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The Australian and international news stories you need to know today, Thursday January 21.

Biden sworn in as 46th US president without a hitch, mandating masks as his first order of business. 

Democrat Joe Biden has been sworn in as President of the United States, vowing to end the "uncivil war" in a deeply divided country reeling from a battered economy and a raging coronavirus pandemic.

With his hand on a 12cm-thick heirloom Bible that has been in his family for more than a century, Biden took the oath of office administered by US Chief Justice John Roberts that binds the president to "preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States".

Biden has been sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. Image: Getty.

"Through a crucible for the ages, America has been tested anew, and America has risen to the challenge," Biden said in his inaugural address.

"Today we celebrate the triumph not of a candidate but of a cause: the cause of democracy... At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed."

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Biden, 78, became the oldest US president in history at a scaled-back ceremony in Washington DC that was largely stripped of its usual pomp and circumstance, due both to the coronavirus and security concerns following the January 6 assault on the Capitol by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump.

Top Republicans, including Vice President Mike Pence and the party's congressional leaders, attended Biden's inauguration, along with former US presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Biden's running mate, Kamala Harris, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, became the first black person, first woman and first Asian American to serve as vice president after she was sworn in by US Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the court's first Latina member.

Biden takes office at a time of deep unease, with the country facing what his advisers have described as four compounding crises: the pandemic, the economic downtown, climate change and racial inequality.

President Joe Biden, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Douglas Emhoff, husband of U.S. Vice President Harris, attend a Pass in Review ceremony, hosted by the Joint Task Force-National Capital Region on the East Front of the U.S. Capitol after the 59th Presidential Inauguration on January 20, 2021 in Washington, DC. Image: Getty.

He has promised immediate action, including a raft of executive orders on his first day in office.

In his first official act as president, Biden signed an executive order, mandating masks.

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After a bitter campaign marked by Trump's allegations of election fraud, Biden struck a conciliatory tone, asking those who did not vote for him to give him a chance to be their president as well.

"To overcome these challenges to restore the soul and secure the future of America requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity," he said.

"We must end this uncivil war that pits red against blue, rural versus urban, conservative versus liberal. We can do this - if we open our souls instead of hardening our hearts."

Instead of a throng of supporters, the National Mall on Wednesday was covered by nearly 200,000 flags and 56 pillars of light meant to represent people from US states and territories.

Performers included Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez, and Amanda Gorman has become the youngest inaugural poet in US history at the age of just 22, delivering her poem "The Hill We Climb".

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Trump skips inauguration, hints of return.

The norm-defying Trump flouted one last convention on his way out of the White House when he refused to meet with Biden or attend his successor's inauguration, breaking with a political tradition seen as affirming the peaceful transfer of power.

He is the first president to snub his successor's inauguration since 1869.

Trump did not mention Biden by name in his final remarks as president on Wednesday morning - before boarding Air Force One for the last time and headed to his Mar-a-Lago retreat in Florida.

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"It is my greatest honour and privilege to have been your president," Trump said at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland after leaving the White House for the last time.

"I wish the new administration great luck and great success. I think they'll have great success, they have the foundation to do something really spectacular."

Trump told his cheering, chanting supporters that he'll be watching and listening from a distance.

"So just a goodbye. We love you," he said. "We will be back in some form."

US President Donald Trump has followed at least one presidential tradition.

The White House says the Republican president left behind a note for his successor. But deputy press secretary Judd Deere declined to reveal what Trump wrote to Biden or to characterise the sentiment in the note, citing privacy for communication between presidents.

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Pence applauds Harris at inauguration.

Outgoing US Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen have attended the inauguration of new President Joe Biden after skipping both a farewell ceremony for Donald Trump and the usual protocol of welcoming his successor to his home at the Naval Observatory.

Pence, whom some of Trump's supporters during the deadly January 6 assault on the US Capitol had threatened to hang for refusing to try to overturn Biden's Electoral College win in Congress, applauded the next vice president, Kamala Harris, as she arrived at the US Capitol.

The couple plans to move back to Indiana later this year.

Pence was a loyal lieutenant throughout Trump's four-year term. But he found himself shunned by the outgoing president for days for not supporting his quest to overturn Biden's victory based on claims of voting fraud and irregularities, although the two men sought to repair their ties before leaving office.

Pence spoke with Harris last Thursday, marking the highest-level known contact between the outgoing and incoming administrations.

UK records deadliest day of pandemic.

The UK has recorded its deadliest day in the coronavirus pandemic, as the nation's chief scientist warns parts of the nation's health system are like a "war zone".

Official figures showed January 12 had the highest number of deaths recorded on a single day, with 1110 COVID-19 fatalities, eclipsing the previous peak of 1073 on April 8, 2020.

A record 1820 further deaths within 28 days of testing positive for COVID-19 were also reported on Wednesday, although there is a time lag between a patient dying and appearing in the statistics.

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The grim statistics appeared as authorities gave a stark warning about the strain the pandemic was putting on UK hospitals.

"This is very, very bad at the moment, with enormous pressure, and in some cases it looks like a war zone in terms of the things that people are having to deal with," Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance said.

There was "light at the end of the tunnel" in the form of the vaccination programme, which has so far helped 4,609,740 people receive a first jab.

But Sir Patrick warned that vaccines were not doing enough of the "heavy lifting" at the moment to consider easing lockdown restrictions in Britain.

"You go for a walk in the park or something, life looks normal. You go for a walk in a hospital, if you work in a hospital, you will see life not looking normal at all," he told Sky News.

Australian leaders told to solve virus border battles.

Australia's leaders are again being urged to develop a uniform approach to domestic border rules, nearly one year into the coronavirus pandemic.

No areas of Australia qualify as a COVID-19 hotspot under the federal government's definition after it was lifted for Sydney's Northern Beaches last week.

The Commonwealth's hotspot definition is met when there is an average of 10 coronavirus cases a day over three days in metropolitan areas, and three a day in regional parts of Australia.

There have been no cases of local transmission of the virus across the country for three days.

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But some Sydney residents still can't travel to Queensland and Victoria, while Western Australia continues to keep up its border with all of NSW.

While Australians seek consistency and clarity on domestic travel, state leaders have this week traded barbs over their differing approaches to the virus.

The issue will be canvassed at Friday's national cabinet meeting of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and state and territory leaders.

A group of NSW and Victorian MPs have written to him urging that the meeting adopt a uniform policy on border closures and compensate affected businesses.

Djokovic hits back at his Open critics.

World No.1 Novak Djokovic insists he was not being "selfish, difficult and ungrateful" in speaking out about quarantine conditions for players ahead of the Australian Open.

Ten people who have flown to Melbourne for the first grand slam of the year have tested positive for coronavirus, resulting in 72 players being confined to their rooms.

Djokovic is part of a group of top players enjoying better conditions while quarantining in Adelaide, but the 33-year-old said he had felt obliged to use his "hard-earned" privileges to make suggestions to tournament director Craig Tiley on how to improve conditions for players in Melbourne.

In a long social media post, Djokovic, who has been criticised widely, wrote: "My good intentions for my fellow competitors in Melbourne have been misconstrued as being selfish, difficult and ungrateful. This couldn't be farther from the truth.

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"I genuinely care about my fellow players and I also understand very well how the world is run and who gets bigger and better and why.

"I've earned my privileges the hard way and for that reason it is very difficult for me to be a mere onlooker knowing how much every help, gesture and good word mattered to me when I was small and insignificant in the world pecking order.

"Hence I use my position of privilege to be of service as much as I can where and when needed."

SA braces for severe bushfire conditions.

Severe bushfire conditions have been declared across six South Australian districts with hot to very hot conditions forecast across the state.

The warnings apply to the west coast, Eastern Eyre Peninsula, mid north, Mount Lofty Ranges, Yorke Peninsula and lower southeast.

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The Country Fire Service says total fire bans will be in place for those regions on Thursday.

Adelaide is forecast to have a top temperature of 35C with the mercury to climb into the low 40s in some regional centres.

Assange, Joe Exotic among those to miss out on Trump's 143 last minute pardons.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is not among a round of pardons which US President Donald Trump has issued in his final hours in office.

President Trump pardoned or commuted the sentences of 143 people early on Wednesday, just hours before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden.

Assange's supporters had hoped Trump would pardon the Australian but he did not make the list.

Among the prominent names to have received a presidential pardon is Trump's former strategist Steve Bannon, US rapper Lil Wayne and Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy.

Joe Exotic's lawyers were so confident he would be on Trump's pardon list they even hired a limo to pick him up from prison in Texas.

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According to David Gray Adler, a US constitutional law scholar and president of the pro-democracy, non-profit organisation The Alturas Institute, Trump effectively lost the ability to pardon himself when he was impeached for a second time earlier this month.

Around the world.

- Russia has offered to extend the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty following Biden's inauguration, which is due to expire in February.

- An explosion in Spain has rocked the city centre of Madrid, claiming at least three lives.

- With AAP

Feature image: Getty.

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