Sunday, May 17, 2020

The remarkable reason why Bunnings hardware store has been spared from a devastating coronavirus outbreak

Bunnings may have been spared from becoming a coronavirus hotspot because the layout of their stores provides significant space for customers and staff.

Contact tracing studies from China have revealed rates of infection were higher among friends, family and relatives who live together or those who work in confined spaces such as offices and restaurants.

Bunnings and other retailers may have avoided infections because aisles, walkways and checkouts are placed far apart.

Alongside enforcing strict social distancing and hygiene measures, the layout of Bunnings provides significant space between customers which limits close interactions.

Muge Cevik, a physician and scientist at Scotland's University of St Andrews' School of Medicine, examined the studies from China which looked at the close contacts of coronavirus cases as of May 4.

She posted a thread on Twitter and used this data to explain why retailers have low infection rates despite operating through the pandemic and serving thousands of customers.

'The risk is highest in enclosed environments; household, long-term care facilities and public transport,' Dr Cevik said.

'High infection rates seen in household, friend and family gatherings, transport suggest that closed contacts in congregation is likely the key driver of productive transmission.

'Casual, short interactions are not the main driver of the epidemic though keep social distancing.'

Although she came to this conclusion, Dr Cevik said it was based on limited data.

Canberra Hospital infectious disease physician Professor Peter Collignon said even though retailers and supermarkets are considered enclosed spaces, hygiene measures and social distancing have reduced infection numbers.

'I think it makes a lot of difference,' Prof Collignon told

He said research found infections in enclosed spaces were up to 20 per cent more likely to occur in places where people spend a significant amount of time with each other.

'Customers are in the stores for a short period of time,' Prof Collignon said.

Prof Collignon said the customers don't seem to be getting infected, but the main risk comes from staff spreading it to other staff members.

'All of those things reinforce that if you are close together, without adequate face protection, you are more at risk,' he said. 


Brisbane opens up -- in groups of 10

Women have flocked to nail salons for manicures and pedicures while others have enjoyed the sunshine with a day at the park as coronavirus restrictions continue to ease across Queensland.

Almost every seat was taken at salons in Brisbane on Saturday morning, as customers deprived of professional nail care since the country went into lockdown on March 25 rushed in for a touch up.

Beauty and nail salons can open for a maximum of ten people at a time while home opens and auctions can resume along with general retail.

Cafes, public parks and playgrounds also buzzed with activity as Queenslanders headed outside to embrace the sunshine.

Restaurants and cafes can now have up to 10 people dine in, while groups of 10 can congregate outside for recreational purposes as the state emerges from isolation.

'It is great to see some familiar faces returning,' Coffee Club manager Kaili Yang told AAP as she took orders from a pair of jovial regular customers at their favourite table.

The Brisbane cafe in the leafy inner-city suburb of Ascot was among the many that opened their doors to customers on Saturday.

The eased restrictions also saw exercise classes returning to the city's New Farm Park, where fitness trainer Chris Tuck coached his first group in 10 weeks.

'It's awesome to be back together again feeding off each other's energy," he said of the six people he had just finished training.

Many families are also out and about as children clamber into playgrounds that had also been closed to control the spread of the virus.

'She is loving it,' mother-of-two Jo Williams said as she pushed her four-year-old daughter Hannah on a swing in the same park.

'Both the kids have missed the outdoor activity and interacting with children.'

A maximum of 10 people can now also attend a wedding, while up to 20 are permitted at indoor funerals, and 30 at those held outside.

Road trips are also back on the agenda with residents allowed to travel up to 150km from home, increasing to 500km for those in the outback.

It comes as the state recorded just one new COVID-19 case overnight after a passenger from the Coral Princess cruise ship tested positive. It brings the total number of cases diagnosed to 1055.

Just 13 remain active, five of these are in hospital with three in intensive care. Six Queenslanders have died from coronavirus.

Health minister Steven Miles said the continued low number of new cases, which were mostly people returning from overseas, suggested the first round of easing on social distancing measures two weeks ago had not led to increased transmission of the virus.

'That gives us great confidence going into today,' he told reporters.

Meanwhile, 193 people have been tested for COVID-19 in central Queensland after a nurse working at a Rockhampton aged care facility was diagnosed with the disease on Friday.

All have returned negative results, including 114 residents at the North Rockhampton Nursing Centre, where the nurse worked.

Mr Miles said it was the best result that could have been hoped for but work continues at the facility to reduce the risk of the virus spreading.

Chief health officer Jeannette Young said the case highlighted why the community needed to stay vigilant.

She said the eased social distancing restrictions could allow the virus to spread more easily in the community.

'Which is why we must all - all 5.1 million Queenslanders - must every morning when they get up think, have they got any symptoms,' she said.

'If you do, stay home and go and get tested.'


Left demands global action but cringes before Beijing

The China debate is playing out through a tired and lazy cultural cringe that infects our politics, particularly on the left, and is based on an unwarranted inferiority complex that is deeply embedded in our cultural life. This makes it all too easy for some to slip into a kowtowing posture.

To advance our nation’s interests it is vital to understand its strengths and vulnerabilities, and to have a firm sense of our place in the world along with that of other nations. In my time working with then foreign minister Alexander Downer he bristled at the description of Australia by politicians and academics as a “little country” or even a “middle power” and insisted we were, in fact, a “significant” country.

Speaking to Asialink in Melbourne in December 2005, he confronted this head on. “We’re not a little country — we’re a country with significant strengths and resources,” he said, noting our distinct characteristics and values. “Australia is a significant country, with global interests and not just a regional player.”

This is more than rhetoric — the UN has 193 member nations and Australia ranks as the 14th largest economy, the sixth largest land mass, with a population ranked about 50th and a military assessed as the 15th most powerful. Look at it this way: on such metrics, we sit in the 90th percentile of nations.

Forgive me for harbouring an old-fashioned but well-founded sense of national pride, but it seems to me that people who sit in our parliament ought to share this sense of place. We are, after all, one of the world’s oldest and most successful democracies, with more than our share of Nobel prizes, Olympic medals, Bookers, Oscars and Grammys.

But when Labor frontbencher Andrew Leigh was asked this week why we should not take up our trade disputes directly with Beijing rather than defer immediately to the World Trade Organisation, we got one of those cringe-worthy moments. “But what’s the alternative for a country that makes up 0.3 per cent of the world population?” whined Leigh. “If it comes to muscular one-on-ones, then a country the size of Australia will lose every time.”

This exposes a key problem with our foreign policy debate — sure, there is ideology at play, commercial interests, and more than a little politics, but the core dilemma is that inferiority complex. The same people who argue we should lead the world on climate change or spit in the face of Donald Trump go wobbly when we dare put our case to China. And it is not all about might, because the same protagonists also run anti-Australia lines when they come from Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur or even Dili.

The predisposition to take the foreign side against Australia has become a defining characteristic of the left. For much of last century this might have been explained in ideological terms, fuelled by anti-American fervour.

Now, we can see the Cold War hangover but it is infused with a dose of 21st-century identity politics. This is the self-loathing of those who prefer shame about a white, Christian and Anglo nation in the wrong place at the wrong time, rather than pride in a multicultural success story, founded through British institutions in a land of indigenous heritage, that helps to forge a better world.

Leigh told the ABC that Scott Morrison should not have suggested an independent investigation into the origins of a pandemic that has killed 300,000 people and sideswiped the global economy. “When you act on your own,” said Leigh, “you do find yourself being back in that realm that John Howard found himself in with the infamous deputy sheriff statement.”

This “deputy sheriff” taunt was used by former Labor foreign minister Gareth Evans as well. Back at the Chinese embassy, it would have brightened the spirits of the ambassador, Cheng Jingye, who finally had a pleasing cable to send back to Beijing.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews boasts about his state’s commitment to China’s Belt and Road initiative, an international infrastructure and influence scheme that our federal government — which has carriage of ­foreign relations — has chosen to avoid. The states need to stay out of such matters and stick to their constitutional priorities.

Just weeks ago Cheng was threatening us for raising a COVID-19 investigation. “The tourists may have second thoughts,” he told The Australian Financial Review. “Maybe the parents of the students would also think whether this place, which they find is not so friendly, even hostile, is the best place to send their kids to. So, it’s up to the public, the people to decide. And, also, maybe the ordinary people will think why they should drink Australian wine or eat Australian beef?”

China has since banned imports from four of our abattoirs, hiked tariffs on our barley and heightened post-pandemic fears for our wine, tourism and university sectors. With this unfolding, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said she was worried about a trade war and would write to the federal government to urge it to avoid one.

Say what? Is Australia the problem here? At least West Australian Premier Mark McGowan, despite mouthing similar concerns, had the good sense to lobby the Chinese consul-general as well as Canberra. Business leaders with deep commercial links to China, such as Kerry Stokes and Andrew Forrest, constantly urge Canberra to button up. What price our national values?

This is not to underplay the trade concerns. But if we do not want to be subservient and eternally bullied, we need to stand up for ourselves.

The contradiction inherent in the interventions of Leigh and Evans is that they claim when Australia independently speaks for national and global interests we are seen as a lapdog of the US. But presumably if we hide ­behind the skirts of the Statue of Liberty, the G20 or UN, and go along with whatever multilateral entreaties emerge, we will be perceived as ­independent. This is a nonsense.

As a former US ambassador, director-general of ASIO, secretary of Defence and of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Dennis Richardson has a broader and deeper grasp of these issues than most. He told me recently on Sky News that Cheng’s threats were “blunt, unnecessary and foolish” and the government had a “legitimate interest” along with the rest of the world in a proper inquiry, which would happen only with “a lot of behind-the-scenes activity”. He said we were “not an outwardly patriotic country” but when threatened we were “pretty determined” and “Australia is not going to be intimidated by threats of that kind”. Let us hope he is right.

The previous month I interviewed former Labor foreign minister Bob Carr who, to be fair, backed some sort of inquiry but he quickly segued to America. “I think there are lessons to be learned all over, I mean at the very start of this, when we knew what it was, we were dealing with a virus, Fox News, a vital media outlet in the US, was saying this was a conspiracy and we had … a US President who was getting up in his very entertaining press confer­ences saying it was no more dangerous than the seasonal flu.”

This was a bizarre attempt to draw equivalence between China’s dastardly denials — ­allowing a virus to spread around the world for at least a month ­before issuing alerts — and the US which, like many countries, was caught short, underestimating the seriousness of the pandemic, partly because of Beijing’s deceptions. Such diversions serve no purpose other than to ease pressure on China. Thankfully, the Australian Workers Union is speaking sense, writing to the Prime Minister urging him to resist Beijing’s bullying. This unusually useful union intervention seems to have injected a bit of titanium into the spines of some Labor MPs, while creating internal divisions.

Beijing will be pleased at some aspects of our debate: the US alliance raised as a bargaining chip; Labor and the unions splitting; big business cleaving away from the Coalition; and the states taunting Canberra. It is not too much to ask for all our politicians to readily argue a pro-Australian case.

“The fault here is with Beijing and the Chinese government,” says Australian Strategic Policy Institute analyst Michael Shoebridge. “China repressed information, prevented action and didn’t ask for international help and they inflicted suffering and death on their own people and the rest of the world — that’s why they don’t want this inquiry. But that’s exactly why the Prime Minister was right to call for it.”


How COVID-19 exposed the fault lines in Australian education

In the past month, Australian parents have watched Commonwealth and state leaders brawling over whether schools should remain open. They have seen those same leaders struggle to control the three school sectors, which have different masters and divergent interests. And they have witnessed the stark inequity all this division has created, all while having an unprecedented insight into their child's learning over the kitchen table. They have been left anxious, confused, and wondering how all this high-level division and bureaucracy actually helps their kids.

If there is a silver lining to the COVID-19 school dramas, some hope it will be a new resolve to tackle problems that have been festering, and to change the habits of decades. "Just because it's hard, doesn't mean we shouldn't try," says one. But others fear the issues are so deeply entrenched in the structure of government, not even the pandemic will be a catalyst for change. "In the end it seems like a close call," says another. "It has highlighted the frailties of the system, but has not been bad enough to make it collapse in on itself."

The coronavirus crisis has reminded Australians of the vital role schools play in society. They are essential to the economy, not just because they allow parents to work, but because they educate the workers of the future. They are a safe place for our most vulnerable kids, and they bring the community together. When schools shut, everything shuts, which is why Prime Minister Scott Morrison has fought so hard to keep them open. But he came up against an insurmountable hurdle; the Australian Constitution.

States run schools, not the Commonwealth. That's why each attempt by Morrison and education minister Dan Tehan to get their way - by directly urging parents to send their children to class despite the premier's instructions, or accusing Victorian Premier Dan Andrews of taking a sledgehammer to his state's education (an accusation Tehan later withdrew) - has ended with them backing down. It is the issue that has most threatened the unity of national cabinet.

That powerlessness has been a frustration for federal politicians over decades; they spend so much money on schools but have such little influence over them. "There is perennial dysfunction in federal-state relations," says one close observer, who does not want to be named. "The best case scenario is almost always that the states go through the accountability motions, which is itself distracting and sucks up resources, and do what they were going to do anyway."

Adrian Piccoli, a former NSW Education Minister, says the Commonwealth has one, blunt tool at its disposal to influence schools. "It's called money," he says. The federal government makes funding conditional on reforms, then the states "spend a lot of time working out how to get the money without doing it," Piccoli says. Failed Commonwealth initiatives include the independent public schools push, and repeated attempts to introduce performance pay for teachers. Tehan has so far only had two takers in his attempt to introduce phonics checks around the country.

Co-operation has improved recently; there are now national teaching standards, and a national curriculum (although NSW and Victoria kept their own). But debate continues over whether they have been useful, or just create another tangle of bureaucracy. "I don't know at what point we will stop pretending that the federal government can significantly improve schools," says Ben Jensen, chief executive of education consultancy Learning First.

In the past few years, the Commonwealth has also formalised its role as the main funder of non-government schools, which has made it "much more directly involved in funding some sectors of schooling than almost anywhere else in the economy," says Peter Goss, School Education Program Director at the Grattan Institute.

Federal politicians - particularly Coalition ones - have encouraged the growth of the private school sector because they encourage parental choice. Some also believe they want to use the private systems - which are regulated but not run by states - to extend their influence over schooling.

"[Private schools] are in between [the two governments] - not really accountable to anyone," says one insider.

But that hasn't worked either. Private schools might doff their cap to governments, and co-operate on policy issues, but they will ultimately make decisions in the interest of their own students - as highlighted in the COVID-19 crisis when Victorian private schools rebuffed federal Education Minister Dan Tehan's attempt to use money to get them to defy the premier, and again when their NSW counterparts ignored the NSW government's plan to return students to school in favour of their own. "We now see some of the consequences of that support for independent schools," says Goss. "They are harder [for governments] to control."

That has ramifications for public schools, too. The public school sector feels pressure to match the approach of private schools, lest it be seen to have lower standards. Private schools have influenced government policy a few times during the pandemic; back in January, the NSW Department of Education backflipped on its plan to allow students returning from China - where the virus had taken hold in Wuhan - to go straight back to school after private schools asked them to stay home for two weeks. Earlier this month, NSW public schools scrambled to bring back year 12 because private schools did it first.

But even within the government sector, many argue that the COVID-19 crisis has shown how little influence state education chiefs have over their own schools. When NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian asked parents to keep their children home on March 23, teachers in NSW public schools rushed their lessons online. While the department developed a website featuring guidelines, templates and training material for teachers and parents, each school had to develop their own strategy.

"We need to ask really big questions about why we haven't had any economies of scale and quality assurance [during remote learning]," says Rachel Wilson, an associate professor of education at Sydney University. "The teachers are killing themselves doing lesson planning, while they should be given material that's quality-assured, and spending their time working on their relationships with students."

Critics say this was the result of years of cutting back central education departments, and shifting most responsibilities to schools. There are many benefits to school flexibility, but it also means that in a time of crisis the department - which has been running distance education for 100 years - can no longer swiftly intervene at school level.

"What we've seen in COVID-19 is weak central systems, which have often not had the ability to provide a high-quality starting point for how to move online - or how to bring kids back in [to the classroom]," says Goss. "They've had to figure it out by themselves. I fear we are about to see this play out again, as schools reopen."

NSW Department of Education Secretary Mark Scott rejected suggestions the department's response was inadequate. "The feedback we've had overwhelmingly has been gratitude for the creation of that learning from home website - the traffic around that has been absolutely enormous," he says. "There's been more traffic to that ... than there was to the NSW Health website in the heat of the pandemic, because of the quality of support that was provided."

Within all this, the deeply entrenched inequities in Australia's school system have become more pronounced. While some schools had top-notch online learning systems ready to launch, others have had to scramble to not only furnish their students with laptops and internet access, but give them tables and chairs. In some more disadvantaged areas, schools - both public and private - also delivered food to their students, knowing that the only decent meals they received where the ones they were fed at school.

"Some schools were able to pivot rapidly and extensively," says Paul Kidson, an education academic at the University of Wollongong and a former independent school principal. "They were well prepared, they could roll stuff out, flick switches. Other schools were struggling to provide that support at school, let alone deliver it remotely. That's a funding issue, but it does go to the core of how structural inequities were just reinforced at a moment like this."

The problems frustrating the education sector for years they have been thrust into the spotlight by COVID-19, not only via headlines about the high-level battles between governments and sectors, but by the unprecedented insight millions of parents have had into their own children's education, as they helped them with lessons. "If you can take any positive out of this whole experience, is that schools are front of mind for a lot of people now," says Piccoli.

Dr Jensen argues the parental insight into their child's everyday classroom activities could be the most significant by-product of the COVID-19 crisis. "It's shone a light on the weeds of teaching and learning - that is where teachers live, and where all the hard work is done," he says. "Education policy has not gone into the weeds for a decade-and-a-half. We have been hopping out of providing support at that level, and instead all this money is going into the high-level stuff."

While observing the government's handling of the coronavirus crisis in Canberra, Kidson has spied an opportunity for reform. If the national cabinet has carefully considered the advice of medical experts during this time of crisis, without ideology or agenda, could it not do the same for education in a post-pandemic world? "There has been this profound respect and honouring of the professional knowledge," he says. "Put aside partisan politics, put that aside for the national good. This serves as a blueprint of what can be the case. Just because it's hard, doesn't mean we shouldn't try."

For Piccoli, COVID-19 has provided yet another argument for Australia following the lead of Canada, and dumping the federal education ministry altogether - a proposal also outlined by former Coalition opposition leader John Hewson last week. "In Canada, the provinces run their own systems, and to me that kind of competitive federalism is most effective," says Piccoli. "Each jurisdiction learns off the other ones, from their successes and failures.

"When you try to standardise things, in education or anywhere else, I don't think it works as well. NSW had a basic skills test, and the other states wanted to do the same thing, so they made it national [in the form of NAPLAN]. But once it's national, you can't change it. National bodies should set a strategy, and state regulators should be responsible for the implementation of that strategy."


 Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here

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