Morning mail: Covid ‘out of control’ in central Australia, rising petrol prices, brutal killer whales

·6 min read
<span>Photograph: Katherine Morrow/AAP</span>
Photograph: Katherine Morrow/AAP

Good morning. There are concerns over the ability of home rapid antigen tests to detect the Covid Omicron variant, as issues over the supply of the tests to concession card holders rumble on.

Covid is “out of control” in central Australia, representing a “catastrophic failure” by the Northern Territory government to carry out its own emergency plans, according to the three biggest Aboriginal organisations in the NT. The groups have accused the NT government of failing to adequately carry out emergency plans that had been made with them “well in advance” of the current outbreak. “Many of the issues we are facing were foreseen, and plans made to address them. But there has been a catastrophic failure by government to discharge its responsibility to all Northern Territory residents by implementing these plans in Central Australia,” they wrote in a scathing letter to the NT chief minister, Michael Gunner.

The world is facing an energy crisis, as Russia and Ukraine sit on the brink of war. Gas market prices have already surpassed record highs and threaten to saddle European households with a cost of living crisis. Russia is Europe’s largest supplier of gas, a third of which flows through Ukraine’s gas pipelines to countries across the continent. Russian gas flows have been a quarter lower than usual over the past year, but European leaders now fear that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could spell an energy catastrophe if gas exports are cut. Tensions over a possible war are one factor stoking energy costs, with global oil prices at their highest levels since 2014 with Brent crude, one widely cited gauge, topping US$90 (A$127) a barrel on Wednesday. But what do the higher prices mean for Australians and is there much we can do about it?

A re-elected Coalition would pour $1bn into Great Barrier Reef conservation projects over the next decade, the Morrison government says, just months after campaigning to prevent the reef being listed as “in danger” by the world heritage committee. The announcement, to be made by the prime minister Scott Morrison in Queensland on Friday, comes a fortnight after Labor pledged $163m to protect the natural wonder. It highlights the reef as a key election fight in the Cairns electorate of Leichhardt.

Australia

Rapid antigen tests
Rapid antigen tests are being distributed by governments to schools and workplaces but what they can and cannot do is still being determined. Photograph: Joel Carrett/AAP

Only one of Australia’s 23 approved at-home rapid antigen tests explicitly states it will detect Omicron, as the Therapeutic Goods Administration carries out a review of all tests to check how they work with different variants of Covid-19.

Pharmacies in some areas of Sydney with the highest rates of Omicron infections are struggling to provide rapid antigen tests to concession card holders despite participating in the federal government scheme.

Aged care workers are being “pushed to the edge” amid a worsening Omicron crisis, a lack of rapid tests, dire staffing shortages and effective bans on essential visitors, unions and advocates say.

Social media companies should commit to taking down unauthorised political material in agreed timeframes to combat misinformation in elections, according to the Australian electoral commissioner, Tom Rogers.

Electricity demand hit a record low in several states during a milder-than-usual end to 2021, but average wholesale prices were up from a year earlier due to the higher cost of fossil fuels even as their share of the market dived.

The world

The district of Tete, Mozambique.
A house badly hit by mud and flood debris after Storm Ana passed through the district of Tete, Mozambique. Photograph: Andre Catueira/EPA

Humanitarian agencies have mounted an emergency response across southern Africa this week as the death toll from tropical Storm Ana reached 70. Officials reported that at least 41 people had been killed in Madagascar, 18 in Mozambique and 11 in Malawi.

Russia has said it is willing to continue talks with the US over European security, but is not optimistic about their prospects after Washington and Nato allies again rejected a key part of Russia’s proposed new order for post-cold war security.

British lawyers have cast doubt on the strength of Prince Andrew’s defence to Virginia’s Giuffre’s lawsuit and whether it can help him settle the case, thereby avoiding a “disastrous” court trial.

The World Health Organization chief has backed the veteran rock star Neil Young in his dispute with the music streaming behemoth Spotify, thanking the musician for “standing up against misinformation and inaccuracies” around Covid vaccinations.

Poland has started building a wall along its frontier with Belarus aimed at preventing asylum seekers from entering the country, which cuts through a protected forest and Unesco world heritage site.

A letter written to a 12-year-old girl in Lithuania has been delivered 51 years after it was sent by a pen pal in Poland.

Recommended reads

burnt bushland
With rapidly diminishing years left before the world runs out of time to decarbonise, this year’s election has to move beyond the same tired analysis of Australian parties’ policies. Photograph: Adwo/Alamy

The gap between Australian climate policy and the science is closing far too slowly, says Lenore Taylor, the Guardian Australia editor. She says Australians have to keep up the pressure. Tiny steps towards net zero are being undermined by new fossil fuel projects. But an election year offers the chance to hold our politicians to account, she says.

In a road trip prompted by an Australian man’s imagination of America, Emily Bitto explores the literary trope of the masculine hero’s quest – through her novel Wild Abandon.

In midlife and mid-pandemic, our connective ties can feel loose, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. Rebinding them, she says, requires commitment.

Listen

You may have struggled to find a rapid antigen test over summer – but what’s behind the empty shelves, and could the Morrison government have done more to anticipate demand? Anne Davies speaks to Jane Lee.

Full Story is Guardian Australia’s daily news podcast. Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or any other podcasting app.

Sport

Ash Barty, Madison Keys
Ash Barty, left, is congratulated by Madison Keys after their semi-final match at the Australian Open. Photograph: Andy Brownbill/AP

The world No 1, Ash Barty, beat American Madison Keys in two easy sets to become the first Australian woman to reach the Australian Open singles final since Wendy Turnbull in 1980. Barty dropped only 21 games en route to her maiden final at her home slam.

Media roundup

NSW’s vaccination hubs can administer at least 100,000 more booster jabs a week, according to the Sydney Morning Herald, as health officials warn valuable staff are being left idle with the program running at half-capacity. Large parts of Victoria, including Melbourne, were on high alert for heavy rain, damaging winds, thunderstorms and hail, the Age reports.

Coming up

A coalition of groups will rally in Sydney to call for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games.

And if you’ve read this far …

For the first time, killer whales have been recorded hunting the planet’s largest animal – the blue whale – in coordinated and brutal attacks.

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