Tuesday, January 04, 2022

Omicron’s peak ‘may be in sight’

Federal health officials are hopeful the Omicron wave sweeping the country could peak sooner than expected, with international modelling predicting sharp falls in cases globally.

After national daily case numbers on Monday hit a record 36,742, a senior federal government health official told The Australian authorities were closely reviewing overseas modelling and the latest data out of South Africa – where Omicron originated – which has experienced a rapid ­decline in cases.

The official, who agreed to speak on background only, said while the government was unwilling to make predictions at this stage, there were “heartening signs” that supported the view the current wave could soon peak, negating the need to return to any form of restrictions to slow the spread of the virus.

“We are not willing to call it yet, but we are heartened by the direction in South Africa,” the senior official said. “There are genuine grounds for hope. And the hope is that this is an indication of what is happening globally.”

South African authorities reported last week that they believed the peak of the Omicron surge, which began in November, had passed and that new case numbers were in a steep decline.

US researchers at Columbia University have also modelled the variant, suggesting while it had produced a rapid surge in infections, it could be short-lived, with the peak being reached in a matter of weeks.

University of NSW epidemiologist James Wood, who completed recent modelling for the NSW government, said cities were likely to see a peak before the regions, and peaks would be experienced at different times in different states.

Professor Wood has not conducted specific modelling on when the current wave is likely to peak, but said the indications from South Africa, New York and London indicated the Omicron wave would rise and taper off rapidly.

“In general, I expect the case peak to be within the next one to three weeks in NSW (delayed a week or two in other states), with hospital occupancy peaking about a week later,” Professor Wood said.

On Sunday Queensland chief health officer John Gerrard said it was likely the peak of the wave would last for weeks rather than months. “The one good thing about a very contagious virus is that the length of the wave is likely to be shorter in the order of weeks rather than months,” he said.

“Whether we then get another wave later on in the year – that’s what we don’t know.”

The signs of optimism came amid a debate over whether rapid antigen tests, as a replacement for state-run PCR tests, should be provided for free by the commonwealth after Scott Morrison ruled out taxpayer-funded home ­testing.

“We already make them free to everyone who is required to have one. Anyone who has to have a rapid antigen test, one is provided free,” the Prime Minister said.

“But we’re at another stage of this pandemic now where we just can’t go round and make everything free. We have to live with this virus. This isn’t a medicine, it’s a test.”

Federal sources claimed there was no need for many people to take a rapid antigen test, that pharmacies would be reluctant to stock them if they were free, and that the argument over supply and cost was being fuelled by state decisions to cut back on pathology and testing centres.

None of the premiers or chief ministers had raised the idea of free RATs at last week’s national cabinet meeting, but the Victorian government on Monday sought to blame the federal government for supply shortages.

Health Minister Greg Hunt backed RATs being exempt from the GST if states agreed to forgo revenue from the consumption tax, prompting Victorian Health Minister Martin Foley to accuse the federal government of consistently transferring “responsibility to the states”.

“The states clearly have a view that freely available rapid antigen testing … forms part of what should be a national response. In lieu of that national response, the states have to fill the void,” Mr Foley said.

Unions have launched a campaign calling on the federal government to provide rapid antigen tests free of charge.

ACTU president Michele O’Neil said the tests should be considered an “essential” part of the health system.

The ACTU on Monday distributed a petition urging people to support making RATs “free and accessible to all”, claiming the issue was similar to Tony Abbott proposing a Medicare co-payment in the 2014 budget.

With RATs in shortage and being sold for up to $30 each, Mr Morrison said the tests should not be free for everyone as he flagged a shift to fiscal prudence ahead of the election. “You can’t just make everything free because when someone tells you they want to make something free, someone’s always going to pay for it and it’s going to be you,” he said.

Mr Morrison said the tests were already free for people who were required to receive them under national cabinet-backed regulations, including close contacts of Covid cases and healthcare workers. He said national cabinet was working on a discount for pensioners and people with concession cards.

Putting Labor at odds with the unions, Anthony Albanese did not demand Mr Morrison make RATs free for everyone. But the Opposition Leader lashed out at the government for failing to secure more tests.

“So many people are struggling to be able to find them and then the cost is just prohibitive for a lot of people,” Mr Albanese said.

“We have a value here in Australia of healthcare being provided to those who need it. That’s the basis of Medicare. That’s the basis of our health system.

“The idea that people who need a test won’t be able to afford to get one or get access to a rapid antigen test is a real public policy failure of this government.”

Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said business had for “many months” been urging the government to shift its focus towards rapid ­testing.

“Now that the switch has been made the main issue currently seems to be with supply rather than price. This is likely to be temporary,” Mr Willox said.

Mr Hunt said there will be over 100 million rapid antigen tests available over the course of the next two months, more than double the amount onshore during the past two years.


COVID-19 exodus leaves Brisbane restaurants and cafes struggling without international students for casual workforce

Sunnybank on Brisbane's southside is one of the city's most multicultural suburbs, brimming with restaurants from a plethora of global cuisines.

International students are one of the key demographics in the area, with a university nearby and the local food scene providing a sense of familiarity and reminding them of home.

Freya Ostopovich from the Sunnybank Chamber of Commerce said it was common for students to work casual jobs in the area while studying.

But since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, 37,595 international students have left Queensland, stripping local businesses of their casual workforce.

"In 2020 it wasn't that noticeable because the restaurants were shut down for quite a while, but gradually the staff started falling away as students had to go back overseas," Ms Ostopovich said.

Sunnybank's restaurants and cafes have bounced back post-lockdowns, and some businesses have reported being busier than they were before the pandemic began.

"This year, it's not lack of customers or being shut down. It's actually finding the staff to serve, which is the problem," Ms Ostopovich said.

Family filling gaps in the roster

Cafe owner Cam Lu lost nearly all of her staff during the pandemic, going from a team of five to now having just one person on her roster. "Two of my Chinese students, they went back to China because of the COVID outbreak and they're not coming back," Ms Lu said.

"And then one of my baristas was so scared his family called him back, so he went back to Taiwan.

"Ever since, I haven't received any people dropping CV's for nearly one and a half years."

The situation has become so dire even Ms Lu's family had to pitch in.

"At the lowest point, my mother-in-law had to come in. She was 74-years-old, she had to do dishes for me. That was hard," she said.

Her husband who works full time has also had to spend his weekends helping out at the cafe with their 12-year-old daughter.

"It was crazy, but we pulled through and we never closed a day, we just try our best to serve the community and of course, keep us going because we still have all these overheads we had to pay, so it was very difficult."

For larger businesses like Henry Leung's chain of yum cha restaurants, a helping hand from family members was not quite enough to keep the business going. "We are short about 40 per cent of staff, because there are no students, no working visa [holders]," Mr Leung said. "Chef, waiter, waitress, manager, we're looking for everything."

As director of his business, Mr Leung usually handles paperwork but has found himself doing more hands on tasks during the pandemic. "We haven't got any washers, nobody can do the dishes. If there are no staff, I wash it myself," he said.

When the borders open to international students, they will still have to complete two weeks of quarantine at the Wellcamp Regional Quarantine Facility near Toowoomba.

The state government has also flagged a proportion of the first lot of students returning must study at universities outside of Brisbane and priority will be given to medical and health students.


Huge cost of home insurance in tropical Australia

Tracey Gilchrist has lived in Western Australia's Kimberley region for 13 years, delivering babies and supporting new and expectant mothers as a midwife in Derby and, most recently, Broome.

But with home and contents insurance premiums rising by about 35 per cent each year, she says her $3,665 annual bill is making it unaffordable to stay.

"It's going to sadden me if one day I have to call it and say this is just really not viable."

Insurance customers in northern Australia have long struggled with high home and contents premiums due to their perceived risk of flood and cyclone damage.

Insurance can cost between $3,500 and $20,000 in the Kimberley.

According to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission's (ACCC) final report on the Northern Australia Insurance Inquiry, the cost of home, contents and strata insurance is double for those living in northern Australia compared to the rest of the country.

"When you tell people in the city what you pay for your insurance premiums, they just go, 'You've got to be joking'," Ms Gilchrist said.

She has opted to underinsure her house, a common story in northern Australia where every $100,000 in the property's value costs an average of $1,200 in premiums.

But she considers herself lucky to be able to afford it at all, after meeting two pensioners who were having to rely on hope as their insurance policy.

"Sadly I have heard that some people are choosing not to insure at all."

Local couple Joanne Taylor and Darren Gillett said they spent their evenings looking at real estate in other WA towns as they planned their exit from Broome.

Ms Taylor says their premium has doubled in three years to $4,700 a year, and with the pool of insurers shrinking she is concerned a market monopoly will only make things worse.

"Every year since we've been here we get insurance, but then that insurer has not renewed for the following year," she said.

The couple have also underinsured their house by close to $100,000.

The highest quote Ms Taylor received from an insurer was more than $10,000 for home and contents.

She said the only way to keep the premium down was to increase the excess to an "unbelievable amount".

"If we smashed a window, someone smashed in our front door, my excess is $9,000. "We would basically scrape up the money ourselves to replace small things like that."

There are around 4,900 crimes against property in the Kimberley each year.

With unaffordable premiums, Mr Gillett said many people relied heavily on extra security measures like dogs, cameras, and window bars to protect their assets. "Our insurance policy revolves around our two Rottweilers," he said.

Despite crime rates remaining steady over the past three years, according to WA Police data, Ms Taylor was told by an insurance agent that premiums were going up because of crime in Broome.

"She said, 'I am not supposed to be telling you this, I know this phone call is recorded, I'll get into a lot of trouble, but the crime rate there is atrocious compared to everywhere else'," Ms Taylor said.

Paul Martin, who works for Phoenix Brokers in Broome, said while crime might be contributing slightly to premium rises, flood and cyclone risks were the main factors.

The last significant natural disaster in the Kimberley was in 2011, when the Aboriginal community of Warmun flooded and 80 per cent of the buildings were destroyed or damaged.

The low rate of flood and cyclone damage in the region often leaves people confused as to why their premiums keep increasing, but Mr Martin said what they did not understand was that a hurricane in the United States impacted costs in Australia.

"Someone like QBE, which is a global company, if they have a cyclone exposure somewhere internationally and that causes them to lose money, they'll then in turn look to everywhere in the world where they have that exposure and go, 'Well, we really need to be charging these areas more'."

Fred Hawke, who worked in the insurance industry for 20 years and is now a consultant at law firm Clayton Utz, says the small population in northern Australia contributes to high premiums.

"The larger number of people buying insurance you have, the smaller amount you have to collect from each of them in order to collect a sufficient premium pool to cover the losses," he said.

The ACCC's report made 38 recommendations; among them was addressing the high costs insurance companies have to pay to insure themselves, which is then passed on to the customer, otherwise known as reinsurance.

"It's basically insurance companies insuring their own risk out to other insurance companies to spread the risk around a bit further," Mr Hawke said.

The federal government has tabled draft legislation for a $10 billion reinsurance pool, which Assistant Treasurer Michael Sukkar said would improve accessibility and affordability of insurance for households and small businesses in cyclone-prone areas.

"The reinsurance pool will be mandatory for insurers with eligible risks to participate in, with an 18-month transition period for large insurers and an additional 12 months for small insurers," Mr Sukkar said.

No guarantee savings will be passed on

The ABC contacted Suncorp — whose affiliated insurance brands include AAMI, GIO, APIA and Vero — to ask whether it would guarantee savings from the reinsurance pool would be passed on to customers, but it deferred to the Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) to comment on its behalf.

IAG and its brands were also contacted for comment and said it welcomed the legislation and was providing a submission to the government and had contributed to an industry-wide submission through the ICA.


Albanese’s history says he can’t be trusted with our economy


Just days before the last election, Anthony Albanese attacked the Coalition for delivering “tax cuts for the top end of town”. It was not an isolated comment or turn of phrase, it was one he used repeatedly in the lead-up to the 2019 election. Albanese now says “the language used was terrible”, wanting Australians to forget his class war rhetoric and politics of envy. He now says he supports the government’s legislated tax cuts, but no one should believe him.

The real Anthony Albanese is a hard-left party apparatchik who has spent his career arguing for higher taxes, bigger government and attacking what he has called for more than three decades “the top end of town”. No one should be fooled by the small-target strategy of Albanese and Labor. It is a ruse; a tactic to sneak into government only after which Labor will reveal its real plans to attack aspirational Australians. He has never believed in the Coalition’s tax cuts that will abolish a whole tax bracket and see 95 per cent of taxpayers pay a marginal tax rate of no more than 30c in the dollar.

What Albanese really believes in is tax increases, including on retirees, having called the current system “not sustainable” and saying ahead of the last election Labor “deserves more credit for being prepared to take difficult decisions”. Where is that courage now? He also believes in higher taxes on housing, on more than 50,000 teachers and 40,000 nurses who are some of the more than one million aspirational Australians with an investment property that helps their family get ahead.

Even today, as Albanese seeks to bury his own political history, Australians have received a glimpse of his true economic instincts. In search of a headline, he promised to splash $6bn of taxpayers’ money to pay people to get the jab, even though they’ve already had the jab. And he wanted JobKeeper at more than $2bn a month to keep going indefinitely, saying that bringing it to an end would have a “devastating impact” as it was “the only support that was keeping the economic roof from crashing down”.

In fact, the opposite is true. Since the end of JobKeeper, and even factoring in the Delta outbreak, the unemployment rate has fallen significantly and more than 100,000 additional people are in work. Such hyperbole from the alternate prime minister exposes his lack of experience in any Treasury portfolio. The Australian economy has shown remarkable resilience in the face of the biggest economic shock since the Great Depression, outperforming all major advanced economies in the world through the pandemic.

Unemployment is around its lowest level in 13 years at 4.6 per cent, compared with 5.7 per cent when Labor left office. We are on the cusp of a historic opportunity to create one million jobs and drive unemployment sustainably into the low-4s for only the second time in the past 50 years.

We have good momentum, but the recovery is not yet locked in. We cannot put Australia’s hard-earned gains at risk by handing over the reins of the economy to the most left-wing Labor leader in decades. A person with a history of attacking aspiration through higher taxes and bigger government. A person who says “I like fighting Tories” rather than uniting Australians. A person who has no plans to grow the economy.

With Albanese, what you see is not what you will get. This leopard has never changed his spots.


Also see my other blogs. Main ones below:

http://dissectleft.blogspot.com (DISSECTING LEFTISM -- daily)

http://antigreen.blogspot.com (GREENIE WATCH)

http://pcwatch.blogspot.com (POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH)

http://edwatch.blogspot.com (EDUCATION WATCH)

http://snorphty.blogspot.com/ (TONGUE-TIED)


No comments: