Australia omicron variant spreads, testing reopening plans

Australia omicron variant spreads, testing reopening plans
Pedestrians walk through a shopping plaza in the city centre, as the state of New South Wales surpasses the 90 percent double-dose coronavirus disease vaccination target for those aged 16 and over, in Sydney, Australia, No. 9, 2021. (File/Reuters)
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Updated 04 December 2021

Australia omicron variant spreads, testing reopening plans

Australia omicron variant spreads, testing reopening plans
  • Queensland authorities suspected its first Omicron case in a person who traveled from South Africa

MELBOURNE: The Omicron coronavirus variant spread in Australia on Saturday, testing plans to reopen the economy as a cluster in Sydney grew to 13 cases and an infection was suspected in the state of Queensland.
Federal authorities are sticking with a plan to reopen the economy on the hope that the new variant proves to be milder than previous strains, but some state and territory governments have moved to tighten their domestic border controls.
Australia reported its first community transmission of Omicron on Friday at a school in Sydney. Authorities are investigating the source and said more cases were expected.
Queensland authorities suspected its first Omicron case in a person who traveled from South Africa and that genome sequencing was ongoing.
“The public health unit have ruled out that it is Delta but we haven’t been able to confirm if it is Omicron,” state Health Minister Yvette D’Ath. “But it is being treated as if it is.”
Authorities in South Australia said on Saturday that arrivals from New South Wales, Victoria and the capital territory will be tested. The state reopened its domestic borders only days ago for the first time in months.
Several thousand people protested vaccination mandates in Melbourne, with the demonstrations now a weekly event that has been attracting groups of regular citizens, as well as far-right and conspiracy theory supporters.
A smaller counter-protest called to stop the far-right movement in the city and support vaccinations.
The state of Victoria, home to Melbourne, requires full vaccination to access most hospitality services and non-essential retail, as well as to work in health care and many other industries.
Nearly 88 percent of Australians over the age of 16 have been fully vaccinated, health data showed.
Anti-vaccination supporters number in single digits in Australia, according to polls. But unvaccinated patients make up the vast majority of those hospitalized with the coronavirus. In Victoria, 90 percent of the 44 people in the intensive care have not been fully vaccinated, health data showed.
Despite battling many outbreaks this year, leading to months of lockdown in Sydney and Melbourne — Australia’s largest cities — the country has had only about 834 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 7.9 deaths per 100,000 people, according to the World Health Organization, a fraction of many other developed nations.
Australia has had just under 215,000 cases in total and 2,042 deaths.


Betting omicron has peaked, PM Johnson drops COVID rules in England

Betting omicron has peaked, PM Johnson drops COVID rules in England
Updated 32 sec ago

Betting omicron has peaked, PM Johnson drops COVID rules in England

Betting omicron has peaked, PM Johnson drops COVID rules in England
LONDON: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the end of COVID-19 measures including mandatory face masks in England as he looks to live with the virus after a peak in cases caused by the rapid spread of the omicron variant.
Johnson’s light touch approach to dealing with omicron saw him introduce work-at-home advice and vaccine passes as well as more mask-wearing on Dec. 8, although he stopped short of more onerous restrictions seen globally.
While cases soared to record highs, hospitalizations and deaths have not risen by the same extent, in part due to Britain’s booster rollout and the variant’s lesser severity.
Johnson’s pledge to avoid lockdowns and live with the virus contrasts with a zero tolerance approach to COVID-19 in China and Hong Kong, and tougher restrictions in many other European countries.
“Many nations across Europe have endured further winter lockdowns... but this government took a different path,” Johnson told lawmakers, saying the government had got the toughest decisions right and that numbers going into intensive care were falling.
“Our scientists believe it is likely that the omicron wave has now peaked nationally... because of the extraordinary booster campaign, together with the way the public have responded to the Plan B measures, we can return to Plan A.”
Johnson said none of the so-called Plan B measures would remain in England when they lapse on Jan. 26, as face masks would not be legally enforced anywhere and COVID passes would not be mandatory.
The government said it would also no longer ask people to work from home, effective immediately.
Johnson cited official figures that showed infection prevalence levels falling from a record high.
But scientists warned that cases could still turn higher again if people’s behavior returned to normal quickly.
“There’s no guarantee that the levels are going to continue to fall as they are at the moment,” University of Warwick virologist Lawrence Young told Reuters, who said he favored a more gradual approach given that cases are still high.
“I just don’t think we’ve got any room for complacency at the moment, but I do understand the economic imperative. People want to get back to normal.”
PANDEMIC ‘NOT OVER’
Johnson has faced criticism for his handling of the pandemic overall, and Britain has reported 152,872 deaths, the seventh highest total globally. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have followed their own anti-coronavirus measures, generally with tougher restrictions, but have also begun to ease them.
Johnson hopes to reset his agenda following furor over the lockdown gatherings at his office, which has some in his party plotting to remove him.
The lifting of Plan B measures, along with the navigation of omicron without resorting to a stringent lockdown, could help Johnson appease vocal opponents of restrictions in his own caucus amid the party unrest.
Johnson said if data supported it, he may end the legal requirement for people to self-isolate if they test positive before the regulation lapses in March.
“But to make that possible, we must all remain cautious during these last weeks of winter,” he said, warning of continued pressure on hospitals.
“The pandemic is not over.”
Susan Hopkins, the Chief Medical Adviser to the UK Health Security Agency, said she expected cases would continue to fall, but it would not be linear.
“We believe that overall, we will continue to see declines in cases. That may plateau at some points as the infection is in various different populations,” she said at a news conference.
“People’s behavior and how they react to the removal of Plan B will determine how fast infection can spread in the population.”

France moves closer to banning headscarves in sports competitions

France moves closer to banning headscarves in sports competitions
Updated 34 min 53 sec ago

France moves closer to banning headscarves in sports competitions

France moves closer to banning headscarves in sports competitions
  • Senators clearly said the amendment aims at banning “the wearing of the veil in sports competitions”
  • Les Hijabeuses: Women should have right to play sports at competitive level wearing a headscarf if they want

PARIS: The French Senate has voted in favor of banning the wearing of headscarves in sports competitions, arguing that neutrality is a requirement on the field of play.
The French upper legislative house voted late Tuesday in favor of amending a proposed law stipulating that the wearing “of conspicuous religious symbols is prohibited” to take part in events and competitions organized by sports federations.
In their text, senators clearly said that the amendment aims at banning “the wearing of the veil in sports competitions.” They added that headscarves can put at risk the safety of athletes wearing it when they practice their discipline.
The amendment proposed by right-wing group Les Republicains and opposed by the French government was adopted with 160 votes in favor, and 143 against. A commission composed of members from the Senate and the lower house should now gather to find a compromise on the text before it is published, meaning the amendment can still be erased.
It is unclear whether the ban would be implemented for the 2024 Paris Olympics. The Olympic organizing committee did not immediately answer a request for comment.

Les Hijabeuses says all Muslim women should have the right to play their favorite sport at competitive level while wearing a headscarf if they want to. (@leshijabeuses)


The vote came a year after lawmakers in the French parliament’s lower house approved a bill to strengthen oversight of mosques, schools and sports clubs in a bid to safeguard France from extremists and to promote respect for French values — one of President Emmanuel Macron’s landmark projects.
With France bloodied by terror attacks, few disagree that radicalization is a danger. But critics also see the law as a political ploy to lure the right wing to Macron’s centrist party ahead of this year’s presidential election.
In the amendment, senators said all citizens are free to exercise their religion, but insisted that everyone should refrain from putting forward their differences.
“Today, there is legal uncertainty about the wearing of religious symbols, and it is necessary for the state to clearly define the rules,” the amendment voted by senators read. “If the wearing of the veil is not explicitly forbidden, we could see the emergence of community sports clubs promoting certain religious signs.”
The French soccer federation already bans women from wearing headscarves in official matches, as well as at competitions it organizes. A collective of headscarf-wearing soccer players called “Les Hijabeuses,” in relation to the word hijab referring to the headscarf, has been campaigning against that ban.
The group says all Muslim women should have the right to play their favorite sport at competitive level while wearing a headscarf if they want to. It has launched legal action at the Council of State, France’s highest administrative jurisdiction, to overturn the federation ban.


Man found guilty of encouraging ‘jihad by sword’ in British mosque

Man found guilty of encouraging ‘jihad by sword’ in British mosque
Updated 19 January 2022

Man found guilty of encouraging ‘jihad by sword’ in British mosque

Man found guilty of encouraging ‘jihad by sword’ in British mosque
  • Abubaker Deghayes’ speech “demonstrates him to be an Islamic extremist,” prosecutor says
  • He made a stabbing gesture as he addressed a congregation of about 50 people at a mosque in Brighton

LONDON: A man whose two sons died fighting in Syria has been found guilty of encouraging terrorism after urging jihad “by sword” at a mosque in Brighton, southeast England.

Abubaker Deghayes, 53, was convicted at the Old Bailey following a trial, the Independent reported.

Deghayes, originally Libyan, made a stabbing gesture as he addressed a congregation of about 50 people at the Brighton Mosque and Muslim Community Center on Nov. 1, 2020 after evening prayers.

He told worshipers at the mosque “jihad is fighting by sword” and is compulsory, prosecutor Ben Lloyd told the jury.

“That means this jihad is compulsory upon you, not jihad is the word of mouth but jihad will remain compulsory until the Day of Resurrection,” Deghayes said in a video of the speech played to the court.

Lloyd told jurors that the speech was not given “innocently or naively.”

“The prosecution case is clear. By the defendant’s words and gestures he was encouraging people to undertake violent jihad.

“The defendant’s speech demonstrates him to be an Islamic extremist. He is someone who believes in the use of violence in the cause of Islam.

“Or, at the very least, he was reckless in giving his speech as to whether people would be encouraged,” Lloyd said.

Deghayes denied wrongdoing, saying he was explaining the meaning of “jihad by the sword” as self-defense.

The gesture he made was a “dance of the blade,” he claimed.

The judge presiding over the case said he was considering immediate custody for Deghayes, who will be sentenced on Feb. 25.

The defendant has been bailed with conditions to stay at his home address on an electronically monitored curfew. He is required to report to a police station three times a week.

Deghayes has been told not to attend the Brighton Mosque and Muslim Community Center and instructed to surrender his passport and not to apply for travel documents.

Two of Deghayes’ sons were killed fighting for extremists in Syria and he lost a third when a convicted drug dealer stabbed him to death in Brighton in February 2019.

A fourth son is understood to be in Syria.


Ex-Guantanamo prisoner prepares for legal battle over British passport

Ex-Guantanamo prisoner prepares for legal battle over British passport
Updated 19 January 2022

Ex-Guantanamo prisoner prepares for legal battle over British passport

Ex-Guantanamo prisoner prepares for legal battle over British passport
  • Moazzam Begg’s application for passport rejected despite no successful terror charges
  • MI5 allowed him to travel to Syria before government used his trips there as justification to remove passport

LONDON: A former Guantanamo Bay detainee is planning legal action against UK Home Secretary Priti Patel in an attempt to restore his British passport, which authorities stripped from him eight years ago after two trips to Syria, The Guardian reported on Wednesday.

Moazzam Begg, who was held by the US in Guantanamo for three years in the early 2000s, was told that his application for a new passport was rejected in September 2021 despite a terror prosecution into his trips to Syria being dropped.

The prosecution withdrew their legal efforts after they learned that MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence and security service, had allowed him to travel to Syria.

Begg — who works with Cage, which works with people caught up in the “war on terror” — said his frustrations with the delayed system meant he had no choice but to go for a judicial review.

He is hoping to visit his daughter in Turkey, where she was married without his attendance, and travel to Bagram, in Afghanistan, where he was held by US forces before his relocation to Guantanamo. 

“I saw two people there being murdered by US soldiers. Now the US has left I would like to go back and try and reinvestigate what happened, to try and visit the camp and the cells,” he said.

Begg was arrested in February 2002 in Pakistan and transferred to US forces, who held him without charge before his release in 2005. 

The trips to Syria that are thought to have blocked his passport application were in 2012 and 2013, when fighting had started against the Assad regime but before the advent of Daesh and the influx of foreign fighters, including those from Britain.

Begg said he was contacted by MI5 before his second visit to Syria. “I told them: ‘I am trying to investigate your role in working with the Assad regime in the programme of renditions’.” This work, he claimed, was part of his investigations with Cage.

He said representatives from MI5 informed him that he was free to travel to Syria, but his passport was taken from him when he returned in December 2013 after a trip to South Africa. Earlier that year, he had stayed in opposition territory in Aleppo, Syria, up to April 2013.

He was later arrested and charged on terror offenses, but the Crown Prosecution Service dropped the charges when further details about his visits to Syria were made public, in particular that MI5 had permitted his traveling.

“They know from the probe they put in my car that I was totally against people who would go on to join Isis (Daesh),” Begg said.

He applied for a passport in 2019 and was briefly issued one in September 2021, but it was removed from him four weeks later. 

The email revoking his passport was dated 2017 and addressed to a woman accused of passport fraud. 

“I think it was a cut and paste job, they were in a rush,” Begg said. “They gave no explanation.”

But now he and his lawyers have written to the Home Office and the Passport Office to put them on legal notice that he intends to claim his full passport. 

His team are now expected to launch a judicial review to ensure it is recovered, which will be covered by crowdfunding. 

“This government hasn’t tried to take away my citizenship,” he said. “But a passport is a sign of your nationality, the most unique identity document somebody has.”


Greece takes delivery of new Rafale jets from France

Greece takes delivery of new Rafale jets from France
Updated 19 January 2022

Greece takes delivery of new Rafale jets from France

Greece takes delivery of new Rafale jets from France
  • The six warplanes landed at Tanagra air base, some 70 kilometers north of Athens

TANAGRA, Greece: Greece on Wednesday received six new Rafale jets from France in a multi-billion-euro arms deal which Athens and Paris claim boosts the EU’s defense capabilities, but is mainly seen as countering Turkish ambitions in the Mediterranean.
The six warplanes landed at Tanagra air base, some 70 kilometers north of Athens, after overflying the Acropolis, escorted by Greek Mirage jets previously purchased from France.
Greece and France had originally signed a $3-billion (€2.5 billion) deal last January for 18 Rafale jets — 12 used and six new — as part of a burgeoning arms program to counter Turkish ambitions.
This was followed in September by a mutual assistance defense pact that includes the purchase by Athens of three Belharra frigates.
Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has also announced plans to buy an additional six Rafale jets, bringing the total order to 24.
The ships are set to be delivered in 2025 and 2026, for a value of some $3.4 billion.
Greece has the option to buy a fourth frigate.
Turkey, which has an uneasy history and relationship with its NATO neighbor Greece, has criticized the defense deal as threatening “regional peace and stability.”
Mitsotakis in 2020 unveiled Greece’s most ambitious arms purchase program in decades after a dangerous stand-off with Turkey over hydrocarbon resources and naval influence in the waters off their coasts.
A month earlier, Turkey had sent an exploration ship and a small navy flotilla to conduct seismic research in waters which Greece considers its own under post-war treaties.
In contrast to other EU and NATO allies, France strongly backed Greece and Cyprus at the time, sending warships and fighter jets to the eastern Mediterranean.
The 2021 frigate accord came less than two weeks after Paris was left reeling by Australia’s cancelation of a contract to buy French submarines in favor of a new defense pact with Britain and the United States.
President Emmanuel Macron hailed the deal as a major boost for the EU’s defense ambitions.
The deal with Greece marks “an audacious first step toward European strategic autonomy,” Macron said at the time, adding that Europeans should “stop being naive” regarding geopolitical competition.
Macron has said the frigate sale was not meant to be seen as a threat against Ankara, but a means to jointly ensure security in the Mediterranean as well as in North Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans.
The main opposition left-wing Syriza party, which voted against the deal, has questioned clauses that require Greece to support French military operations in the war-torn Sahel in Africa.