Wednesday, September 09, 2020

Experts question Victoria's coronavirus model and map as new cases fall to lowest since June

Widespread masks and social distancing are probably all that is needed

Leading epidemiologists have raised questions about elements of the government's pathway to reopening and the modelling that underpinned it, as the state recorded 41 new COVID-19 cases, the lowest daily total since late June.

On Sunday, the state government announced the stage four lockdown would be extended by two weeks, with more significant restrictions to be eased in late October.

Several health experts expressed concern about the state government plan on Monday morning – as the state recorded nine additional deaths – saying the thresholds to advance to future stages of restrictions were too difficult to achieve.

The Andrews government commissioned Melbourne University and the University of New England to model 1000 different scenarios. That modelling found if restrictions were eased when the average number of new daily cases was above 25 for a fortnight, there was a 60 per cent chance of returning to lockdown before Christmas.

Catherine Bennett, chair in epidemiology at Deakin University, questioned the assumptions that underpinned the road map modelling, saying lack of clarity from the government made it difficult to assess whether the predictions were relevant.

"The model is one that's based on – I think, because we weren't actually told this – that the assumption is [if] you basically open up and you have no restrictions, you have an unmitigated outbreak," she said.

"They should have told us that, because that's quite critical to understanding the relevance of the model ... Models are imperfect but they can be useful, but in this case it really depends what was modelled, and we weren't even told that."

Jodie McVernon, director of epidemiology at Melbourne's Doherty Institute, said the state government provided "quite scant" detail of the modelling.

"There was very little detail of the modelling that was presented yesterday and I think it was probably disappointing that we didn't hear more of a description of what the locations of infections were … and how the active case numbers were being mapped to the triggers and thresholds," she said on ABC Radio National.

Professor Bennett said she was surprised the government did not use data on the more than 19,000 infections in the state – including the way the virus was being transmitted and in which types of settings – to better tailor the easing of restrictions.

"I heard the Premier saying 'we don't need to know where infections are, we need to know the risk', but that's absolutely how epidemiologists work out what the risk is – they look at our history, at where cases present [in different workplaces and settings]," she said on ABC radio.

"No one would have argued with a complete opening up … but the question then is ... is [this] the smartest way ahead that gives us the public health protection we want, but also gives us as much opening up possibility, not immediately but in a step process."

Professor McVernon said the case thresholds for reopening in later stages, which effectively require zero cases for a fortnight, would be difficult to achieve and were not being achieved in NSW where restrictions were much looser.

She said the government needed to demonstrate how the improvements it claims to have made to contact tracing and infection control in healthcare settings were factored into the path out of lockdown.

Professor Bennett and Professor McVernon both believed the case thresholds for reopening in later stages, which effectively require zero cases for a fortnight, would be difficult to achieve and were not being achieved in NSW where restrictions were much looser.

Mary-Louise McLaws, epidemiologist and COVID-19 adviser to the WHO, said the state needed to be in hard lockdown until September 28, but questioned whether this would be required beyond late October if cases were below five a day.

She said authorities could decide to move ahead of the road map and push into stage two or stage one rules by late October. "I can't see that you'll be in lockdown past that if all goes well," she said on 3AW.

"Most states don't achieve [zero cases] … It's very difficult to get that," she said.

Victorian Industry Minister Martin Pakula, who is responsible for much of the government's consultation with different industries, acknowledged the extreme anguish of many business people but said the government was honest with businesses and peak bodies in the weeks leading up to the reopening plan announcement.

"This causes enormous consternation and pain. This is very, very difficult for business," he said.

"I'm not going to be critical of industry because I understand how much pain they're in.

"The health advice was contrary to their interests."

Victoria recorded nine deaths in the past day, bringing the toll to 675. There were 1781 active cases in Victoria on Monday, a drop of about 80 from Sunday.

Only four of the new cases were added to the total of "mystery" cases with no known source.

There are now 266 people with COVID-19 in Victorian hospitals, including 25 in intensive care.


Teys Australia blames JobSeeker for historically high worker shortage

One of Australia's biggest meat processors says the Federal Government's JobSeeker program is such a good deal the unemployed are not applying for jobs.

Teys Australia's corporate and industry affairs manager, John Langbridge, said the company had 150 vacancies for unskilled labourers, but applications were at their lowest levels ever, despite a national unemployment rate of 7.5 per cent.

The meat processor has eight factories across the country and employs about 4,500 workers, mainly in rural and regional locations.

JobSeeker recipients can receive up to $1,300 a fortnight, but the Government has announced it will reduce the payments from September 24.

Mr Langbridge said the government had done well to keep the economy primed, but financial aid was putting people off applying for jobs.

"People seem, for whatever reason, a little but too comfortable with the current circumstances to be chasing those jobs down," he said.

"At some point it's going to be weaning people off one system and basically getting the economy back into a more normal footing.

"That's the thing we're pretty keen to see Government do — manage the transition from where we are now, to basically the economy back up and running."

Mr Langbridge said the vacancies included jobs for cleaners, butchers, tradespeople and administration workers.

Teys Australia said it had written to the Federal Government for help, but declined to specify what kind of changes would be required.

Outbreak in abattoir not helping

Mr Langbridge acknowledged COVID-19 cases linked to abattoirs in regional Victoria had not helped the vacancy situation at Teys Australia.

He said since March a number of protocols had been introduced into the company's Australian sites, including daily screening for workers.

"We really haven't had any scares at all in the period," he said.

"The environment is very safe.

"It's very clean — we produce food, so the level of hygiene is quite high."

Calls to keep JobSeeker

Australia's meat processing industry has traditionally been one of the country's largest employers of skilled foreign workers.

Speaking on the ABC's Q+A program on Monday night, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said the Government had extended some measures so that migrants on certain visas could stay in Australia to work.

"The Regional Australia Institute has identified 40,000 jobs in regional Australia right now, and not necessarily in agricultural or indeed the resources sector," he said.

"There are so many jobs in regional Australia and we're encouraging migrants to fill those jobs."


Koala controversy in NSW

How much do we need to lock up to protect its habitat?

Bitter division in the Coalition over planning policy related to koalas is threatening to split the government, with Deputy Premier John Barilaro asking the Premier to call an emergency cabinet meeting over the issue.

Mr Barilaro wrote to his National MPs asking them to sign a letter urging Gladys Berejiklian to hold the cabinet meeting on September 14 as three Nationals MPs threaten to move to the crossbench.

Nationals MPs are demanding that cabinet changes the guidelines which form part of a State Environmental Planning Policy (SEPP) that seeks to protect koala habitat.

A spokesman for the Premier said the "issue would be considered by cabinet in due course".

While the Nationals are leading the opposition to the policy, some Liberals, such as Wollondilly MP Nathaniel Smith, are also concerned about the impact it could have on their electorates.

Several government sources said Emergency Services Minister David Elliott has also expressed concerns, although the minister said he had not yet declared his position.

The concerned MPs want Planning Minister Rob Stokes to agree to a raft of changes, including the definition of core koala habitat, before NSW Parliament resumes next Tuesday.

A government source said Ms Berejiklian had already made the decision that cabinet would consider the changes before Mr Barilaro's letter.

One of the most vocal opponents, Clarence MP Chris Gulaptis, said the guidelines were "a knee-jerk reaction to target farmers and the timber industry" and a "line in the sand".

The Nationals MP said the new rules, which include increasing the number of tree species protected from 10 to 123, would severely limit the way property owners could manage their land.

"I was elected to parliament to represent my community and I get really annoyed when city-centric people preach to us, especially when people in Sydney have done nothing for their koalas," he said.

Mr Gulaptis said he would move to the crossbench if changes were not made. Nationals MP Gurmesh Singh, who represents Coffs Harbour, is also considering sitting on the crossbench, as is upper house Nationals MP Sam Farraway.

The NSW Nationals' chairman and former long-serving MP Andrew Fraser also weighed into the debate on Monday, issuing a statement "demanding commonsense on planning policy".

"The people of regional NSW are sick and tired of being used as the biodiversity offset for western Sydney development," Mr Fraser said.

Mr Stokes, who has met with Nationals MPs including Mr Gulaptis and Mr Singh to discuss their concerns, has maintained that changes were about modernising koala protection laws.

"It's fair enough then that there should be an obligation to check whether it's [a development] going to have an impact on koala populations," Mr Stokes said last week.

The NSW Farmers Association said on Monday that Ms Berejiklian needed to "partner with farmers" to take steps to protect koalas on farms instead of imposing a policy based on inaccurate mapping.

"The current debate around the Koala [policy] has been wrongly characterised as a green versus brown debate – this is incorrect," NSW Farmers' president James Jackson said.

The Nature Conservation Council has warned that the Berejiklian government should be "considering strengthening laws to protect this iconic species".

“On current trends, koalas are on track to become extinct in NSW by 2050,” the council's chief executive Chris Gambian said.

“The laws that Mr Gulaptis wants to tear up were drafted well before the summer bushfires, which killed thousands, wiped out local populations and pushed many others closer to extinction."


Kyle Sandilands 'overstepped the mark' with Virgin Mary comments, says watchdog

Commercial radio presenter Kyle Sandilands breached standards of decency with last year's on-air comments about the Virgin Mary, according to a ruling handed down this week by the Australian media watchdog.

The remarks were made in September 2019, with Sandilands questioning whether the Virgin Mary was indeed a virgin and suggesting people who believe in the Bible's story of immaculate conception were "dumb as dog s---".

Australian Communications and Media Authority chair Nerida O'Loughlin said the broadcast offended religious listeners as well as the wider community. However, claims the broadcast incited hatred and ridicule towards Christians were not upheld.

ACMA examined 180 complaints as part of its investigation. In comparison, just over 125 complaints were scrutinised in regards to Alan Jones' comments in August last year about New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

"Australians are generally tolerant of irreverent humour and critical discussion about religion," Ms O'Loughlin said. "But they would not expect a host of a broadcast program to derisively criticise people's intelligence because of their religious beliefs.

"Mr Sandilands overstepped the mark in terms of the generally accepted standards of decency in this case."

A spokeswoman for ARN, the owner of radio stations KIIS, WSFM and Gold, said the broadcaster accepted the findings.


 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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