Morning mail: questions over aged-care grant, coronavirus cruise ship crisis, toxic kitties

Helen Sullivan
Photograph: Dave Hunt/AAP

Good morning, this is Helen Sullivan bringing you the main stories and must-reads on Monday 17 February.

Top stories

The Coalition gave an “unprecedented” $400,000 grant to the administrators of a now-closed aged care home in the electorate of Nationals MP Damian Drum, prompting Labor to question why other financially stressed providers have missed out. In November, Drum, the MP for the Victorian seat of Nicholls, said the financial assistance from the federal government meant the centre was “staying open, end of story”, claiming “there are no conversations about shutting the place down”. But despite the financial injection, residents from the 40-bed home have been relocated and employees made redundant, with the home shutting its doors last week.

A three-year-old Australian girl held in al-Hawl camp in Syria will likely lose her fingers to frostbite. Amirah is one of 47 Australian children being detained in the sprawling detention camp for the family members of Islamic State fighters, as the north-east of Syria endures a bitterly cold winter. Amirah’s five-month-old brother Yahya, who was born in the camp, is also malnourished. An older brother died before the family reached the camp. Other Australian children in the camp are reported to be suffering developmental disorders, diarrhoea, seizures, rickets and asthma. The youngest child in the Australian group is less than two months old.

Questions are being raised over a decision to let cotton farms harvest first rainfall in years. New South Wales bureaucrats sought urgent advice from major cotton farmers about how recent rainfall might damage their water harvesting infrastructure, in an apparent effort to justify giving them the green light to retain the first rainfall in over a year, rather than letting it flow downstream. On 7 February the government announced it would restrict the harvesting of overland flows throughout the northern Murray-Darling Basin for the first time, because it was “in the public interest”. But within days, the government had lifted the ban for two valleys and part of a third.

Australia

The first cohort of Australian evacuees are set to leave quarantine on Christmas Island on Monday, with no reported cases of the new coronavirus among the 277 Australian citizens and permanent residents held on the island.

Nationals leader Michael McCormack has declared he will lead the party to the next election, dismissing suggestions he will stand down within the next two years to ensure stability within the Coalition.

Labor is accusing the government of shortchanging rural areas through the $150m sports fund, which was overwhelmingly spent in marginal seats during the election campaign.

The world

The Diamond Princess cruise ship docked and in quarantine at the Daikoku Pier Cruise Terminal in Yokohama bay. Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A woman let off a cruise ship in Cambodia has tested positive for coronavirus. Scores of passengers who left the MS Westerdam, which had been at sea for two weeks after leaving Hong Kong on 1 February, have since travelled on to other destinations. Meanwhile the US is set to evacuate hundreds of American passengers from the Diamond Princess cruise ship quarantined in Japan, as local health authorities said a further 70 people onboard had tested positive for Covid-19, bringing the total to 355. And a taxi driver has died from the coronavirus in Taiwan, marking the first such death on the island and the fifth fatality outside mainland China.

In US political news, Kellyanne Conway has claimed Trump is the victim of a politicised justice system, Michael Bloomberg has insisted he is a “champion for women in the workplace”, and Pete Buttigieg is “not going to be lectured on family values from the likes of Rush Limbaugh.”

Britain and the European Union are going to rip each other apart in talks over a future trade deal, French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has predicted, while also holding out hope that UK defence co-operation with Europe will continue.

The jury at Harvey Weinstein’s rape trial in New York will begin deliberations on Tuesday, with the world’s media and the expectations of the #MeToo movement bearing heavily upon them.

Recommended reads

A study has found the protein that causes cat allergies is strikingly similar to the venom of the slow loris. Photograph: China Stringer Network/Reuters

Australian researchers are pondering the link between a rare venom and cat allergies. A recent study involving the incredibly cute but atypically venomous dreamy-eyed slow loris speculates the allergic reactions cats can trigger in humans are a defence mechanism that they unwittingly evolved to fend off enemies. The University of Queensland’s Bryan Fry sequenced the protein contained in the slow loris venom and used a computer program to compare it to all other known protein sequences. The cat allergen was the closest match.

“There is one image from the bushfire crisis that I am still not able to shake,” writes Angela Williams. “What haunts me is the image of the prisoners locked in at Lithgow Correctional Centre when others were evacuated from the path of a fire last year. My fears come from experience: I’ve been to prison twice for the same crime, committed in 1996. They are fears I’d met in the old sandstone cells at Berrima where I asked a guard what to do if there was a fire in the cell, and he said ‘break out or burn’.”

“The way we currently handle workplace harassment isn’t working and it isn’t fair,” writes Aimee Cooper. “One of the most frustrating things about my job is knowing just how strong our legal protections are, then seeing how rarely they are brought to life. Our equality laws are meaningless if they are not complied with, relied upon or enforced.”

Listen

What happens when the taps run dry? Dozens of Australian towns have now run out of drinking water. Residents like Fleur Magick Dennis, a Wiradjuri woman from the rural NSW town of Euchareena, have been forced to cart water by truck and are living with severe water restrictions. “That’s not a sustainable way to live. I’m just really worried about our future at the moment,” she says in today’s episode of The Frontline, a major multimedia series from Guardian Australia, is about everyday Australians who are already living with the effects of the climate emergency.

Sport

It’s a brave supporter that suggests a trip to the A-League to their partner on Valentine’s Day. Richard Parkin is one such supporter. “The idea of trekking to an outdoor theatre during this Australian summer and placing your emotions in the hands of a football team like Adelaide United is as bold a gamble as booking a review-less modern fusion restaurant or chancing your mate’s cousin’s band at the corner pub.”

“What a series, what a game, what a run chase, what a crick in the neck from repeatedly watching the ball sail through the Centurion skies,” writes Barney Ronay, as England chase down South Africa and the T20 series.

Media roundup

“The number of asylum seekers who arrive by plane has reached a new peak in a flashpoint over border control, leaving Australia with almost 50,000 people who are yet to be deported after having their claims rejected,” the Sydney Morning Herald reports. The ABC’s Four Corners reveals “a top Catholic boys’ school is facing accusations of a culture of cover-up, after revelations its principal and dean of sport gave references for a now-convicted child sex offender but gave no support for the student during the court process.” Backpackers are set to be granted special visas to help rebuild infrastructure destroyed in the bushfires, the Australian reports.

Coming up

The evacuees from Wuhan taken to Christmas Island over coronavirus fears are set to return to mainland Australia.

The federal court will hold an interlocutory hearing on a challenge to the deportation of one of the members of the Biloela family to Sri Lanka. The family are being held on Christmas Island.

A judgment is expected in the ABC’s challenge over AFP raids on its offices in Ultimo.

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