Morning mail: Melbourne businesses’ Omicron woes, Prince Andrew fails …

Good morning. The true picture of Omicron’s spread in Australia is becoming clearer as New South Wales joins other states in recording rapid tests results, Prince Andrew fails in his bid to have a sexual abuse lawsuit dismissed, and Novak Djokovic faces serious consequences for his actions after testing positive for Covid in December.

The Omicron wave has been more damaging for business than lockdown, Melbourne business owners have calculated, with the absence of state or federal sustain exacerbating Covid-related staff shortages. On the retail and hospitality strip Chapel Street, 35% of the 2,200 staff employed have lost shifts while either sick or isolating, prompting business owners to call for a return of the $750-a-week disaster payments. Across the nation, businesses are temporarily closing as food shortages continue and music festivals are cancelled. Aged care providers have said family members have been providing basic care sets due to staff shortages, with Covid outbreaks in at the minimum 495 facilities nationally. Rates of hospitalisation have hit record highs, prompting doctors to encourage mild symptom sufferers to keep at home. It comes as NSW prepares for a huge jump in its Covid figures, with more than 50,000 positive rapid tests already registered after the online system was launched yesterday.

Prince Andrew faces a damaging, high-profile court case, after a New York estimate quashed his lawyers’ attempts to have Virginia Giuffre’s sexual abuse lawsuit against him thrown out. The Duke of York’s legal team had attempted to argue that a 2009 settlement between Giuffre and Jeffrey Epstein shielded the duke from the lawsuit, but estimate Lewis Kaplan ruled the case against the prince could proceed. Analysts say it’s “a devastating blow” for the Duke of York, and by association, the royal family. Prince Andrew faces giving evidence and undergoing cross-examination over his association with convicted sex trafficker Ghislaine Maxwell and sex offender Epstein, unless an out-of-court settlement is reached.

Novak Djokovic could confront a fine or already prison in Serbia after his admission that he broke isolation while he had Covid last month, lawyers have said. The world No 1 male tennis player is nevertheless waiting for the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, to decide whether to deport him. Djokovic on Wednesday acknowledged that he attended a newspaper interview and photoshoot in Belgrade on 18 December, just after he was alerted to his positive Covid test. The player also blamed “human error” by his sustain team for a mistake in his immigration paperwork, in a statement which has raised further questions. Lawyers in Serbia told local reporters that breaking the country’s strict isolation rules was an offence and unprotected to a fine or prison sentence of up to three years – although community service was more likely.

Australia

Michaelia Cash during a debate in the Australian Senate
Michaelia Cash’s department says the religious discrimination bill does not affect the operation of the Sex Discrimination Act but that it ‘would allow a religious school to consider a person’s religious beliefs about issues such as sexuality’. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

Michaelia Cash’s department has defended religious schools’ right to sack teachers for their views on sexuality and appeared to confirm that safeguards for gay students will be delayed until after the religious discrimination bill.

Former MP Tony Windsor has backed the request by traditional owners that the New South Wales government protect holy sites on land sold back to farmers after a campaign by the Gomeroi people prevented Chinese mining company Shenhua from mining the character.

A Perth magistrate has thrown out a case against an Extinction Rebellion activist, charged with aiding and abetting activists who used washable chalk to write messages on a suburban bridge. Human Rights Watch called the actions of police in the case “excessive and overzealous”.

The world

Boris Johnson has apologised for attending a lockdown-busting party in Downing Street in May 2020, claiming he believed it was a “work event”.
Boris Johnson has apologised for attending a lockdown-busting party in Downing Street in May 2020, claiming he believed it was a “work event”. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images

Boris Johnson is facing calls from his own party to step down as UK chief minister, after he admitted, via a carefully worded statement, to having attended a Downing Street party during lockdown, believing it was a “work event”.

Nato’s secretary general has warned of “a real risk for a new armed conflict in Europe”, after talks between Russian, US, and Nato delegates ending without progress over the Ukraine crisis. EU dignitaries meanwhile have complained of being “deliberately excluded” from the talks.

An 80-year-old Palestinian man, detained and handcuffed during an Israeli raid, has been found dead. The body of Omar Abdalmajeed As’ad was found with a plastic zip-tie nevertheless around one wrist, but the Israeli military says he was alive when their soldiers released him.

Recommended reads

Nicolaes Maes' painting, the Account Keeper
‘Helping people make better choices is often more about kindling their imagination than force-altering their behaviour.’ Photograph: Alamy

“It’s almost impossible to crowbar other people into doing what we think they should.” Faced with three people locked into “or else” propositions, advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith recommends turning the other cheek. “Sometimes the parts of our lives we mess up in are the ones where we never thought we could do well: ‘I’m just like this.’ It takes real energy and self possession to break irresponsible habits – I surprise if hearing ‘you are up to this task’ might fuel him more than ‘you aren’t and you should be’”.

“When covering the economy at the moment, it is best to remember the old joke that if you’re not confused, it is because you’re not paying attention.” Between the pandemic madness, historic trend disruption, and partisan spin, it’s hard to make top or tail of most present economic indicators, Greg Jericho explains. “So how is the economy going? In reality we don’t really know – nothing is as it usually is, nor as we can expect it to be in the future.”

“Amid a flurry of data breaches, password leaks and Malware text scams last year, many of us have become more aware of the need to obtain our digital information.” So how to navigate endless, monotonous requests for rare alphabetical and numerical combinations? As Rafqa Touma writes, it’s time to embrace the era of the password manager: “the trusty vault of codes long forgotten”.

As Feather Thompson recounts, when her husband Merv’s distributed ashes kept washing back in at the beach “it was clear [he] didn’t want to go.” A sailor, and Thompson’s companion of 60 years, connection with the sea always brought back fond memories of Merv, she tells Christine Retschlag.

Listen

Revisited: the regent honeyeater’s quest for love. With only a few hundred left in the wild, researchers made a startling discovery about the regent honeyeater – it was mimicking other birds, but had forgotten its own song. On this episode of complete Story, ecosystem reporter Graham Readfearn examines the campaign to help them sing again.

complete Story

Revisited: Could bringing back its love song save one of Australia’s rarest songbirds?

complete Story is Guardian Australia’s daily news podcast. Subscribe for free on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or any other podcasting app.

Sport

Mitchell Starc bowls during an Australian net session
Mitchell Starc has 52 day-night Test wickets but has only once before managed to make it though a five-match Test series. Photograph: Steve Bell/Getty Images

It’s been a bruising Ashes schedule in which the walking wounded almost outnumber the fit. But as numerous Australians and Englishmen await nervous selection chats, as Geoff Lemon writes, headaches over Mitchell Starc’s selection rule the line.

The African Cup of Nations has been engulfed by farce, with a Zambian referee incorrectly blowing complete-time on a match between Tunisia and Mali, twice. Tunisia’s coach claims his players were already in post-match ice baths before being recalled to the pitch.

Media roundup

Archaeologists have handed down a scathing assessment of the heritage report filed as part of a $1bn proposal to raise the wall of Warragamba Dam, the Sydney Morning Herald reports, calling the work “manifestly inadequate” in meeting Aboriginal heritage expectations. A permanent relaxation of visa regulations will allow 400,000 foreign students to work additional hours, according to the Financial Review. The move is designed to help ease Covid-19 related labour shortages. And, the mastermind behind an alleged $150m phone text scam in the US has pleaded guilty as part of a plea deal that could see him serve his jail time in Australia, the West Australian writes.

Coming up

The draw for the Australian Open will be conducted on Thursday at 3pm, AEDT.

The religious discrimination bill will go before a public hearing of the human rights committee.

And if you’ve read this far …

What’s the worst moment during a blind date you can remember? For one woman in China, a break decision for the city of Zhengzhou to go into lockdown has meant her date has not however ended. And while her daily video diaries have become viral sensations, the additional time together hasn’t seen love bloom, with the woman, Wang, describing her would-be paramour as “as mute as a wooden mannequin”, and his cooking skills as “average”.

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