News Coronavirus China is using pandemic distraction to destabilise our region: US ambassador
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China is using pandemic distraction to destabilise our region: US ambassador

Ambassador Arthur Culvahouse says Australia and the US have an unbreakable alliance. Photo: AAP
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China is using the coronavirus pandemic as a distraction to pursue its claims over our region with “shocking new vigour”, the US ambassador to Australia has warned.

While the world is focused on combating COVID-19, the Communist Party of China has taken advantage of the opportunity to “aggressively” advance its military presence in the South China Sea.

Referring to China as “bullies”, Ambassador Arthur B. Culvahouse jnr issued the warning in an article published on the Defence Connect website.

It comes as Australia has reportedly secured key European support for the Prime Minister’s push for an international inquiry into the origins of the pandemic.

The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age report the European Union’s top foreign minister is backing the inquiry, with a motion set to be amended ahead of a round of World Health Assembly meetings.

The support of Europe follows the USA and Britain already standing behind Scott Morrison’s calls for a probe which has angered China enough to boycott some Australian beef exports.

European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell reportedly supports an independent inquiry into coronavirus. Photo: Getty

In his article, Mr Culvahouse accused the Chinese of covering up the origins of the pandemic “through gross negligence, obsessive secrecy, and brazen dishonesty” before “exporting it to the world”.

“Sadly, in this playbook creating a global pandemic is treated as one more opportunity to advance geostrategic objectives,” he wrote.

He called on other nations to publicly push back against “Beijing’s heavy-handed attempts to unlawfully impose its territorial claims on the rest of the (Indo-Pacific) region”.

Mr Culvahouse cited recent skirmishes around Vietnam and the Philippines as evidence of China’s “aggressive intimidation and militarisation” as it tried to lay “baseless claims” to the South China Sea.

The Philippines has been vocal against China’s actions in the South China Sea. Photo: Getty

“Even as I write this, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has aggressively deployed its navy, coast guard and maritime militia across the South China Sea, seeking to advance a spurious claim of sole proprietorship over this massive international waterway,” he said.

“Having only recently sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat and locked naval weapon systems on a Philippine ship, it is even now in the midst of another outrageous confrontation over oil and gas rights within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone.”

He said the “the pandemic has only served to reinforce the importance of the alliance between our two nations”.

Mr Culvahouse was formally sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence on 19 February 2019.

Pubs and cafes reopen

Bar staff enjoy making drinks at the Rio, Summer Hill, Sydney as restrictions are eased in NSW. Photo: AAP

NSW, the Northern Territory and Queensland are reopening pubs and cafes but there are questions over how many businesses will be able to afford the move.

Some bartenders relished the “phenomenal” feeling of pouring a beer into a glass pint and diners embraced a glimmer of normality as NSW restaurants and bars reopened on Friday.

Queensland is following suit on Saturday but Australian Hotels Association CEO Stephen Ferguson said on ABC radio only 25 of some 300 eligible venues in Brisbane had indicated they would resume business.

The Australian newspaper reports 100,000 waiters, bar staff, chefs, sales assistants and other Australians working in the food services and accommodation ­industry may regain their jobs over the next few weeks, based on Treasury analysis.

The states’ restaurants, cafes, pubs and clubs are now able to have up to 10 patrons if they maintain social distancing, but outback Queensland venues can accommodate up to 20.

Queenslanders can also travel up to 150km, or 500km in the outback.

In Sydney’s inner west, Shannah Baichoo was among the first to return to popular Summer Hill bar The Rio, resuming what was once a regular Friday night ritual with her husband.

“It’s like a signifier of life becoming normal again. It feels amazing,” Ms Baichoo told AAP.

Nearby, Lisa Polsek said visiting the bar offered a bit of normality but “baby steps” were important.

“The worst thing would be is if we all have to go back again,” she said.

Victorians can now socialise in small groups of no more than five guests to a home.

Tracing infections

Authorities suspect an aged-care nurse in Rockhampton, Queensland, may have picked up her infection during a May 3 visit to Brisbane, but admit they have no hard evidence.

If the Brisbane trip is the culprit it means she has been infected for six weeks and may have passed the virus to anyone with whom she came in contact over that period.

Fears for the 115 residents and 180 health care workers at the state-run North Rockhampton Nursing Centre prompted a lockdown as health officials await the result of tests conducted on more than 70 people.

Queensland’s chief health officer Jeanette Young said it was “very unfortunate” the woman had been working while unwell.

“We’re clarifying what exactly happened there,” she said.

Two McDonald’s outlets in Melbourne are the focus of coronavirus infections.

In Victoria, a second infectious cluster centred on two suburban McDonald’s franchises in Melbourne’s northern suburbs has seen mass testing of more than 100 employees, with no positive results so far.

However, McDonald’s Australia chief executive Andrew Gregory conceded not all tests had been processed and “it’s possible we will get a small number of positive infections.”

Australia’s infection tally rose to 7020 on Friday, with deaths remaining at 98.

Mental wellbeing & childcare

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his government would commit $48.1 million towards the implementation of its new mental health and wellbeing plan.

Health Minister Greg Hunt said $7.3 million had been allocated for research, $29.5 million for outreach to vulnerable communities and $11.3 million for communication and other outreach programs.

But there was bad news on the funding front for parents of young children.

Free child care would not remain in effect beyond the coronavirus pandemic, the Prime Minister stated.

The federal government has temporarily made child care free, guaranteeing services their taxpayer subsidies at late-February levels as long as they don’t charge parents fees.

Vaccine progress

Monkeys given a single shot of an experimental Oxford University vaccine developed antibodies against the virus within 14 days, and all developed protective antibodies within 28 days.

After exposure to high levels of the virus, the vaccine appeared to prevent damage to the lungs and kept the virus from making copies of itself there but the virus was still actively replicating in the nose.

Oxford University’s vaccine is making positive progress during testing on monkeys.

Stephen Evans, a professor of pharmacoepidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the monkey data was “very definitely” good news.

“It is one of the hurdles to be passed by the Oxford vaccine and it has cleared it well,” he said in an emailed comment.

Although success in monkeys is seen as a key step, many vaccines that protect monkeys in the lab ultimately fail to protect humans.

Professor Evans said one key finding was particularly reassuring – that there was no evidence the vaccine actually made the disease worse.

“This was a definite theoretical concern for a vaccine against SARS-CoV-2 and finding no evidence for it in this study is very encouraging,” he said.

-with wires