AUSTRALIAN NEWS

Key moments by National Cabinet press conference after meeting on UK coronavirus strain

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announces changes to travel rules and mask mandates.

CANBERA, Jan 8, 2021:National Cabinet has agreed to a range of changes to try and prevent as much as possible a more infectious strain of the coronavirus, originally from the United Kingdom, finding its way into the Australian community again in the future. At the moment, 80 per cent of Australians overseas are in countries that have confirmed cases from the new strain. While health authorities had considered blocking flights from countries where the strain is, they didn't recommend the Government go down that path.

"That would be a very significant step, but it would have meant not just one country it'd mean the whole world," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said. Here are five of the key changes announced today. International passenger caps reduced. Starting in the coming week, the number of international arrivals allowed in to New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia is halving. NSW will now accept 1,500 a week, while Queensland and WA will accept 500 each. South Australia's weekly cap of 600 is staying put, as is Victoria's, which is still running at a lower capacity of 1,120 a week after their second wave outbreak.

As for the other jurisdictions, they're still working out their arrangements with the Commonwealth on a case-by-case basis. The Prime Minister said it would take a little while for the numbers to drop given some flights were already booked in for the coming few days.

Masks while travelling mandatory

While some airlines and health officials have already been recommending people wear masks while they travel, it's now mandatory. "That includes passengers to wear masks throughout international flights, crew to wear masks," Mr Morrison said. He said it was going from a "should"-wear basis to a "must"-wear basis. Children under 12 are exempt.

Tests before and after flights

From now, anyone from overseas coming back to Australia will have to have a rapid COVID test before they leave and prove they've returned a negative result. If they test positive they and any of their close contacts who are also planning on flying home will be banned from boarding a flight back to Australia. Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said this was something the Government was already doing on the flights it's organised to the Northern Territory, with 15 people being turned away recently after they tested positive.

But he, and others, have pointed out it won't mean people won't test positive later when they get to hotel quarantine, given it can take a few days for the virus to develop. "We now have good modelling data to show that that would actually be a very effective increase in the rings of containment that we have," Dr Kelly said. "None of these things are the silver bullet for this. Each of them, though, incrementally increase the chances that we'll be able to keep this virus out of Australia, or at least recognise when it's arriving."

Daily tests for quarantine workers

As well as trying to stop the virus from arriving in Australia in the first place, National Cabinet have also made a change to try and stop it from getting into the community if it does arrive, like the unfolding situation in Brisbane. To do that, quarantine workers will now be tested daily instead of weekly. "That would extend to transport workers for people going into quarantine, not just those who are cleaners or others directly involved in that process, medical staff and so on."

Brisbane declared a national hotspot

Just before National Cabinet started, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaczszuk announced Brisbane would go into a three-day lockdown, which was followed by different state and territories declaring the area a hotspot zone. When they met a little later it was agreed that the Commonwealth would officially declare it as hotspot and that would be adopted nationally. Usually one case wouldn't be enough to warrant that for metropolitan areas the threshold is a rolling three-day average of 10 locally acquired cases per day.

"It is different to a normal definition we'd apply to hotspots, but you've got to change the rules when there is new information and new uncertainties being introduced," Mr Morrison said. The Prime Minister also backed the Brisbane lockdown, saying he believed it was "proportionate" given the risk of spread from the UK strain. By political reporter Georgia Hitch

COVID-19 Live Updates: Northern Beaches Cluster Grows, Borders Closed

SYDNEY, Dec 18, 2020:: North South Wales (NSW) Health has issued an "urgent call to all residents of NSW" to monitor for symptoms of COVID-19, as a result of the increasing number of cases associated with Sydney's northern beaches cluster and "concerns over wider transmission". “Anyone in the state with even the mildest symptoms such as headache, fatigue, cough, sore throat or runny nose, is asked to come forward immediately for testing, then isolate until a negative result is received,” a statement from the department said.

“The source of these infections remains under investigation, though genome sequencing points to the strain being of US origin.” The department also released a long list of new venues across the city that confirmed cases of COVID-19 have visited – with Westfield Bondi Junction and places in Woolloomooloo and Eveleigh among those issued with public health alerts. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian earlier warned the state to “brace themselves” and expect more cases.

“The number of people who were at the (Avalon) RSL event on December 11 and then the (Avalon) bowling club on Sunday were substantial and obviously they have got household contacts and contacts of theirs,” she said. A bus driver, who transports international aircrew, tested positive earlier this week, taking the state’s total cases to 29. Australia’s other states and territories have swiftly introduced restrictions on arriving NSW travellers, with Victoria the latest to announce their changes – dividing their northern neighbour into three zones: red, amber and green.

While the northern beaches is a high-risk “red zone” – meaning they’re banned from entering Victoria – greater Sydney is a designated orange zone, with anyone coming from there encouraged to get tested regardless of COVID-19 symptoms. Following further contact tracing work today, Queensland Health has also expanded its list of venues where a confirmed COVID-19 case has visited.