Australia leaders to meet amid Omicron sub-variant concerns, flood damage

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SYDNEY, March 11 (Reuters) - Australia's national cabinet will meet on Friday against a backdrop of concerns about the spread of the new sub-variant of the Omicron strain of the coronavirus, while eastern states battle to clear tonnes of debris after devastating floods.

COVID-19 infections and hospital admissions have declined over the past few weeks but authorities have flagged the BA.2 sub-variant was becoming the dominant Omicron variant in New South Wales (NSW), Australia's most populous state.

Daily cases in NSW could more than double in six weeks from around 15,000 currently, state Health Minister Brad Hazzard told a budget estimates hearing on Thursday.

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The World Health Organization said last month that the BA.2 variant appears to be more transmissible than the original BA.1 sub-variant, based on initial data.

The federal government on Friday said it would invest A$2.1 billion ($1.55 billion) to buy vaccines and protective kits, and subsidise rapid antigen tests to manage COVID-19 and flu ahead of the southern hemisphere winter amid concerns of co-circulation of both viruses as social distancing rules end.

The national cabinet - a group of federal and state leaders - will also assess the damage from floods in Queensland and NSW after relentless rains over recent weeks cut off towns and swept away farms, livestock and roads. read more

The floods are expected to dominate the political agenda in the east ahead of a national election before May, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison fielding criticism over slow relief efforts and about why the country was caught flat-footed.

Morrison, trailing in polls, on Wednesday declared the floods a national emergency. read more

As floodwaters recede, rescue teams, including defence force personnel, accelerated clean-up efforts but struggled to clear tonnes of waste and find temporary housing for survivors.

"We've around 4,000 tonnes every day of debris being collected. This is a massive operation, it will take weeks and months," NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet told Channel Nine.

($1 = 1.3587 Australian dollars)

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Reporting by Renju Jose; Editing by Stephen Coates

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