Free RATs axed as Covid peaks

Doctors and pharmacists have called on the federal government to abandon plans to scrap free rapid antigen tests, as another Covid wave surges across the country.

What we know:

  • Federal health minister Mark Butler on Tuesday confirmed that the free RAT scheme would not be extended beyond July (ABC); 
  • Under the scheme, concession card holders have been able to access up to 10 free rapid tests over three months;
  • Butler said supply shortages experienced earlier this year have ended and the price of individual tests has dropped to a third of Omicron-peak rates;
  • Community pharmacies have supplied more than 58m RATs to about 5.6m people since the program started;
  • The Pharmaceutical Society of Australia said ending the program would deter some vulnerable people from testing;
  • “We’re actually just about to enter another surge of Covid-19 and what we need to do now is encourage more testing rather than less testing,” said the group’s president Dr Fei Sim;
  • Labor will also go through with the Coalition’s plan to axe the $750 pandemic leave disaster payment, prompting calls for a sick-leave safety net for self-employed Australians and staff in small businesses (SMH);
  • It comes as the highly infectious Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants could see cases rise by 25% to just over 5000 a day across Australia, similar to the January peak of almost 5400 (The Guardian);  
  • NSW, Victoria and Queensland are facing shortfalls of more than 6500 hospital and healthcare staff as hospitals brace for the case surge;
  • The Victorian state government meanwhile rejected health advice to reintroduce mask mandates in some settings (Nine). 

Police target rap artists

Music industry figures and legal experts have criticised a NSW police effort to censor rap and drill music in Australia.

What we know:

  • NSW police acting assistant commissioner Jason Weinstein this week said police would contact streaming platforms and ask them to remove music that incites violence or criminal activity (The Daily Telegraph $); 
  • “We are still seeing that trend where drill rapping is being used to talk about crimes being committed for purposes of antagonising an opposition,’’ Weinstein said;
  • Social media platforms like YouTube and Snapchat will be contacted about removing music that attracts the attention of police;
  • “We rely on the moderators of social media platforms to uphold their own policies around violent content; however, NSW Police will take action in relation to content that contains material inciting violence or criminal activity,” a spokesperson said (Junkee); 
  • Western Sydney drill group OneFour was effectively banned from performing in Australia back in 2019 after being forced to cancel a national tour after NSW police “provided advice” to venues (the Music Network); 
  • OneFour’s profile soared after the tour was cancelled, and University of Sydney  criminologist Professor Murray Lee says this latest push to ban drill music could result in a similar boost for the genre, and reinforce concerns that police are targeting minorities (SMH); 
  • “Without taking anything away from the music of OneFour, the NSW police have been the best thing to happen to them from a publicity standpoint,” Lee said.

Inquiry into facial recognition in shops

A probe has been launched into Bunnings and Kmart Australia’s use of facial recognition, after an investigation exposed those retailers using the controversial technology.

The Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) has opened an investigation into the use of the technology on customers by the two retailers, which are both owned by Wesfarmers (IT News). 

Bunnings and Kmart, as well as The Good Guys, were referred to the body by consumer group Choice two weeks ago for potential breaches of the Privacy Act (Choice). 

Choice had found all three retailers had been analysing CCTV footage to create profiles or “face prints” of their customers without consent.

The OAIC added it had “commenced preliminary inquiries” with The Good Guys, which “paused its use of facial recognition technology” in the wake of the expose.

Privacy commissioner Angelene Falk last month said it was “important that all retail stores, when they are deciding whether to use technology to collect personal information, consider the impact on privacy, the community’s expectations and the need to comply with privacy law”.


Donations top Labor integrity changes

Labor is set to introduce a package of integrity measures requiring the real-time disclosure of political donations over $1000, truth in political advertising laws, and potentially doubling the number of senators from the territories.

Special Minister of State Don Farrell hopes to introduce the measures by mid-2023, with the proposals first to be examined in an inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters (The Age).

“At the moment, you don’t have to make a donation disclosure under roughly $15,000. We want to reduce it to $1000 and we want to look at real-time disclosure laws,” Farrell said.

The truth in political advertising laws would include online ads and potentially social media, Farrell added.

The inquiry would also look at the population numbers in the NT and the ACT and consider potentially doubling the senators from each territory from two to four.


Telescope delivers new dawn in astronomy

NASA has released the first full-colour, high-resolution pictures from the James Webb Space Telescope, ushering in “the dawn of a new era in astronomy”.

Launched last December in a joint collaboration between NASA and the European and Canadian space agencies, the $9bn infrared telescope is the largest and most powerful observatory ever sent into orbit (Reuters). 

The released images show five galaxies in a cosmic dance, the death throes of a dying star and a stellar nursery where massive young suns are born (NPR). 

Webb’s use of the infrared light spectrum allows the telescope to see through the cosmic dust to faraway light from the corners of the universe, said NASA administrator Bill Nelson.

Astronomers hope this will allow them to glimpse light from the first stars and galaxies that formed 13.7bn years ago, and scan the atmospheres of alien worlds for possible signs of life.


Brrrr oooh oooh oooh, brrrr oooh oooh oooh.

Underwater nuclear bomb detectors have picked up increasingly frequent whalesong in the Indian Ocean, in a sign pygmy blue whale numbers are rebounding after the species was hunted to near-extinction (SMH).


Postscript: Art Collective’s Billionaire Popsicles Let People Literally ‘Eat the Rich’

An art collective’s new project has the internet talking as people can choose a popsicle shaped like one of several famous billionaires and literally “eat the rich.” The popsicle’s names include “Snack on Jack,” “Bite Bezos,” “Gobble Gates,” “Suck Zuck” and “Munch Musk” (Newsweek).