of up to 72 planes as well as eight new long-range surveillance aircraft, expected to be the P-8 Poseidon, to replace the ageing AP-3C Orion fleet. In addition, the air force will also get seven high-altitude long-range unmanned platforms, possibly the US-made Global Hawk.

The army's regular infantry forces will evolve into 10 battalion-sized "battlegroups" and will get a new fleet of 1000 protected vehicles to replace the current generation of armoured personnel carriers and the special forces will also get a range of new equipment including vehicles. In addition to the 30 MRH-90 battlefield helicopters the army is also getting seven new CH-47F Chinook transport helicopters to replace its existing D models.

The new submarines will be larger than the existing Collins-class boats, with greater range and capabilities including strategic strike, intelligence collection and to carry uninhabited underwater vehicles for surveillance and reconnaissance. The submarines are expected to be about 4000 tonnes in size and will be able to stay longer on patrol but the Rudd Government has ruled out nuclear propulsion for the new boats. They will be built in Adelaide in what is set to become Australia's largest-ever defence industry project, lasting 30 years.

The three new air warfare destroyers, already on order, will be equipped with SM-6 long-range anti-aircraft missiles with a range of 400km. The RAN will also get about 20 "offshore combatant vessels" of up to 2000 tonnes which will replace the existing range of Armidale-class patrol boats, mine counter-measures, hydrographic and other specialised smaller vessels. "The future Offshore Combatant Vessel will be able to undertake offshore and littoral warfighting roles, border protection tasks, long-range counter-terrorism and counter-piracy operations, support to special forces, and missions in support of security and stability in the immediate neighbourhood," the white paper proposes.

The navy will also get a fleet of at least 24 new naval combat helicopters equipped with advanced anti-submarine warfare equipment including dunking sonars and air-launched torpedoes. The white paper places far greater emphasis on anti-submarine warfare given the anticipated rapid expansion of submarine fleets in regional navies, led by China, over the next generation.

The permanent defence force will grow to about 58,000 personnel from its current size of 53,000. Defence's existing formula to compensate for annual inflation indexation to its cost base will now be fixed at 2.5 per cent out to 2030, which will also help fund the new capital equipment program. "The Government has committed to sustainable funding arrangements for the Defence budget in future years to provide funding certainty for planning and real funding growth to meet the growing cost of the military equipment we will need in an increasingly demanding world," the white paper says.


Rudd wary of relying on Obama and his ilk

America will not protect us, warns Rudd

THE Rudd Government has acknowledged that the supremacy of the US has begun to fade and Australia is preparing for an uncertain future in which it can no longer rely on the protection of its main ally. In a fundamental shift in defence plans, the Government has explicitly declared that US primacy in the Asia-Pacific - the bedrock of the nation's security since World War II - may be ending. The change, caused by the rise of new great powers such as China, is set to produce growing regional tensions and a "sudden deterioration" in Australia's security. A 20-year defence blueprint, to be released by the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, today, prepares for a multibillion-dollar build-up of naval and air forces to ensure that Australia can defend its northern and sea approaches.

It says a regional shake-up is under way but US supremacy will not be blunted before 2030 and assesses the chances of an attack on Australia in the short term as "very remote".

The white paper, Defending Australia In The Asia Pacific Century: Force 2030, is the first since 2000 and outlines a range of security threats, including instability caused by the financial crisis, cyber warfare, failed states in the Pacific, Islamist terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and climate change.

It warns that Australia must ensure it can protect itself amid an emerging range of great powers in the region - particularly China, India and Russia - which could lead to a "miscalculation" with disturbing consequences for Australia. "Australia has been a very secure country for many decades, in large measure because the wider Asia-Pacific region has enjoyed an unprecedented era of peace and stability underwritten by US strategic primacy," the paper says. "That order is being transformed as economic changes start to bring about changes in the distribution of strategic power. Risks resulting from escalating strategic competition could emerge quite unpredictably."

The Minister for Defence, Joel Fitzgibbon, said the world faced "the beginning of the end" of the unquestioned dominance of Australia's principal ally since the Cold War.

The paper criticises China for failing to explain its substantial military build-up in recent years, which appears to have exceeded the force needed for a war over Taiwan. China's military modernisation will be little affected by the global financial crisis and is set to limit the ability of the US to control the region, it says. "The pace, scope and structure of China's military modernisation have the potential to give its neighbours cause for concern if not carefully explained, and if China does not reach out to others to build confidence regarding its military plans. "As other powers rise, and the primacy of the US is increasingly tested, power relations will inevitably change. When this happens there will be the possibility of miscalculation … A potential contraction of US strategic presence in the Asia-Pacific region, with a requirement for allies and friends to do more in their own regions, would adversely affect Australian interests, regional stability and global security."

The paper affirms support for the US alliance and for US-led efforts to bolster global security but warns Australia will not put troops at risk "in distant theatres of war where we have no direct interests". Instead, the Government has focused on defending the borders of Australia, primarily by building air and naval power to protect the northern sea-air gap, maritime approaches and offshore oil and gas reserves.

A range of large-scale purchases includes a doubling of the submarine fleet to 12, about 100 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, eight frigates with submarine detection capability and - as planned - three air warfare destroyers. For the first time Australia will acquire an arsenal of sea-based long-range cruise missiles. "The ability to deter or defeat armed attack on Australia will continue to be the primary force structure determinant … This means focusing predominantly on forces that can exert air superiority and sea control in our approaches."

The Government has kept its commitment to boost the Defence budget by 3 per cent each year until 2018, but plans to scale this back to 2.2 per cent until 2030. It says an internal reform program will save $20 billion.


Queensland teachers face competency exam before teaching

Good idea

QUEENSLAND primary teachers may face an Australian-first competency exam before they will be allowed to teach the state's young. Education expert Professor Geoff Masters today handed down a report into improving Queensland students' literacy, numeracy and science levels after a test last year showed results were lagging behind other states. The Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study showed Queensland's Year Four students ranked last in science and seventh in maths out of the country's eight states and territories.

The report made five recommendations to improve standards, including that all aspiring primary school teachers sit a Queensland College of Teachers test to show proficiency levels and gain their registration. It would be the first time such a test was imposed on Australian teachers before their registration. Its proposal followed concerns expressed to the review about some new teachers' own levels of competence in mathematics, science and literacy.

Premier Anna Bligh, who called the report a "road map'' to better results, said she expected the recommendation to be controversial. But the premier said last year's results were unacceptable and she wanted to ensure the best people were teaching the state's children. "I know there'll be some controversy about this recommendation, but teaching, like other professions, needs to have an open mind about these sorts of ideas,'' Ms Bligh said. "To become a barrister for example, a law graduate has to sit the Bar exam and satisfy the requirements for that exam.''

The report also recommended a new program be designed and delivered through distance education for teachers to improve their teaching methods. Additional money should also be provided for the advanced training and employment of specialist literacy, numeracy and science teachers to work in schools.

Ms Bligh said the government would now examine all recommendations and look at where money needed to be spent.


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