Sydney COVID-19 Outbreak A ‘National Emergency’ As Cases Spike

A man wearing a face mask walks towards tram station at Circular Quay in Sydney on July 19, 2021, amid a lockdown in Melbourne and Sydney as Australia seeks to contain a surge in coronavirus cases. Saeed KHAN / AFP
A man wearing a face mask walks towards tram station at Circular Quay in Sydney on July 19, 2021, amid a lockdown in Melbourne and Sydney as Australia seeks to contain a surge in coronavirus cases. Saeed KHAN / AFP

 

Sydney’s fast-growing coronavirus outbreak has become a “national emergency,” state leaders said Friday, as Australia’s largest city reported another record number of new infections.

Admitting a month-long lockdown had failed to stop a Delta-variant outbreak, the state of New South Wales pleaded for Canberra to urgently send more vaccines and resources.

Calling the outbreak a national emergency could pave the way for more federal government involvement in stemming the crisis.

“We have an obligation on behalf of the nation to contain the virus,” said New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian. “There is no doubt that the numbers are not going in the right direction.”

Her state on Friday reported 136 new cases, a record for this outbreak, which now totals 1,782.

With the virus “spreading everywhere” and half the country’s 25 million people currently in lockdown, Berejiklian said the government must “refocus” its glacial vaccine rollout.

Just 12 percent of Australians have been fully vaccinated, due to problems with supplies of Pfizer jabs and scepticism about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“We need, at least, more first doses of Pfizer,” Berejiklian said, while warning Sydney’s five million residents that restrictions could run until October.

But a request to channel vaccines to hard-hit areas was rebuffed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.

“We’re not going to disrupt the vaccination programme around the rest of the country,” Morrison said, insisting his home city will make it through this crisis.

Berejiklian also announced non-essential workers in specific areas of Sydney would now be barred from leaving, tightening a lockdown that is almost certain to be formally extended next week.

“It is fairly apparent that we will not be close to zero (cases) next Friday,” Berejiklian said. “We will have a clearer view next week on what August, September, and October look like.”

Morrison on Thursday apologised for the country’s slow vaccine rollout, admitting targets had not been met.

“I take responsibility for the vaccination programme. I also take responsibility for the challenges we’ve had,” he said. “Obviously, some things are within our control, some things that are not.”

‘Ring of steel’

With Sydney cases spiralling, Victoria state premier Dan Andrews called for a “ring of steel” to be thrown up around the city, banning any travel in or out.

In New Zealand, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced that a travel bubble between the two countries would be suspended for at least eight weeks.

Australians will no longer have quarantine-free entry to New Zealand, and return flights will be arranged for New Zealanders in Australia.

“There are now multiple outbreaks, and in differing stages of containment, that have forced three states into lockdown,” Ardern said.

“The health risk to New Zealanders from these cases is increasing… now is the time for a suspension to ensure New Zealanders aren’t put at undue risk from Covid-19 and to ensure we retain our hard-won gains.”

Quarantine-free travel between New Zealand and Australia began in April after more than a year of closed borders and was hailed by tourism operators as a “saviour for businesses”.

However, New Zealand has several times since halted the bubble with individual states and territories as outbreaks erupted in Australia.

 

AFP

Millions Of Sydney Residents In COVID-19 Lockdown

A man walks along the main road in the central business district of Sydney on June 26, 2021, as Australia's largest city entered a two-week lockdown to contain an outbreak of the highly contagious Delta variant. Saeed KHAN / AFP
A man walks along the main road in the central business district of Sydney on June 26, 2021, as Australia’s largest city entered a two-week lockdown to contain an outbreak of the highly contagious Delta variant. Saeed KHAN / AFP

 

Millions of Sydney residents began the first full day of a two-week coronavirus lockdown on Sunday, as Australia imposed new restrictions to contain an outbreak of the highly contagious Delta variant.

Restaurants, bars and cafes were shuttered after stay-at-home orders for central neighbourhoods were extended Saturday evening across the sprawling city and to the coastal and mountainous regions surrounding it.

While the city centre was virtually deserted, large numbers of surfers and swimmers hit the water at Sydney’s Bondi Beach, with outdoor exercise still allowed.

Australia’s northern city of Darwin also entered a separate snap 48-hour lockdown on Sunday after a handful of cases were linked to a coronavirus outbreak on a remote gold mine.

Northern Territory Chief Minister Michael Gunner said officials were concerned about being unable to reach close contacts of infected people in the region, home to a large Indigenous population feared to be more vulnerable to Covid-19.

“We are taking extreme action right now to stop or slow any spread before the coronavirus is let loose in the Territory, and that means we need a lockdown,” he said.

READ ALSO: Migrant Workers Flee Capital As Bangladesh Tightens COVID-19 Lockdown

Health experts had advised that a shorter snap lockdown of Sydney — which has proved effective in other Australian cities in recent months — would not be enough to contain the growing cluster, New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian said.

More than 110 Covid-19 cases have been reported since a driver for an international flight crew tested positive in mid-June to the highly contagious Delta variant, which first emerged in India.

“Given how contagious this strain of the virus is, we do anticipate that in the next few days case numbers are likely to increase even beyond what we have seen today,” Berejiklian told reporters Sunday.

– Testing time –

The flare-up has been a shock for a city that had returned to relative normality after months with few local cases.

Matt Daly, 37, who lives south of Sydney, said he supported the measures but anticipated a “testing” period of working from home and entertaining his two young children who are on school holidays.

“A lot of juggling over the next two weeks. Really hope it doesn’t extend further,” he told AFP.

Sydney’s restrictions require people to stay home until at least July 9, only venturing out to purchase essential goods, obtain medical care, exercise, go to school or if they are unable to work from home.

Professional musician Blain Cunneen, 27, said his work — performing gigs, studio sessions and teaching students — had gone “up in smoke” overnight.

“All that was starting to operate again almost as normal… very suddenly overnight I got a bunch of emails and texts about everything being cancelled,” he told AFP.

Anyone outside of the lockdown zone who had visited Sydney since Monday was also instructed to self-isolate for 14 days, while several other states have banned travel to and from the city.

It is the latest in a string of “circuit-breaker” lockdowns across major Australian metropolises, with most cases linked to quarantining returning travellers.

More than 150,000 people in Darwin and surrounding areas are under stay-at-home orders for at least 48 hours to give health officials time to trace contacts, for the first time since a nationwide shutdown in the early stages of the pandemic.

“The Northern Territory is now facing its biggest threat since the Covid crisis began,” Gunner said.

Cases of Covid-19 were also detected in the major cities of Perth and Brisbane on Sunday, prompting local authorities to tighten restrictions.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said he was confident Australia would manage.

“It’s a difficult day but we’ve done this before, we know how to do it. And we will get through it,” he said.

Australia has been among the world’s most successful countries in containing Covid-19, with just over 30,000 cases and 910 deaths in a population of about 25 million. However, the government has faced criticism for a sluggish vaccine rollout.

AFP

Australia Deputy PM Loses Job In Government Climate Split

Australia's Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce addresses a press conference in Sydney on July 5, 2016.
Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce addresses a press conference in Sydney on July 5, 2016.

 

A climate change revolt in Australia’s governing coalition on Monday brought in a new deputy prime minister likely to challenge the country’s already hesitant moves to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Barnaby Joyce, best known internationally for threatening to euthanise Johnny Depp’s dogs, defeated incumbent Michael McCormack in a snap internal party vote, elevating him to the role of deputy PM.

The vote for the leadership of junior coalition partner the Nationals came as apparent cracks emerged in the ruling coalition over climate change policy.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison told G7 leaders last week that Australia wants to achieve net-zero carbon emissions “as soon as possible”, and preferably by 2050.

McCormack had reportedly been accused by party colleagues of failing to push back against such accelerated climate action, a charged topic among the Nationals’ rural conservative voters.

READ ALSO: Nine Children Among 10 Killed In Storm-Hit Alabama Crash

On Monday, Joyce dodged questions on whether he would support Australia taking a net-zero by 2050 target to November’s UN Climate Change Summit in Glasgow.

But he echoed conservative talking points that strong climate change action posed a threat to Australia’s commodity-dependent economy.

“If the National Party room believes that the best deal for regional Australia is to make sure that we secure their jobs, is to make sure that we secure their industries… that’s the view that I’ll support,” he told reporters in Canberra.

Joyce previously held the Nationals’ leadership but stepped down in a 2018 scandal when it was revealed the married father-of-four had an affair with a young adviser and she was pregnant.

He was also accused of sexual harassment by a prominent rural woman but an internal investigation failed to reach a conclusive verdict.

Joyce called the allegations “spurious and defamatory”, adding that after three years on the backbench he hoped to “be a better person to do a better job”.

He gained international notoriety after threatening to put down Hollywood star Johnny Depp’s two Yorkshire Terriers over a quarantine violation in 2015.

Morrison congratulated Joyce on his elevated role, saying in a statement that they shared a “passion for ensuring our regions and rural communities thrive”.

Thousands Evacuated In Australia As ‘Scary’ Flooding Escalates

Workers look at an inundated main road by floodwaters in Richmond suburb on March 22, 2021, as Sydney braced for its worst flooding in decades after record rainfall caused its largest dam to overflow and as deluges prompted mandatory mass evacuation orders along Australia's east coast. Saeed KHAN / AFP
Workers look at an inundated main road by floodwaters in Richmond suburb on March 22, 2021, as Sydney braced for its worst flooding in decades after record rainfall caused its largest dam to overflow and as deluges prompted mandatory mass evacuation orders along Australia’s east coast. Saeed KHAN / AFP

 

Torrential downpours lashed Australia’s east Monday, forcing thousands to flee the worst flooding in decades and pushing communities already battling drought, bushfires, and the coronavirus pandemic to “breaking point”.

Around 18,000 residents were told to evacuate their homes, as days of relentless rainfall caused rivers in Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales, to their highest levels in 30 years.

“The devastation is quite unbelievable,” said Port Macquarie cafe owner Marten Clark, who waded through waist-deep water to find his furniture washed away, and freezers, fridges and cooking equipment destroyed.

Aerial images from hard-hit areas showed the flood consuming rows of houses, with only their roofs above the water.

READ ALSO: 71 Homes Destroyed As Australia Bushfire Rages Near Locked-Down Perth

As some coastal communities received three months worth of rain in a few hours, emergency services said they rescued hundreds from floodwaters and fielded more than 8,800 calls for help.

In some areas, emergency workers travelled inland on “Surf Lifesaving” ocean rescue boats to reach stranded people.

So far, no fatalities or serious injuries have been reported.

But with more rain expected, eight million residents in Sydney and across the state were on Monday told to work from home if possible and avoid unnecessary travel.

Workers look at an inundated main road by floodwaters in Richmond suburb on March 22, 2021, as Sydney braced for its worst flooding in decades after record rainfall caused its largest dam to overflow and as deluges prompted mandatory mass evacuation orders along Australia's east coast. Saeed KHAN / AFP
Workers look at an inundated main road by floodwaters in Richmond suburb on March 22, 2021. coast. Saeed KHAN / AFP

 

“The water is still rising,” said Jo Dunstan, who owns a florist shop in the outer Sydney suburb of Windsor, as she watched debris-littered stormwater race past neighbouring homes.

“It’s scary, very eerie to say the least.”

Just over 12 months ago the region was parched: suffering prolonged drought, water restrictions and unprecedented bushfires.

“When you have been through three or four incidents that are life-changing on top of each other, it can make you feel like you are at breaking point,” said New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

“I don’t know any time in a state history where we have had these extreme weather conditions in such quick succession in the middle of a pandemic.”

Australia ‘tested once again’

Scientists have warned Australia can expect more frequent and more extreme weather events as a result of climate change.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, whose conservative government has been accused of dragging its feet on climate action, said Australia was “being tested once again” by a “terrible event”.

He told parliament that Australia’s defence force was expected to be called in to assist with the clean-up and recovery.

New South Wales’s Mid North Coast has been particularly badly affected, with Berejiklian declaring the region had been struck by a “one in 100 year” disaster.

In Sydney’s vast Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley, swollen rivers were at levels not seen since 1990, after the Warragamba Dam, the city’s main drinking water source, spilled over Saturday.

Around 500 gigalitres of water were drained from the dam — roughly equivalent to 200,000 Olympic size swimming pools or the total volume of water in Sydney Harbour.

Residents in some affected areas were allowed to return to their homes Monday after waters receded, but others were placed on high alert as floods moved toward their regions.

Education authorities said more than 200 schools were closed, including some that were damaged in the floods.

Andrew Hall, CEO of the Insurance Council of Australia, said it was too early to understand the extent of destruction and to “estimate the insurance damage bill”.

‘A dangerous situation’

The Bureau of Meteorology has forecast “treacherous” conditions Monday before the wild weather eases later in the week.

Flood operations manager Justin Robinson warned the rain was expected to cause flooding in previously unaffected areas as well as “renewed flooding in many of those communities that have already been impacted”.

“It is quite a dangerous situation that New South Wales is currently facing,” he said.

Rainfall records were expected to keep tumbling in the coming days as the deluge spreads into the state’s northwest, and further north into Queensland state where weather warnings were also issued.

Flash flooding occurred at the Gold Coast — almost 10 hours’ drive from Sydney — as the tourist hotspot was drenched.

Health officials have said the rain and floods will delay the already halting rollout of coronavirus vaccines in Sydney and surrounding areas.

 

AFP

Australia Announces Nearly $40bn In Virus Relief

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (R) speaks as he stands with the Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg during a press conference at Australia's Parliament House in Canberra on March 22, 2020. DAVID GRAY / AFP
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (R) speaks as he stands with the Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg during a press conference at Australia’s Parliament House in Canberra on March 22, 2020. DAVID GRAY / AFP

 

Australia on Sunday announced a $38 billion spending plan to limit the economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic, as citizens were told to cancel domestic travel plans to slow the virus spread.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said the latest Aus$66 billion announced Sunday brought government and central bank measures to support the economy to Aus$189 billion — or nearly 10 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

“These extraordinary times require extraordinary measures and we face a global challenge like we have never faced before,” he told reporters in Canberra.

“Today’s announcement will provide hope and support for millions of Australians at a time when they need it most.”

READ ALSO: Colombia Announces First Coronavirus Death

Small businesses and non-profits will receive cash subsidies of up to Aus$100,000, unemployment payments will be temporarily doubled and pensioners will receive Aus$750 cash.

Workers whose income has fallen by at least 20 percent due to the coronavirus outbreak will be able to access their retirement funds early, with those facing hardship allowed to withdraw up to Aus$20,000 over two years.

Frydenberg said the economic shock was now expected to be “deeper, wider and longer” than was believed just 10 days ago and additional measures would be required.

The country appears poised to slip into recession as a result of the coronavirus outbreak after a record 29-year run of economic growth.

Australia has recorded more than 1,300 cases and seven deaths from COVID-19.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government was also “moving immediately” to recommend against non-essential travel, warning further measures were imminent to deal with localised outbreaks.

He said work-related trips, the transport of essential supplies and travel on compassionate grounds could continue but people should cancel any other travel plans ahead of the upcoming Easter school holidays.

“More stronger measures will be coming and they will be coming in more localised areas to deal with outbreaks,” Morrison said.

“What that means is, what may be necessary in a part of Sydney may not be necessary at all in… other parts of the country.”

Australia has already sealed off its borders, putting in place an unprecedented ban on entry for non-residents in the hope of stemming the rise of COVID-19 infections.

Four Australian regions — the island state of Tasmania, South Australia state, Western Australia state and the Northern Territory — have also implemented a 14-day self-isolation period for all visitors.

Announcing the state’s border closure Sunday, Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan said he was considering using Rottnest Island — a popular tourist destination and former Aboriginal prison site — as a quarantine zone for people who refuse to self-isolate or are unable to do so.

New South Wales and Victoria states on Sunday announced a shutdown of non-essential services, with supermarkets, pharmacies and petrol stations among those businesses that are exempt.

Morrison said political leaders would meet Sunday evening to consider stricter isolation rules.

78-Year-Old Is Australia’s First Coronavirus Fatality

Australia on the map.

 

A 78-year-old man evacuated from the coronavirus-stricken Diamond Princess cruise liner in Japan died at a Perth hospital Sunday, becoming Australia’s first fatality from the disease, officials said.

His 79-year-old wife was also infected with the disease during the cruise and remains in a Perth hospital, a spokeswoman for the Western Australian state health department told AFP.

The couple were among about 160 Australians evacuated from the Diamond Princess last month and they tested positive for the coronavirus during their flight home.

READ ALSO: South Korea Wages ‘All-Out Responses’ To Virus With 376 New Cases

They were immediately transferred to isolation units in the Perth hospital on February 21 while the rest of the evacuees were quarantined in a former miners’ camp near the northern city of Darwin.

Andrew Robertson, Western Australia’s chief medical officer, said the couple initially seemed to have only a mild version of the illness, but that the man’s condition subsequently deteriorated.

He insisted both had been isolated early and that their cases posed “no risk to the general community or (medical) staff”.

Earlier Sunday, health authorities in New South Wales state confirmed a 26th case of coronavirus in Australia after a man in his 40s who had travelled from Iran was diagnosed with the disease.

He was the second Australian infected in Iran. All other cases of the disease in Australia other than the Perth couple involved people who had come from China’s Hubei province, where the virus was first reported.

AFP

Australia Launches National Inquiry Into Bushfires

FILE PHOTO: A firefighter conducts back-burning measures to secure residential areas from encroaching bushfires in the Central Coast, some 90-110 kilometres north of Sydney on December 10, 2019. PHOTO: Saeed KHAN / AFP

 

Australia set up a national inquiry Thursday into its month-long bushfire crisis that affected three in four Australians and prompted widespread criticism of the government for its sluggish response to the blazes.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the vast scale of the fires — which killed more than 30 people and destroyed thousands of homes — required a new response from the bushfire-prone nation.

The Royal Commission inquiry will be tasked with finding ways to improve Australia’s preparedness, resilience and response to natural disasters, but has been criticised as an effort to put off tackling the problem.

Australia has seen dozens of inquests into the causes of bushfires and steps that could be taken to mitigate them, with mixed results.

Many measures from the dozens of inquests going back to the 1930s have still not been implemented.

The opposition Labor party accused Morrison of trying to “shift attention to the things that he thinks are politically convenient to talk about” rather than “actually fixing climate change and getting emissions under control.”

Morrison said panel would be asked to consider establishing new powers for the federal government to declare a national state of emergency, which he argued would allow a faster response to fires.

The conservative leader, who was criticised for his sluggish reaction to the months-long crisis, has defended his actions by pointing to regulations requiring states to formally request federal assistance.

He claimed to have operated in a “constitutional grey zone” by deploying thousands of troops and reservists to assist in the bushfire recovery.

“We did that without clear rules,” Morrison said.

The most recent crisis has sparked calls for Australia’s conservative government to take immediate action on climate change, with street protests urging Morrison to reduce the country’s reliance on coal.

The prime minister belatedly acknowledged the link between the bushfire disaster and a warming planet, but also made clear his government plans to focus on climate adaption and building resilience ahead of measures to cut emissions.

The inquiry will be led by former Air Force chief Mark Binskin, along with retired Federal Court judge Annabelle Bennett and environmental lawyer professor Andrew Macintosh.

Morrison said they would be required to report their findings by August 31, “so recommendations can be acted upon before our next bushfire season”.

The most recent bushfire season began in early September, with the first deaths recorded a month later.

AFP

Malaysia Suspected MH370 Downed In Murder-Suicide – Former Australian PM

(FILES) This file photo taken on March 7, 2015 shows Indian sand artist Sudarsan Pattnaik creating a sculpture of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 on Puri beach in eastern Odisha state.
J .K. Jagdev / AFP

 

Former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has claimed “very top” level Malaysian officials believed vanished Flight MH370 was deliberately downed by the captain in a mass murder-suicide.

The Malaysia Airlines jet vanished on March 8, 2014 carrying 239 people — mostly from China — en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

No sign of the plane was found in a 120,000-square kilometre (46,000-square mile) Indian Ocean search zone and the Australian-led search, the largest in aviation history, was suspended in January 2017.

A US exploration firm launched a private hunt in 2018 but it ended after several months of scouring the seabed without success.

The disappearance of the plane has long been the subject of a host of theories — ranging from the credible to outlandish — including that veteran pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah had gone rogue.

In an excerpt from a Sky News documentary airing Wednesday, Abbott claims he was told within a week of it vanishing that Malaysia believed the captain had intentionally downed the jet.

READ ALSO: Elated Passengers Leave Cambodia Cruise Ship After Virus All-Clear

“My very clear understanding from the very top levels of the Malaysian government is that from very, very early on here, they thought it was murder-suicide by the pilot,” he said.

“I’m not going to say who said what to whom but let me reiterate, I want to be absolutely crystal clear, it was understood at the highest levels that this was almost certainly murder-suicide by the pilot — mass murder-suicide by the pilot.”

Zaharie’s family and friends have long strongly rejected such claims as baseless.

Malaysia’s former premier Najib Razak, who was in power during the tragedy, said suspicions over the disappearance weren’t made public and there was no proof that the pilot was responsible.

“It would have been deemed unfair and legally irresponsible since the black boxes and cockpit voice recorders had not been found,” he told online portal Free Malaysia Today.

“There was no conclusive proof whether the pilot was solely or jointly responsible.”

Najib said the scenario involving the pilot was “never ruled out” during the search for the plane.

Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, the former head of Malaysia’s civil aviation regulator, criticised Abbott’s remarks and said there was not sufficient proof to support the idea.

“It is only a theory,” Azharuddin, who led the regulator when Flight MH370 disappeared, told AFP.

“You do this speculation and it will hurt the next of kin. The family of the pilot will also feel very bad because you are making an accusation without any proof.”

In 2016, Malaysian officials revealed the pilot had plotted a path over the Indian Ocean on a home flight simulator but stressed this did not prove he deliberately crashed the plane.

A final report into the tragedy released in 2018 pointed to failings by air traffic control and said the course of the plane was changed manually.

But they failed to come up with any firm conclusions, leaving relatives angry and disappointed.

Six passengers were Australian, including four from Queensland state, where Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk this week suggested authorities may pursue an inquest into their deaths.

Dams Overflow As Australia Braces For More Floods

This picture taken on February 10, 2020, shows a van surrounded by localised flooding in an area in Sydney. Heavy rain has given hope to Australia’s drought-stricken regions, but scientists warned on February 11 that sustained falls were needed to end a years-long dry spell. PHOTO: Saeed KHAN / AFP

 

Dams near Sydney overflowed on Thursday after days of torrential rain, as Australia braced for more storms expected to bring dangerous flash flooding to the country’s east.

Recent downpours have brought relief to areas ravaged by bushfires and drought — as well as chaos and destruction to towns and cities along the eastern seaboard.

On Thursday, Nepean Dam south of Sydney was at full capacity and spilling over, with video footage showing excess water cascading over the dam wall and downstream.

Two other dams in New South Wales, Tallowa and Brogo, were also overflowing and more dams could reach capacity in the coming days, a WaterNSW spokesman told AFP.

This picture taken on February 10, 2020, shows a general view of a flooded area in Sydney. Heavy rain has given hope to Australia’s drought-stricken regions, but scientists warned on February 11 that sustained falls were needed to end a years-long dry spell. PHOTO: Saeed KHAN / AFP

 

A devastating months-long bushfire crisis that killed 33 people has effectively been ended by the downpours, with just one blaze yet to be brought under control in New South Wales.

Hundreds of people have been rescued from floodwaters in recent days.

Police said a man’s body was discovered in a flooded river on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast on Thursday, though the cause of his death was not immediately clear.

Wild weather is set to ramp up again from Friday, with the Bureau of Meteorology forecasting ex-Tropical Cyclone Uesi would bring “damaging to destructive winds” and heavy rainfall to remote tourist destination Lord Howe Island.

Senior meteorologist Grace Legge said storms were also expected for Queensland and New South Wales — with areas still recovering from bushfires likely to be hit again.

“Any showers and thunderstorms that do develop are falling on already saturated catchments, so there is a risk with severe thunderstorms of flash flooding,” she said.

Emergency services have warned residents in affected areas to be cautious in the dangerous conditions.

AFP

Toxic Bushfire Haze Blankets Eastern Australia

Tourists wearing masks take photos as the Opera House (back, C) is enveloped in haze caused by nearby bushfires, in Sydney on December 10, 2019. Toxic haze blanketed Sydney on December 10 triggering a chorus of smoke alarms to ring across the city, as Australians braced for “severe” weather conditions expected to fuel deadly bush blazes. PHOTO; PETER PARKS / AFP

Toxic haze blanketed Sydney Tuesday triggering a chorus of smoke alarms to ring across the city and forcing school children inside, as “severe” weather conditions fuelled deadly bush blazes along Australia’s east coast.

Fire engines raced office-to-office in the city centre with sirens blaring, as inland bushfires poured smoke laden with toxic particles into commercial buildings.

Emergency services responded to an “unprecedented” 500 automatic call-outs inside a few hours according to New South Wales Fire and Rescue’s Roger Mentha.

A regional fire headquarters miles from the nearest blazes was itself evacuated while throngs of mask-wearing commuters choked their way through thick acrid air and the organisers of a harbour yacht race declared it was unsafe to proceed.

“The smoke from all the fires is just so severe here on the harbour that you just can’t see anything, so it’s just too dangerous,” said spokeswoman Di Pearson of an event that normally foreshadows the famed Sydney-Hobart yacht race. “The vision is just so poor.”

Some of the city’s commuter ferries were also cancelled “due to thick smoke” and school kids were kept inside at breaktime and sent home early as pollution levels soared far above “hazardous” levels.

For weeks the east of the country has been smothered in smoke as drought and climate-fuelled bushfires have burned. But the scale of the problem on Tuesday shocked even hardened residents.

Bruce Baker — an 82-year-old who lives in Gosford, north of Sydney — said he was skipping his daily morning walk because of the smoke.

“This is the worst it’s been, for sure,” he told AFP. “It dries your throat. Even if you’re not asthmatic, you feel it.”

Authorities recommended that the vulnerable cease outdoor activity altogether and that everyone stay inside as much as possible, although one couple braved the toxic air to get married on the waterfront in front of Sydney Harbour Bridge shrouded in smog.

A cricket match between New South Wales and Queensland also went ahead, despite a barely visible ball.

Tuesday had been expected to bring strong winds and high temperatures that made for “severe conditions where embers can be blown ahead of the fire into suburbs and threaten properties.”

But New South Wales Rural Fire Service said “deteriorating fire conditions have been delayed by a thick blanket of smoke” over the east of the state.

As the day developed there were nearly 100 bushfire incidents in the state of New South Wales alone and dozens more in Queensland.

Total fire bans were put in place across much of the east of the country and in large parts of western Australia.

Temperatures in some inland areas eased past 44 degrees Celsius (111 Fahrenheit).

The ‘big dry’

To the northwest of Sydney, several fires already burning for weeks have combined to create a “megafire” that has already destroyed 319,000 hectares (788,000 acres) of land, mostly inside national parks.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison  — who for weeks has not commented on the smoke haze — defended his government’s handling of the fires and said there were no plans to professionalise the countryside’s largely volunteer force.

“Our policy is sensible when it comes to addressing and taking action on climate change. Our actions on climate change are getting the results they’re intended to get,” he said.

Morrison’s conservative coalition has been criticised by former fire chiefs for failing to heed warnings about climate change.

The crisis has been propelled by a prolonged drought that has made vegetation tinder dry.

The Bureau of Meteorology has reported that Australia experienced its driest November on record this year.

The “big dry” has left farmers desperate and small towns facing the prospect of running out of water completely.

A swathe of the east of the country has seen “rainfall deficiencies” since early 2017 — almost three years.

Many dams in New South Wales are empty and almost all are well below capacity.

Firefighters south of Brisbane recently reported 1,000 litres of water were stolen from tanks at their station.

Amid the shortage, Tuesday also saw the toughest water restrictions in a decade being introduced for Sydney — with curbs on everything from hosepipe use to washing cars.

AFP

‘Uncharted Territory’ As Bushfires Rage Across Australia’s East

Smoke from rural bushfires are seen over Sydney Harbour on October 31, 2019. Sydney residents coughed and spluttered their way around Australia’s largest metropolis as a bank of smoke from rural bushfires enveloped the city prompting health warnings. Saeed KHAN / AFP

 

 

Dozens of bushfires raged out of control across eastern Australia on Friday, blocking escape routes for residents and shuttering the main highway linking major cities on the country’s Pacific coast.

More than 90 blazes pockmarked the New South Wales countryside, 50 of them uncontained, tearing through tens of thousands of hectares.

“We are in uncharted territory,” New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told public broadcaster ABC. “We have never seen this many fires concurrently at emergency warning level.”

Authorities said fires had breached containment lines and forced the closure of the Pacific Highway linking Sydney and Brisbane in two places.

Emergency warnings were introduced for 14 flashpoints, bringing warnings to evacuate immediately.

READ ALSO: Five Killed, 120 Injured In Iran Earthquake

In some areas, residents were told to simply “seek shelter as it is too late to leave”.

Local radio stopped normal programming and provided instructions about how to try to survive fires if trapped at home or in a vehicle.

A prolonged drought, strong winds, low humidity and high temperatures have conspired to make the landscape a tinderbox.

“It’s a very dynamic, volatile and dangerous set of circumstances,” said Fitzsimmons.

Bushfires are common in Australia, but the country is gearing up for busy bushfire season with record temperatures predicted for the summer months.

Consumer Watchdog Sues Google Over Location Data Use

(FILES) A file photo taken on November 20, 2017 shows logos of US multinational technology company Google displayed on computers’ screens. Google is dropping out of the bidding for a huge Pentagon cloud computing contract that could be worth up to $10 billion, saying the deal would be inconsistent with its principles. The decision by Google, confirmed to AFP in an email October 9, 2018, leaves a handful of other tech giants including Amazon in the running for the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure (JEDI) contract aimed at modernizing the military’s computing systems. PHOTO: LOIC VENANCE / AFP

 

Australia’s consumer watchdog on Tuesday announced legal action against Google for allegedly misleading customers about the way it collects and uses personal location data.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) claims Google collected, kept and used “highly sensitive and valuable personal information” of Android phone and tablet users without giving them an informed choice.

The tech giant is accused of making misleading on-screen representations about the location data it was collecting and when certain Google Account settings were enabled or disabled.

ACCC chair Adam Sims said the watchdog was seeking “significant penalties” and for Google to acknowledge its past behaviour was “inappropriate”.

“We’re also alleging that some of the behaviour is continuing,” he told reporters in Sydney. “We want declarations that the current behaviour should not continue.”

The ACCC says that between 2017 and 2018 Google failed to disclose that both “location history” and “web & app activity” settings needed to be switched off to prevent location data collection.

The Silicon Valley titan allegedly also told customers such data would only be used for their personal use of Google services, and did not disclose that it may be used for other unrelated purposes.

Those actions constituted a breach of Australian consumer law, claims the ACCC, which has instituted proceedings in the Federal Court.

A Google spokesperson said the company was reviewing the details of the allegations and would defend itself in court.

The lawsuit stems from an 18-month ACCC inquiry into the power of digital platforms, which resulted in calls for far-reaching new regulations on tech giants.

The watchdog urged tighter controls on the use of personal data and measures to ease Facebook and Google’s dominance of online advertising.

The government is due to announce which of the ACCC recommendations will be implemented by the end of the year.

AFP