Toxic Sydney bushfire haze a ‘public health emergency’

Toxic Sydney bushfire haze a ‘public health emergency’
The New South Wales state health department said it recorded a 48 percent increase in the number of people visiting hospital emergency rooms with respiratory problems in the week ending December 11. (File/AFP)
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Updated 16 December 2019

Toxic Sydney bushfire haze a ‘public health emergency’

Toxic Sydney bushfire haze a ‘public health emergency’
  • Hundreds of climate change-fueled bushfires have been raging across Australia for months
  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week made a rare admission that climate change is one of the “factors” behind the fires

SYDNEY: Australia’s biggest city is facing a “public health emergency” over the bushfire smoke that has choked Sydney for weeks, leading doctors warned Monday after hospitals reported a dramatic spike in casualty department visits.

Hundreds of climate change-fueled bushfires have been raging across Australia for months, with efforts to contain a “mega-blaze” burning north of Sydney destroying an estimated 20 homes overnight and fires near Perth threatening towns.

More than 20 medical groups including the Royal Australasian College of Physicians — which represents 25,000 doctors and trainees — released a joint statement Monday calling on Australia’s government to address the toxic air pollution.

“The air pollution in NSW is a public health emergency,” the Climate and Health Alliance said.

“Smoke from bushfires has produced air pollution of up to 11 times the base ‘hazardous’ level in parts of Sydney and New South Wales.

“Bushfire smoke is particularly hazardous because of the high levels of tiny particles (PM2.5).”

The New South Wales state health department said it recorded a 48 percent increase in the number of people visiting hospital emergency rooms with respiratory problems in the week ending December 11 compared to the five-year average.

Visits spiked 80 percent on December 10, when air quality plummeted across Sydney prompting up to 20,000 residents to march in protest the following day.

The Climate and Health Alliance called on the government to take urgent action to curb emissions, saying climate change is worsening bushfires that are having “devastating impacts on human health.”

“The air pollution events resulting from bushfires will become more and more frequent and are a result of climate change,” it said.

“Our governments must act quickly to rapidly and deeply reduce greenhouse gas emissions, which we know are driving climate change.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week made a rare admission that climate change is one of the “factors” behind the fires, but defended Australia’s record on emissions reduction and failed to announce further measures to address the issue.

Six people have been killed, more than 700 houses destroyed and at least three million hectares (7.4 million acres) of land burned this bushfire season.

More than 100 fires are currently burning in New South Wales, where efforts to contain a 400,000-hectare blaze near Sydney using backburning are believed to have sparked another fire that destroyed an estimated 20 homes.

A New South Wales Rural Fire and Rescue Service spokeswoman told AFP the fire was “likely the result of embers from the backburning operation” but that work had been “absolutely critical” and many more homes could have been lost without it.

The devastating fires have focused attention on climate change, with scientists saying the blazes have come earlier and with more intensity than usual due to global warming and a prolonged drought that has also caused towns to run out of drinking water and forced farmers off their land.

More than 35,000 people living in a drought-stricken area of southern Queensland will be restricted to using a maximum of 80 liters (21 US gallons) of water each per day under “emergency” rules from Thursday, as local authorities begin trucking in water from other regions.

“The rain has gone around us now for three years. It’s been heartbreaking,” Southern Downs Council mayor Tracy Dobie told ABC.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg on Monday singled out bushfires and drought as the biggest domestic challenges for the economy, telling reporters in Canberra the dry spell had taken a quarter of a percentage point off GDP growth and reduced farm output by “a significant amount” over the past two years.

Official data shows 2019 is on track to be one of the hottest and driest years on record in Australia, with the country set to experience a heatwave this week that forecasters predict will break temperature records — and firefighters say will make their job even tougher.


Germany to offer COVID-19 shots for all kids over 12

Germany to offer COVID-19 shots for all kids over 12
Updated 02 August 2021

Germany to offer COVID-19 shots for all kids over 12

Germany to offer COVID-19 shots for all kids over 12
  • ‘Everybody who wants can get vaccinated in the summer — we have enough vaccines for all age groups’ said German Health Minister
  • Children and teenagers can decide to get vaccinated after a medical consultation

BERLIN: Germany will start offering coronavirus vaccinations for all children and teenagers aged 12 and older, top health officials said Monday.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said after a meeting with the 16 German state health ministers that “we keep our promise: everybody who wants can get vaccinated in the summer — we have enough vaccines for all age groups.”
“Therefore, children and teenagers ... can decide to get vaccinated after a medical consultation and thus protect themselves and others,” he added.
The government’s push to get Germany’s youth vaccinated comes two months after the European Medicines Agency recommended that the coronavirus vaccine made by Pfizer-BioNTech be expanded to children 12 to 15. Last week, the EU drug regulator also cleared the vaccine made by Moderna for the same age group.
So far, however, the country’s standing committee on vaccination, the Stiko, has been reluctant to give the go-ahead for all youngsters and only explicitly recommended the vaccination for the age group between 12 and 16 if they suffer from certain chronic illnesses. The committee says that not enough study results are yet available on possible long-term effects of the vaccine on the younger ones, but has also said it may update its recommendation as more data becomes available.
But as schools across the country are starting to open again after the summer vacations, and given the vulnerability of young unvaccinated people to the quickly spreading delta variant, pressure has been mounting to get more children 12 and older vaccinated. Politicians have been lobbying to get the younger ones immunized against COVID-19 quickly to prevent renewed school closures in the fall.
Therefore, the 16 state top health officials on Monday decided that healthy children and teenagers should now also be able get the jab at vaccination centers or their pediatricians’ practices. As for all age groups, the vaccinations remain voluntary.
So far, 20 percent of those between 12 and 17 have received at least one shot in Germany and nearly 10 percent are fully vaccinated.
The country’s family minister said the decision “is an important step so that children and teenagers can be protected from a coronavirus infection in the best possible way.”
“Many parents have been insecure about whether they should vaccinate their children because so far there was no clear recommendation,” Christine Lambrecht added. “The decision for a broad vaccination offer for those aged between 12 to 17 can now help them.”
There are large disparities in the access to vaccination for youths across Europe. While countries like Estonia, Denmark and France are actively encouraging families to vaccinate their children before the new school year begins, others such as Sweden and the United Kingdom have yet to begin mass vaccinations for those under 18.
Also Monday, state health ministers decided to start offering booster shots for especially vulnerable groups in September. They said all people who got vaccinated with the AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson shots could get a refresher shot with an mRNA vaccine such as Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna from September on.


Wife of Briton detained in Iran urges PM to secure his release

A British-Iranian dual citizen being held prisoner in Iran has lost access to a phone, depriving him of his lifeline to sanity and the outside world, according to his wife. (AFP/File Photo)
A British-Iranian dual citizen being held prisoner in Iran has lost access to a phone, depriving him of his lifeline to sanity and the outside world, according to his wife. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 02 August 2021

Wife of Briton detained in Iran urges PM to secure his release

A British-Iranian dual citizen being held prisoner in Iran has lost access to a phone, depriving him of his lifeline to sanity and the outside world, according to his wife. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Family: Anoosheh Ashoori, 67, has been in ‘hell’ since his detention 4 years ago
  • ‘It has been more than a year since our family requested a meeting with the prime minister. He is apparently unable to meet us’

LONDON: The wife of a British citizen held in an Iranian jail for four years has pleaded with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to show he “genuinely cares” by securing his release.

Anoosheh Ashoori, 67, has been in “hell,” his family said, since he was arrested on a visit to Iran and later convicted of spying for Israel — charges he denies.

He is now four years into a 10-year sentence in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, which is often used for detained dual nationals.

During his time in jail, there have been serious concerns about Ashoori’s health, particularly as COVID-19 ravaged Iran’s prison system.

In a letter to The Times, his wife Sherry Izadi insisted that the charges against him are entirely fabricated, and accused Johnson of avoiding a request for a meeting to discuss the case.

“Boris Johnson says that the plight of Anoosheh ... ‘remains a top priority.’ Yet actions speak louder than words,” Izadi wrote.

“It has been more than a year since our family requested a meeting with the prime minister. He is apparently unable to meet us.”

Johnson did meet with Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, last year. She remains in detention in Iran, and is currently on bail and living in her parents’ Tehran home while she awaits news of her fate.

Last month, an Iranian newspaper suggested that Ashoori and Zaghari-Ratcliffe were being considered for a prisoner swap along with American detainees, but this was publicly denied by the US.

The British Foreign Office said it has raised Ashoori’s case with Tehran. A spokesperson said: “Iran’s continued arbitrary detention of our dual nationals is unacceptable and is a stain on Iran’s international reputation. We urge the Iranian authorities to do the right thing and release the detainees.”

Tehran faces regular criticism for its treatment of foreign nationals, particularly those with dual Iranian citizenship.

“Having citizens with deep connections to other cultures and countries is an asset, not a criminal offense,” said Human Rights Watch.

“But Iran’s security apparatus has apparently made the despicable decision to use these individuals as bargaining chips to resolve diplomatic disputes.”


US, UK embassies in Afghanistan accuse Taliban of possible war crimes

US, UK embassies in Afghanistan accuse Taliban of possible war crimes
Updated 02 August 2021

US, UK embassies in Afghanistan accuse Taliban of possible war crimes

US, UK embassies in Afghanistan accuse Taliban of possible war crimes
  • Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban negotiating team member based in Doha, told Reuters that tweets containing the accusations were "baseless reports"
  • U.S. Embassy in Kabul tweeted accusing the Taliban of killing dozens of civilians in Kandahar province

KABUL: The US and British embassies in Kabul said on Monday the insurgent Taliban may have committed war crimes in southern Afghanistan by carrying out revenge murders of civilians, a charge denied by the insurgents.
Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban negotiating team member based in Doha, told Reuters that tweets containing the accusations were “baseless reports.”
The US Embassy in the capital Kabul tweeted a statement accusing the Taliban of killing dozens of civilians in the area of Spin Boldak in southern Kandahar province. The statement was also tweeted by the British embassy.
“These murders could constitute war crimes; they must be investigated & those Taliban fighters or commanders responsible held accountable,” the US Embassy tweeted.
In a second tweet, it said: “The Taliban’s leadership must be held responsible for the crimes of their fighters. If you cannot control your fighters now, you have no business in governance later.”
The tweets, accompanied by calls for a cease-fire, stepped up the United States’ public criticism of the group as US troops withdraw and the Taliban goes on the offensive.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last week that Afghanistan would become a ‘pariah state’ if any future Taliban rule in Afghanistan resulted in atrocities against civilians.
The insurgents gained control last month of the strategic area of Spin Boldak, which lies at a border and trade crossing with Pakistan, and heavy fighting has taken place since as Afghan forces try to recapture the area.


Scotland health secretary reports nursery for discrimination over Muslim name

Scotland’s Health Secretary Humza Yousaf has alleged that a local nursery discriminated against his 2-year-old daughter. (Screenshot/File Photo)
Scotland’s Health Secretary Humza Yousaf has alleged that a local nursery discriminated against his 2-year-old daughter. (Screenshot/File Photo)
Updated 02 August 2021

Scotland health secretary reports nursery for discrimination over Muslim name

Scotland’s Health Secretary Humza Yousaf has alleged that a local nursery discriminated against his 2-year-old daughter. (Screenshot/File Photo)
  • Newspaper probe revealed pupils with non-Muslim names offered places, children with Muslim names rejected
  • Humza Yousaf: ‘We are fooling ourselves if we believe discrimination doesn’t exist in Scotland’ 

LONDON: Scotland’s Health Secretary Humza Yousaf has alleged that a local nursery denied his daughter, 2, a place “because of her Muslim name.”

He is taking his case to the care authorities for review after finding out that the Little Scholars Nursery in Dundee, Scotland, was willing to offer a place to a white friend’s child having denied his own daughter Amal a place.

Yousaf said he and his wife Nadia El-Nakla had contacted the nursery in May asking if they had places available.

They said they were told that there were “no available spaces in the nursery” — the second time the couple said they had been turned down.

But when they asked a white Scottish friend to contact the same place, the nursery responded and offered them places for three afternoons a week. The responses came less than 24 hours apart, said Yousaf.

He said when he became suspicious of the nursery he asked a local paper, the Daily Record, to investigate.

Its journalists created two applications for children of the same age and with the same requirements — one with a Muslim name, the other with a white Scottish name.

The child named Aqsa Akhtar was rejected, the Daily Record reported, while Susan Blake was offered a choice of four afternoons. 

“I cannot tell you how angry I am,” Yousaf tweeted. “As a father all I want to do is protect my girls, yet aged 2 I believe my daughter has faced discrimination. If this had not happened to me I’m not sure I would have believed it could happen in 2021. How many other families has this happened to?”

In a separate post, he added: “We are fooling ourselves if we believe discrimination doesn’t exist in Scotland.”

In a statement, Little Scholars Nursery said any claim that it is not open and inclusive to all is “demonstrably false.”

It added: “We note Mr Yousaf’s call for a Care Inspectorate investigation and this is something we would absolutely welcome. We have nothing to hide and look forward to the opportunity to demonstrate the policies and procedures we have in place to ensure we are a nursery that is open and welcoming to all.”

The Care Inspectorate, responsible for overseeing the fair and high-quality administration of care in Scotland, said “a concern has been raised” and it is considering the information received.


We need to get the travel industry moving again, UK PM Johnson says

We need to get the travel industry moving again, UK PM Johnson says
Updated 02 August 2021

We need to get the travel industry moving again, UK PM Johnson says

We need to get the travel industry moving again, UK PM Johnson says
  • "We need to get people, get the travel industry moving again," Johnson told reporters
  • Johnson's travel regulations have angered some of Britain's European allies, frustrated millions of sun-seeking Britons

LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday that he wanted to get the travel industry moving again with a simple user-friendly system to allow for trips abroad without importing new variants of the coronavirus.
“We need to get people, get the travel industry moving again,” Johnson told reporters. “We want an approach that is as simple as we can possibly make it.”
Britain has double vaccinated a higher proportion of its population against COVID-19 than most other countries, but the government has prevented travel to many destinations by imposing rules that the travel industry says are hobbling the economy.
Johnson’s travel regulations have angered some of Britain’s European allies, frustrated millions of sun-seeking Britons and brought warnings from airports, airlines and tour companies.
In a letter to Johnson that was leaked to media, finance minister Rishi Sunak called for an urgent easing of travel restrictions.
The Times newspaper reported that Britain planned to warn holidaymakers against visiting popular tourist destinations such as Spain because of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Such a step could trigger an exodus of about a million British tourists already abroad, cause further damage to the travel sector and deal a new blow to southern Europe’s summer tourist season.
A spokesperson for Britain’s transport ministry declined to comment on The Times report, published on the day when rules were eased for double-vaccinated travelers from the United States and most of Europe.
Under rules to be reviewed on Thursday, double-vaccinated travelers can return without quarantining from countries rated “amber” on a “traffic-light” list assessing the COVID-19 risk.
Those returning from red-list countries — the most severe risk — must pay 1,750 pounds ($2,436) to spend 10 days in a hotel.
An amber watchlist was due to be signed off on Thursday but a split in the government could delay a decision, The Times said.
Citing the threat posed by the Beta coronavirus variant, England has maintained quarantine rules for double-vaccinated travelers from France, while scrapping the requirement for travelers from other medium-risk “amber” countries.
France has complained, saying the bulk of its Beta variant cases come from the island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean.