Some scepticism is warranted, given Britain’s approach throughout the pandemic has hardly been a success. By July 19, there had been 128,985 deaths from COVID-19, and the death rate per million of population was just under 1,900.
True, there are countries with worse rates, including Hungary, Italy and the Czech Republic in Europe. But countries that have taken a different approach have vastly better figures: for example, 35.8 deaths per million of population in Australia, and 5.39 in New Zealand.
No doubt Boris Johnson’s government took its emphatic 2019 election victory and relatively successful vaccination program as a mandate for opening up.
But the current situation doesn’t support such optimism. Infection rates are now the worst in Europe and the death rate is climbing. By contrast, Australia has much lower death and infection rates but state authorities have responded with lockdowns.
[This approach] provides fertile ground for the emergence of vaccine-resistant variants. This would place all at risk, including those already vaccinated, within the UK and globally.
Taking the UK to court
Is it enough to hope Boris de Pfeffel Johnson will not just dismiss these concerns as piffle? Perhaps there is an alternative — taking the UK to court. Specifically, to the international courts that deal with matters of human rights.
For countries in the Council of Europe, this would be the European Court of Human Rights. Globally, there is the option of the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations.
How would this work? A court claim requires what lawyers call a “cause of action” — in this case, a breach of human rights, including the right to life and the right not to be subject to inhuman and degrading treatment.
In the main international human rights treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), article 6 requires that the right to life, which belongs to everyone, must be protected. Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) says the same.
In 2019, the UN Human Rights Committee noted this right to life amounts to an “entitlement […] to be free from acts and omissions that are intended or may be expected to cause their unnatural or premature death”.
It also noted the obligation on states to take steps to counter life-threatening diseases.
A duty to protect
European Court of Human Rights case law establishes that the duty to protect life includes a requirement on states to take reasonable steps if they know (or ought to know) there is a real and immediate risk to life.
This has usually involved the criminal actions of dangerous people, but there is no reason it should not cover government policy that rests on an acceptance that people will die.
After all, the entire human rights framework was put in place to limit states from breaching rights.
This duty to protect applies not just to deaths. Both the ICCPR and the ECHR have absolute prohibitions on inhuman and degrading treatment. For many people, the severity of COVID-19, including the consequences of long COVID, meet this standard.
If government policy can mitigate such consequences, human rights standards mandate that it should.
In short, this is not just a matter of the right to health. Because the UK will likely allow the virus to spread from its shores, the rest of the world is at risk and therefore has an interest here. So can other countries take action?
A political calculation
Human rights conventions are treaties — promises by states to each other as to how they will act. Article 33 of the ECHR is very clear: states can ask the European Court of Human Rights to adjudicate whether another state is breaching rights. There are many instances of this happening.
Importantly, the court can issue “interim measures” under its procedural rules to preserve the status quo while it hears a case.
The UN Human Rights Committee may also consider state-to-state complaints under article 41 of the ICCPR if a state has agreed to this — and the UK has made the relevant declaration.
Of course, any decision by a state to take another to court is political. But this pandemic is not just a health issue, it is also a matter of life and death. Protecting life should be a political priority precisely because it is such a fundamental right.
Politicians willing to stand up for human rights should use the tools that exist to achieve that aim.
The “Arm Yourself” campaign — featuring various upper arms showing a bandaid and iterations of the same message to arm “yourself”, “your family”, “your community” — could easily come from a presentation by Karsten Leith, the kravat-wearing marketing consultant in the ABC comedy series Utopia.
The adverts have apparently been in the can for months, put on ice due to there being little point encouraging anyone to join an already long queue for vaccines.
Now that they are being wheeled out, it is hard to know exactly what they are meant to achieve. With all the allure of airline safety videos, they fly in the face of decades of research on effective advertising. They do little to engage the hesitant.
Nor is the “graphic” side campaign for Sydney-siders, portraying a distressed young woman on a ventilator in a hospital bed gasping for air, any better. To be persuasive and change attitudes and behaviours, advertising campaigns must astutely balance rational and emotional appeals.
Blending rational and emotional
For decades researchers have studied how advertising can influence people’s decision-making. A cornerstone contribution to this is the “hierarchy of effects model”, which suggests audiences go through both cognitive (rational) and affective (emotional) stages before they act (respond to the advertisement).
It addresses safety concerns but in a humorous way — through an
“informative disco” sung by a well-known and beloved character from the popular sit-com Phua Chu Kang Pte Ltd, which aired on Singaporean television from 1997 to 2007.
This layering of emotional and rational appeals through a colourful, slapstick performance drives home the call to action to “faster go and vaccinate”. The video has been viewed more than 1.5 million times on YouTube to date (Singapore has a population of about 5.7 million).
The Victorian government did something similar with its campaign to encourage adherence to hygiene and distancing rules during the state’s lockdown in 2020. That featured Magda Szubanski’s character Sharon from the iconic Kath and Kim sitcom.
Another good example of integrating rational and emotional appeals is New Zealand’s Ka Kite, COVID (“see you, COVID”) campaign. Though without the “star power” of the Singapore campaign, it features instantly likeable and relatable characters — including cheeky teens and jazzercise dancers — to emphasise the idea of ordinary Kiwis coming together to protect themselves and the community.
It also offers a key motivator for getting vaccinated. In the ad, a health worker describes a vaccination centre as “the metaphorical door to freedom”. Scenes frame the different ways a return to normal can be enjoyed — from being reunited with family members to children playing together and a couple planning their wedding.
It drives home the rationale that vaccination benefits the entire community through three highly engaging emotional appeals to New Zealanders — their sense of belonging, humour and optimism. This brings home the campaign tagline to “Unite against COVID-19”.
Getting the balance right
The Australian Government’s vaccination messaging is struggling to find this balance.
Its first vaccination campaign, launched in January, relied too strongly on a rational appeal. In it infectious diseases physician Dr Nick Coatsworth talks about the vaccine being backed by experts, closely monitored for safety by the Therapeutic Goods Association and “free, simple, and the best way to protect ourselves against COVID-19”.
It has been criticised as boring, sterile and too densely informative, making an ineffective call to action. It has been viewed on YouTube fewer than 1,200 times.
The new “graphic” advertisement for Sydney audiences swings in the other extreme, by relying solely on stimulating an emotional response through fear.
Australia has a long tradition of fear appeals in public health campaigns. The most famous is the “Grim Reaper” advert in the 1980s. This campaign was certainly memorable, but the evidence from research in more recent decades about the effectiveness of fear-based messages is mixed. Studies show they don’t necessarily stimulate action.
The new national “Arm Yourself” campaign is arguably even worse — failing to effectively executive either an emotional or rational appeal. It provides little information beyond a metaphoric battle slogan. Its primary call to action is to visit a website. It lacks the powerful imagery, stirring music or relatable characters needed to engage the audience.
The government’s story is that this phase of the campaign is focused on encouraging Australians to get vaccinated. If that’s the case, it needs to go back to the standard advertising playbook.
This is another missed opportunity to alleviate fears and align with the broader pandemic messaging of community spirit and solidarity to encourage a high uptake of the vaccine by Australians of all ages.
William Bowtell, UNSWAll-encompassing crises like a pandemic can expose systemic flaws and failures in government and society, clearing the decks for radical reform and renovation.
The question is in which direction and in whose interests.
Last week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a four-phase plan to lead Australia out of the COVID-19 crisis. The plan was devoid of numbers, facts, targets or commitments. But Morrison nonetheless declared it to be a “New Deal”.
It would be tempting, but mistaken, to pass this off as just one more politician riffing off US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who coined the phrase in 1932.
Yet, the disruption caused by the fear of COVID has delivered the Morrison government an unexpected opportunity to reshape Australian politics and society along neo-liberal lines.
Roosevelt’s vision for a new America
In the early 1930s, Roosevelt was confronted by a social and economic catastrophe — the Great Depression.
His genius was to understand that a bold, radical reshaping of the economy and society was required to overcome the crisis and forestall the rise of alternatives to democracy from both the right and left.
The core of Roosevelt’s New Deal was redistribution of wealth from the few to the many. He ran large budget deficits, increased government spending and taxation, imposed regulations to rein in the worst excesses of the banks, and commissioned massive public and social works programs.
Roosevelt’s New Deal shifted the balance from profits to wages, created millions of new, better-paid jobs and stabilised society at a higher and better level for the American people.
The New Deal spent big to save on the grandest scale.
Neo-liberalism’s impact on the COVID response
The resurgence of casino capitalism in the 1980s reinvigorated the free-market opponents of the New Deal era.
In the US, the neo-liberals laid waste to much of the New Deal public health system. In the UK, decades of “market reforms” to the National Health System steadily eroded the principles of public health provision.
These reforms were prosecuted in the name of providing choice and efficiency and went largely uncontested by public opinion.
But they had long-term and serious consequences that the COVID pandemic cruelly exposed. Neo-liberalism undermined the ability of public health structures and institutions to provide independent and open scientific advice.
The US, UK and Brazil were all run by neo-liberal governments when the pandemic emerged, committed to free markets, small governments and budgets balanced by massive reductions in outlays on education, welfare and, ominously, public health.
Eighteen months into the pandemic, the three countries have recorded a combined 57 million cases and 1.25 million deaths (and counting) from COVID-19, with the actual death tolls considerably higher.
By contrast, in countries that moved rapidly to apply tried and tested public health principles through long-established and resilient structures, COVID deaths and illnesses were, with difficulty, contained.
These countries dealt with the realities of COVID as best they could and strengthened their responses as dictated by the accumulation of facts and evidence. Broadly, science dictated the response.
Morrison government’s initial hands-off approach
In Australia, the split between traditional public health principles and the neo-liberal response to COVID was apparent from early 2020.
The initial response of the Morrison government and its planning for COVID was deeply influenced by the UK and US.
The Morrison government did not accept the Commonwealth government had an over-arching national responsibility for public health outcomes. As cases occurred in the states and territories, the responsibility for the response rested with them.
In the critical early months, the Morrison government kept most borders open, limited surveillance of incoming travellers, moved too slowly to ban the export of PPE packs and let aged care operators follow free-market, self-regulation principles in the hope of reducing risk to residents and staff.
This laissez-faire approach provoked dismay and incredulity within the robust public health system.
Propelled by public health professionals and the public, the country locked down at the end of March, and after a rocky few months, brought about COVID zero.
This brought time and options to build an effective quarantine system and organise vaccine supply. But the Morrison government squandered the gift.
A recovery prolonged by two big missteps
From mid-2020, the economic and social disruption caused by the COVID response should have begun to dissipate. But instead, the Morrison government made the critical decision that prolonged and intensified the misery of the pandemic.
Rather than sign contracts with a number of vaccine manufacturers to guarantee adequate supplies this year, the government put much of its faith in one candidate – AstraZeneca.
And after the more infectious Delta variant emerged in December 2020, the Morrison government resisted all entreaties, pleas and scientific evidence to build Delta-proof quarantine facilities.
The effect of these two decisions has been to prolong Australia’s emergence from the botched COVID response until next year.
On the present trajectory, there is no way most Australians will travel abroad again until sometime after March 2022 — the second anniversary of the lockdown that saved Australia.
A ‘New Deal’ that leaves people behind
The Morrison government did not create COVID, but it has skilfully magnified the impacts of COVID in Australia to clear the decks for its own “New Deal”.
But the only thing Morrison’s New Deal has in common with FDR’s is massive deficit spending.
When faced with mass dismissals of employees early in the pandemic, the federal government’s huge stimulus packages fell short. The sharpest blows and cuts fell on the universities, the arts sector and casual and gig economy workers.
Businesses applied for JobKeeper on the basis that earnings would fall. But as was reported earlier this year, more than 30 ASX-listed companies recorded higher profits last year after receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in JobKeeper subsidies than before the pandemic.
Shadow assistant treasurer Andrew Leigh has said between $10-20 billion could have gone to firms with rising profits.
Unlike Roosevelt’s New Deal, which lifted millions of people from poverty to sustained prosperity with a commitment to open democracy, Morrison’s plan for the future doesn’t contain a strong enough safety net to support those in need.
The need for openness and transparency
It is also deeply wrong such a blueprint is being put together behind closed doors, with the input of like-minded politicians, sectional interests and lobbyists, but without the involvement of the Australian people.
All the goals, assumptions, modelling, advice and arguments should be published in a white paper.
Let the Morrison government make its best case for reopening Australia’s borders without full vaccination of the population and a variant-proof quarantine system.
Put on the table the plans for vaccine passports and how the international travel system might be reconstructed to let people travel and not the virus.
Rather than concentrate on the gauzy benefits of “freedom”, the government needs to outline the costs in lives and jobs that will accrue to vulnerable and less-wealthy Australians.
Let’s have a full and frank discussion of the increase in surveillance and the erosion of rights and liberties that have taken place in the name of containing COVID.
And be told what, if anything, is being planned to ensure the next pandemic will be managed far better than the government has managed COVID.
Only a process based on the values of truth, transparency and debate can rebuild people’s confidence and trust in government. The New Deal Australia wants and needs is not the Old Deal being constructed in Scott Morrison’s Canberra office.
But there’s another change that’s arguably less fun but much more significant for many users: the introduction of “app tracking transparency”.
This feature promises to usher in a new era of user-oriented privacy, and not everyone is happy — most notably Facebook, which relies on tracking web users’ browsing habits to sell targeted advertising. Some commentators have described it as the beginnings of a new privacy feud between the two tech behemoths.
So, what is app tracking transparency?
App tracking transparency is a continuation of Apple’s push to be recognised as the platform of privacy. The new feature allows apps to display a pop-up notification that explains what data the app wants to collect, and what it proposes to do with it.
There is nothing users need to do to gain access to the new feature, other than install the latest iOS update, which happens automatically on most devices. Once upgraded, apps that use tracking functions will display a request to opt in or out of this functionality.
How does it work?
As Apple has explained, the app tracking transparency feature is a new “application programming interface”, or API — a suite of programming commands used by developers to interact with the operating system.
The API gives software developers a few pre-canned functions that allow them to do things like “request tracking authorisation” or use the tracking manager to “check the authorisation status” of individual apps.
In more straightforward terms, this gives app developers a uniform way of requesting these tracking permissions from the device user. It also means the operating system has a centralised location for storing and checking what permissions have been granted to which apps.
What is missing from the fine print is that there is no physical mechanism to prevent the tracking of a user. The app tracking transparency framework is merely a pop-up box.
It is also interesting to note the specific wording of the pop-up: “ask app not to track”. If the application is using legitimate “device advertising identifiers”, answering no will result in this identifier being set to zero. This will reduce the tracking capabilities of apps that honour Apple’s tracking policies.
However, if an app is really determined to track you, there are many techniques that could allow them to make surreptitious user-specific identifiers, which may be difficult for Apple to detect or prevent.
For example, while an app might not use Apple’s “device advertising identifier”, it would be easy for the app to generate a little bit of “random data”. This data could then be passed between sites under the guise of normal operations such as retrieving an image with the data embedded in the filename. While this would contravene Apple’s developer rules, detecting this type of secret data could be very difficult.
Apple seems prepared to crack down hard on developers who don’t play by the rules. The most recent additions to Apple’s App Store guidelines explicitly tells developers:
You must receive explicit permission from users via the App Tracking Transparency APIs to track their activity.
It’s unlikely major app developers will want to fall foul of this policy — a ban from the App Store would be costly. But it’s hard to imagine Apple sanctioning a really big player like Facebook or TikTok without some serious behind-the-scenes negotiation.
Why is Facebook objecting?
Facebook is fuelled by web users’ data. Inevitably, anything that gets in the way of its gargantuan revenue-generating network is seen as a threat. In 2020, Facebook’s revenue from advertising exceeded US$84 billion – a 21% rise on 2019.
The issues are deep-rooted and reflect the two tech giants’ very different business models. Apple’s business model is the sale of laptops, computers, phones and watches – with a significant proportion of its income derived from the vast ecosystem of apps and in-app purchases used on these devices. Apple’s app revenue was reported at US$64 billion in 2020.
With a vested interest in ensuring its customers are loyal and happy with its devices, Apple is well positioned to deliver privacy without harming profits.
Should I use it?
Ultimately, it is a choice for the consumer. Many apps and services are offered ostensibly for free to users. App developers often cover their costs through subscription models, in-app purchases or in-app advertising. If enough users decide to embrace privacy controls, developers will either change their funding model (perhaps moving to paid apps) or attempt to find other ways to track users to maintain advertising-derived revenue.
If you don’t want your data to be collected (and potentially sold to unnamed third parties), this feature offers one way to restrict the amount of your data that is trafficked in this way.
But it’s also important to note that tracking of users and devices is a valuable tool for advertising optimisation by building a comprehensive picture of each individual. This increases the relevance of each advert while also reducing advertising costs (by only targeting users who are likely to be interested). Users also arguably benefit, as they see more (relevant) adverts that are contextualised for their interests.
It may slow down the rate at which we receive personalised ads in apps and websites, but this change won’t be an end to intrusive digital advertising. In essence, this is the price we pay for “free” access to these services.
We’ve probably all been there. We buy some new smart gadget and when we plug it in for the first time it requires an update to work.
So we end up spending hours downloading and updating before we can even play with our new toy.
But what happens when we can’t update our gadgets any further?
Every year vendors such as Apple and Google add to their list of vintage devices that no longer get operating system or security updates.
For example, owners of the Pixel 2 smartphone (released by Google in 2017) were told in late 2020 they would no longer receive regular scheduled system updates and security updates.
Upgrading to Google’s newest smartphones won’t insulate them from this problem for long. Owners of the latest Pixel 5 are told to expect this device (released in October 2020) to be made vintage in 2023.
While Apple has a reputation for supporting devices for longer than Google and Samsung with Android, even Apple owners are occasionally in for a shock, such as thoseusers who bought the Apple Watch SE or Apple Watch 3 late last year only to discover it only works with an iPhone 6s or above.
Even if an operating system vendor still supports a device, this presumes the apps and network connections will still work for older devices, which is not always the case.
The unrelenting march of technology
Technology is not what it used to be. Twenty years ago, we could buy a laptop and everything would work pretty much the same for over a decade.
For example, switch on an old Windows XP machine (no longer supported by Microsoft) and any installed Word and Excel software will be there just as we left them, still available for your document and spreadsheeting needs. (We need to be careful about updating any software as then it might not work on the XP machine.)
If we want to play some old computer games, there’s an argument that an old machine or operating system will be a better choice to play on as a newer machine will run the game too fast, or be incompatible and not run it at all.
But the world of technology has changed in the last ten years or so. More and more apps need a network connection to operate, or take advantage of new features in the software or hardware that didn’t previously exist such as augmented reality (AR), so they need a new device to work.
Backers of the original smartwatch, The Pebble, found themselves on the wrong end of this situation when the company was bought by Fitbit, who decided to shut down the Pebble servers. This effectively turned all Pebble watches into paperweights, although an unofficial fix was developed.
Assuming the hardware works, we might find the network connection deserts us.
The WiFi Alliance last year announced a new WiFi standard, increasing speeds for countries that support it.
But it’s already the case that older WiFi devices running on older standards can have trouble connecting to new networks, and even if they can they are likely to slow down the whole network.
In the world of cellular networking, some parts of the old 3G network (famous for powering the iPhone 3G released a little more than ten years ago) has been shut down in some countries (including Australia), with the whole service destined for the dustbin in several years. Even if we could power up that old iPhone, it wouldn’t get any phone service.
A call for sustainable technology
So what’s the solution to this problem of disposable and expiring technology? One suggestion is that manufacturers move to making devices more modular, comprised of several detachable components.
Perhaps the best we can hope for is for manufacturers to work harder to recycle and upgrade devices for consumers. Companies such as Apple already do this, with machines that can disassemble iPhones and remove the precious metals and components for recycling, but more work needs to be done.
In particular, the commercial aspect of these initiatives likely still needs to be worked out. Some service providers offer trade-in in deals for old phones but you still have to pay for a new phone. Many people aim to use older devices to avoid paying for a new device after all.
Until manufacturers are willing to perhaps just do a straight swap of that old gadget for a new model with no money down, it’s likely we will still live in our expiring device culture for a while yet.
Editor’s note: Two new strains of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 called B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 have been found in the U.K. and South Africa and are thought to be more transmissible. In this interview, David Kennedy, a biologist who studies the evolution of infectious diseases at Penn State, explains how these new strains are different, what “more transmissible” means, what that means for the public and whether the vaccines will be effective against them.
What are the two new variants of the SARS CoV-2 virus?
There are actually a few different variants that are emerging that you’ve probably been hearing about recently. Two of the most common ones that people are talking about and are most concerned about are the B.1.1.7 and B.1.351 variants. They were first detected in the U.K. and South Africa. It seems that they have been circulating since October at least but were only noticed in December. The concern about these variants is that they might have some differences in how transmissible they are and how the immune system sees them.
What does ‘more transmissible’ mean when it comes to these variants?
The data suggests that both of these variants are more transmissible. Most of the data that’s available is for the U.K. variant in particular. It’s still not clear exactly how much more transmissible it is, but current estimates are that it’s somewhere between 30% and 80% more transmissible than the original strains that were out there.
How did scientists arrive at those numbers? When spikes in cases in the U.K. raised concerns, they sequenced the virus from the cases during the spikes. They saw that there was this novel variant. They looked at the frequency of this variant farther back in time and saw that it was increasing in frequency over time. So it went from being very rare to very common. And based on the rate of increase, they estimate that it was around 70% or so more transmissible than the original virus.
The second way they determined it was more transmissible is through something called the “secondary attack rate.” What they do is, if they know that somebody is infected, they can look and see how many of their contacts got infected. And so they can do that for people who are infected with the original strain of the virus, and they can do that for people who are infected with this novel variant. What they saw was that people who had this novel variant were more likely to infect their contacts, and that increase was about 30% to 40%. So that means that this novel variant is more likely to get passed on to other individuals.
How does a more transmissible variant translate into risk? How does it affect people’s day-to-day risk levels?
The first thing that I should say is that there’s no evidence that there’s increased disease severity as a result of these variants. So it doesn’t seem like it is now more harmful. But the concern is that more people are going to get infected, and so in total, more people are going to get sick.
But the reason this is so concerning is that you get hit with the increase in transmissibility twice. First, more people will be infected, so it is more likely that you will be interacting with someone who is infectious. And second, the virus is more infectious, so each infected person is more likely to transmit it to you.
With that said, the basics of how we’re supposed to live our lives and how we’re supposed to control this are essentially unchanged. The mitigation measures that we have in place, things like social distancing, wearing a mask, avoiding indoor shared spaces, reducing any unnecessary risks, are still the best measures that we have to try to control this. At least until we all have access to vaccines.
What does this new variant mean for vaccine effectiveness?
If we look at the smallpox vaccine, we never saw resistance evolve to it. It’s the same for measles, polio and the majority of vaccines that we have. We never have to update them, and they just keep working.
But there have been vaccines where we do have to update them because resistance evolved. And so part of the concern about these new variants is that there might be evolution of resistance to the vaccines that are currently being developed.
The reason people are concerned is that a lot of the mutations in these new variants are in the site targeted by the vaccines, something called the spike protein. But just because we’re seeing changes in the spike protein of these variants doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to undermine the vaccine.
What researchers have seen is that one of the mutations found on both the U.K. and South Africa variants doesn’t seem to have any effect on how our immune system sees the virus, so that’s good news. But another mutation found on the South Africa variant does seem to impact how our immune response sees the virus.
We’ve learned that if you take blood serum from somebody who was previously infected with the old version of the virus, and you try to use that serum to stop the virus containing this new mutation, you need a higher concentration of the blood serum to neutralize the virus. That means that there’s a difference in the way that our immune system is seeing the virus. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the vaccine is going to be less effective. But it’s certainly something that needs to be studied more.
These are two of the mutations. There are many more mutations in these variants, which scientists need to continue to study.
The summary here is that at least one of the mutations seems like it could be relevant, but there isn’t good evidence to suggest that means the vaccines are not going to be effective. Vaccines tend to be robust against evolutionary change. And so my hope and my expectation is that the vaccine protection will be robust.
Many of the minor parties vying for votes in the Queensland election will already be very familiar to Australians.
But Pauline Hanson, Clive Palmer and the Katters are not the only minor party players worth watching in the lead up to October 31.
A new party has recently emerged in northern Queensland, with crocodiles and the balance of power on its mind.
It is also a prime example of how issues in northern Queensland can vary wildly from those in the south.
North Queensland First
North Queensland First was set up in October 2019 by member for Whitsunday, Jason Costigan.
Costigan was expelled from the Liberal National Party earlier last year, following harassment allegations (the woman who made the complaint has since withdrawn it and apologised).
NQ First is aimed at appealing to voters disillusioned with the major parties. It lists establishing a separate state of “North Queensland” among its primary aims and is promoting itself as a possible balance of power holder.
Some north Queenslanders feel every inch of their distance from the state government in Brisbane: the notion of resources being extracted by a negligent, remote government has featured in northern politics for over a century.
Last last month, NQ First sought to establish its northern credentials by announcing a “shoot to kill” policy.
This “croc culling” polling has a focus on “public safety”, according to Costigan.
If there is a crocodile on one of our beaches in a populated area, perhaps a tourist spot or in a swimming hole or where workers are at risk of being attacked, it’ll be shot by a licensed contractor whose job it will be to go in and deal with the problem as a matter of urgency.
Do Costigan’s crocodile proposals make sense?
Costigan’s policy was triggered by a September 23 crocodile attack on a snorkeler off Lizard Island.
By the time Costigan released his policy, that crocodile had already been euthanised by government wildlife officers. The current Queensland government crocodile management plan allows for the removal of crocodiles located near centres of population or that attack humans. So, further legislation, as proposed by Costigan, would not speed up that process.
In fact, NQ First’s enthusiasm for killing more large crocodiles might be counterproductive and increase the number of crocodile attacks.
Crocodiles are territorial and when large crocodiles are removed, other crocodiles move in. When the crocodile hierarchy is disturbed, it increases the risks to humans and livestock.
Why do politicians want to kill crocodiles?
Northern Australia is crocodile country, and saltwater crocodiles are capable of killing and eating humans. Australian crocodiles have been fully protected from hunting since 1974 and populations have recovered from heavy hunting after the second world war.
But living with crocodiles can be frightening. Costigan’s press release described crocodiles as “maneaters” and “monsters”, playing on primal human fears.
Politicians talking tough about crocodiles are speaking to residents of northern Australia’s suburban frontier, which is pressing into crocodile habitat as urban areas expand. Crocodile sightings and attacks are increasing as more humans spend time in regions where crocodiles have always lived.
Politicians also target crocodiles because hunting — of other animals, particularly pigs — is popular in the north and big game hunting is big business. Australia still has a safari hunting industry, which started by hunting crocodiles, but now targets other species.
However, the reality of legal crocodile hunting in Australia is very different. Safari hunting tends to be restricted to the wealthy.
Will being tough on crocodiles help Costigan?
Costigan has been elected to the seat of Whitsunday three times before, but all three times he was a member of the LNP and only won by slender margins (in 2017 he won by 372 votes). In 2020, he faces numerous challengers.
Both major parties are fielding candidates in Whitsunday, as are the Greens, One Nation, Katter’s Australian Party and the United Australia Party.
Those last three parties are all vying to occupy similar populist territory to Costigan.
Whether suggesting crocodiles should be shot will help Costigan retain his seat remains to be seen. One danger is NQ First’s policy may in fact alienate tourist operators and residents who live off the crocodile’s back.
However, promising even a limited ability to “shoot to kill” crocodiles will still resonate with some north Queenslanders.
Indeed, with a high profile as the sitting member and the LNP struggling with internal divisions and questions about donations, NQ First may well be part of the next Queensland parliament.
Over the next few years, science and technology will have a vital role in supporting Australia’s economy as it strives to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.
At Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, we’ve identified opportunities that can help businesses drive economic recovery.
We examined how the pandemic has created or intensified opportunities for economic growth across six sectors benefiting from science and technology. These are food and agribusiness, energy, health, mineral resources, digital and manufacturing.
While some aspects of Australian healthcare are currently digitised, system-wide digital health integration could improve the quality of care and save money.
Doctors caring for patients with chronic diseases or complex conditions could digitally coordinate care routines. This could streamline patient care by avoiding consultation double-ups and providing a more holistic view of patient health.
We also see potential for more efficient healthcare delivery through medical diagnostic tests that are more portable and non-invasive. Such tests, supported by artificial intelligence and smart data storage approaches, would allow faster disease detection and monitoring.
There’s also opportunity for developing specialised components such as 3D-printed prosthetics, dental and bone implants.
Despite a short-term plateau in energy consumption caused by COVID-19 globally, the demand for energy will continue to grow.
Through clean energy exports and energy initiatives aligned with decarbonisation goals, Australia can help meet global energy demands. Energy-efficient technologies offer immediate reduced energy costs, reduced carbon emissions and less demand on the energy grid. They also create local jobs.
Australia could earn revenue from the local production and export of more sustainable proteins. This might include plant-based proteins such as pea and lupins, or aquaculture products such as farmed prawns and seaweed.
We could also offer more high-value health and well-being foods. Examples include fortified foods and products free from gluten, lactose and other allergens.
Automating minerals processes
Even before COVID-19 struck, the mineral resources sector was facing rising costs and declining ore grades. It’s also dealing with climate change impacts such as droughts, bushfires, floods, and social pressures to reduce environmental harm.
Several innovative solutions could help make the sector more productive and sustainable. For instance, increasing automation and remote mining (which Australia already excels in) could achieve improved safety for workers, more productivity and business continuity.
Also, investing in advanced technologies that can generate higher quality data on mineral character and composition could improve yields and minimise environmental harm.
COVID-19 has escalated concerns around Australia’s supply chain fragility – take the toilet paper shortages earlier in the pandemic. Expanding local manufacturing efforts could create jobs and increase Australia’s earning potential.
This is especially true for mineral processing and manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, food and beverages, space technology and defence. Our local manufacturing will need to adapt quickly to changes in supply needs, ideally through the use of advanced designs and technology.
In April and May this year, Australian businesses made huge strides in adopting consumer and business digital technologies. One study estimated five years’ worth of progress occurred in those eight weeks. Hundreds of thousands of businesses moved their work online.
Over the next two years, Australian businesses could become more efficient and adaptable by further monetising the data they already collect. For example, applying mobile sensors, robotics and machine learning techniques could help us make better resource decisions in agriculture.
Similarly, businesses could share more data throughout the supply chain, including with customers and competitors. For instance, increased data sharing among renewable energy providers and customers could improve the monitoring, forecasting and reliability of energy supply.
Making the right plans and investments now will determine Australia’s recovery and resilience in the future.
It will be the first time MPs have been able to contribute remotely like this during a sitting week. This is a big leap for the parliament.
What will change in the chamber?
Federal parliament is adopting a hybrid model. Many MPs are still expected to attend the chamber in person. But others will be there via secure video link from their electorate office, with strict rules against slogans and novelty items in the background.
Brazil’s parliament – which covers a large geographical area, with more than 500 members in its lower house alone – had already begun using virtual discussion tools to conduct debates among MPs and between MPs and citizens. This is supported by an app, called Infoleg, which provides information on parliamentary business for both citizens and MPs and enables secure online voting.
The response to UK parliament’s decision has been mixed. British Labour MP Chi Onwurah has spoken of the need to be there in person.
Video engagement is not the same as being there face-to-face with a minister. You also lose the spontaneity, because you have to put in questions five days in advance, so you can’t ask a question about something a constituent emailed you about in the morning.
Less booing and jeering during Prime Minister’s Questions, the ability to call Select Committee witnesses from afar through video-link […] MPs from far ends of the UK noted that they’d be able to spend more time in their constituencies if they could contribute remotely, or that they could spend more time on casework if voting times were cut down through online voting.
Almost 1,000 more contributions were made during the interim virtual/chamber phase than during a comparative period at the beginning of the year.
There were also more contributions from female MPs. Women made up a “slightly higher proportion” of those participating in the virtual chamber, up from 31% earlier in the year to 35%.
Scottish National Party MP Kirsty Blackman also noted the remote provisions made it easier for MPs with disabilities to participate.
Technology is key
The big lessons from these experiences are very similar to those facing other workplaces.
That is, the need to be flexible and invest in suitable technology. This includes secure and individually verifiable voting apps – such as Infoleg – political discussion software and reliable, high-quality video conferencing facilities.
Australia’s parliament can do better (it needs to)
Long before COVID-19, researchers have been calling for parliaments to make better use of technology, to be more efficient and enhance the quality of public engagement.
A 2009 parliamentary survey of MPs found most spent between 5% and 10% of their time travelling. It is a common refrain of MPs they would rather spend more time in their electorates than in Canberra.
There is also growing acknowledgement travel and work requirements on our MPs – particularly in such a geographically dispersed country – are unhealthy and unreasonable. Travel time and time away from family has also been identified as a particular barrier to attracting more more female MPs.
Yes, there are challenges when it comes to “going virtual”. But by forcing our parliaments to experiment with new ways of operating, COVID-19 presents a critical opportunity to reimagine how our democratic institutions can work better.
If we embrace this moment with energy and enthusiasm, we can create new spaces for new voices (as well as better spaces for those we already have).
This might sound naïvely optimistic, but we have been here before.
About 40 years ago, someone stood in a dry Canberra paddock and imagined the light-filled, architectural wonder that is the current “new” Parliament House. And how MPs could be inspired by that environment to communicate their ideas with each other and their country.
Now, as we sit in front of our screens, we can begin to see a new parliamentary landscape. It might feel impersonal at first, but it has the potential to make parliament more user-friendly for MPs and citizens alike.
Saliva testing can reduce risks for health workers
The gold standard for detecting SARS-CoV-2 (the coronavirus that causes COVID-19) is a polymerase chain reaction (PCR). This tests for the genetic material of the virus, and is performed most commonly on a swab taken from the nose and throat, or from sputum (mucus from the lungs) in unwell patients.
In Australia, more than 2.5 million of these tests have been carried out since the start of the pandemic, contributing significantly to the control of the virus.
Although a nasal and throat swab is the preferred specimen for detecting the virus, PCR testing on saliva has recently been suggested as an alternative method. Several studies demonstrate the feasibility of this approach, including one conducted at the Doherty Institute (where the lead author of this article works). It used the existing PCR test, but examined saliva instead of nasal samples.
it is easier and less uncomfortable to take saliva than a swab
it may reduce the risk to health-care workers if they do not need to collect the sample
it reduces the consumption of personal protective equipment (PPE) and swabs. This is particularly important in settings where these might be in short supply.
But it’s not as sensitive
However, a recent meta-analysis (not yet peer-reviewed) has shown detection from saliva is less sensitive than a nasal swab, with a lower concentration of virus in saliva compared to swabs. It’s important to remember, though, this data is preliminary and must be treated with caution.
Nonetheless, this means saliva testing is likely to miss some cases of COVID-19. This was also shown in our recent study, which compared saliva and nasal swabs in more than 600 adults presenting to a COVID-19 screening clinic.
Of 39 people who tested positive via nasal swab, 87% were positive on saliva. The amount of virus was less in saliva than in the nasal swab. This most likely explains why testing saliva missed the virus in the other 13% of cases.
The laboratory test itself is the same as the PCR tests conducted on nasal swabs, just using saliva as an alternative specimen type. However, Australian laboratories operate under strict quality frameworks. To use saliva as a diagnostic specimen, each laboratory must verify saliva specimens are acceptably accurate when compared to swabs. This is done by testing a bank of known positive and negative saliva specimens and comparing the results with swabs taken from the same patients.
When could saliva testing be used?
In theory, there are several settings where saliva testing could play a role in the diagnosis of COVID-19. These may include:
places with limited staff to collect swabs or where high numbers of tests are required
settings where swabs and PPE may be in critically short supply
some children and other people for whom a nasal swab is difficult.
The use of saliva testing at a population level has not been done anywhere in the world. However, a pilot study is under way in the United Kingdom to test 14,000 health workers. The US Food and Drug Administration recently issued an emergency approval for a diagnostic test that involves home-collected saliva samples.
In Australia, the Victorian government is also piloting the collection of saliva in limited circumstances, alongside traditional swabbing approaches. This is to evaluate whether saliva collection is a useful approach to further expanding the considerable swab-based community testing occurring in response to the current outbreaks in Melbourne.
Undoubtedly, saliva testing is less sensitive than a nasal swab for COVID-19 detection. But in the midst of a public health crisis, there is a strong argument that, in some instances, a test with moderately reduced sensitivity is better than no test at all.
The use of laboratory testing in these huge volumes as a public health strategy has not been tried for previous infectious diseases outbreaks. This has required a scaling up of laboratory capacity far beyond its usual purpose of diagnosing infection for clinical care. In the current absence of a vaccine, widespread testing for COVID-19 is likely to occur for the foreseeable future, with periods of intense testing required to respond to local outbreaks that will inevitably arise.
In addition to swab-free specimens like saliva, testing innovations include self-collected swabs (which has also been tested in Australia), and the use of batch testing of specimens. These approaches could complement established testing methods and may provide additional back-up for population-level screening to ensure testing is readily available to all who need it.