The Australian and international news stories you need to know today, Tuesday December 21.

Christmas stress as outbreak increases, pre-travel rush strains testing sites.

The NSW premier is striking a confident note in the lead up to Christmas by insisting the state will lead the country out of the pandemic despite the Omicron-fuelled surge in COVID-19 cases.

NSW Health is urging people to keep wearing masks indoors and a chorus of health experts is calling for a return to mask mandates indoors, as nervous people cancel or reconsider summer holiday travel plans.

But a week after mask requirements were removed for all but the highest risk settings, the premier Dominic Perrott says it's time for "personal responsibility".

"We are treating the people of our state like adults."

Meanwhile, there are long queues at testing facilities as people seek reassurance they won't be in isolation for Christmas and pharmacies and shops are running out of Rapid Antigen Tests.

NSW recorded 2501 COVID-19 cases in the 24 hours until 8pm on Sunday. There are 261 patients in hospital - up from 227 - and 33 people are in ICU, an increase of five. 

Of the 33 people in ICU, 26 are unvaccinated.

Victoria is also struggling to meet surging pre-Christmas demand for COVID-19 testing, as long wait times and closures frustrate residents. 

At least 10 testing sites across the city were temporarily shut at 9am on Monday after reaching capacity.

Victoria reported 1302 new COVID-19 cases and zero deaths on Monday - the state's first day without adding a COVID-related fatality since September 16.

A further 13 Omicron cases have been discovered, taking Victoria's total to 37. Of those infections, 23 were acquired overseas and 14 in Australia.


A total of 406 patients are in hospital, 81 of whom are actively infected with the virus in intensive care and 43 on ventilators.

The seven-day hospitalisation average has risen by seven to 387.

A survey commissioned by the Tourism & Transport Forum has found four out of five Australians have now either cancelled or are undecided over their summer holiday travel plans, while one in two have no confidence in travelling interstate.

CEO Margy Osmond said the national survey of 1500 people revealed the concerns of three-in-10 Australians had increased following the emergence of Omicron, with the same number either cancelling or postponing their travel plans.

Seven out of 10 are waiting for more information before making a decision.

Religious freedom laws go under microscope in inquiry.

Faith groups, LGBTQI+ advocates and legal experts will all front a contentious inquiry into proposed religious discrimination laws.

A parliamentary committee on human rights will hold its first hearing as the federal government says it remains committed to legislating protections for Australians with religious beliefs.

The eight-and-a-half hour hearing is due to be fronted by organisations including the Australian Discrimination Law Experts Group, Australian Christian Lobby, Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, Equality Australia and the Human Rights Law Alliance.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash is spearheading the government's push for stronger religious freedom laws, but the legislation has received opposition from other Liberals worried about children being expelled from schools because of their sexuality.


A handful of moderate Liberal MPs secured a concession from Prime Minister Scott Morrison on changes to the Sex Discrimination Act that gave religious schools an exemption to discriminate against students and teachers on certain grounds. 

But Senator Cash muddied the water by telling a Christian lobby group webinar the Morrison government supports religious schools and organisations maintaining exemptions under the act.

A handful of MPs have reserved their right to withhold their vote or cross the floor and vote against the government's legislation if the concessions are not adhered to.

Ghislaine Maxwell trial draws to an end.

The closing of the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell has seen a prosecutor labelling her a dangerous and sophisticated predator while a defence lawyer told jurors she was an "innocent woman."

Assistant US Attorney Alison Moe said Jeffrey Epstein could not have preyed on teenage girls for more than a decade without the help of the British socialite, who she described as the "lady of the house" as Epstein abused girls at a New York mansion, a Florida estate and a New Mexico ranch.

"Ghislaine Maxwell was dangerous," Moe told jurors on Monday, saying Maxwell accepted over $30 million from Epstein over the years. "Maxwell and Epstein committed horrifying crimes."

Defence lawyer Laura Menninger said prosecutors had failed to prove any charges beyond a reasonable doubt.

"Ghislaine Maxwell is an innocent woman, wrongfully accused of crimes she did not commit," Menninger said.


The summations came at the start of the fourth week of a trial that was originally projected to last six weeks. With a coronavirus outbreak in New York worsening by the day and a holiday weekend ahead, Judge Alison J. Nathan urged lawyers to keep their closings tight so the jury could begin deliberating as early as Monday.

The closings came after two dozen prosecution witnesses testified, including four women who say they were abused by Epstein with the help of Maxwell when they were teenagers.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home. 

WTA still concerned over Peng retraction.

The Women's Tennis Association (WTA) says it remains concerned for the welfare of Chinese player Peng Shuai after she appeared to retract claims she had been sexually assaulted.

In a video interview with Singapore's Chinese-language outlet Lianhe Zaobao on Sunday, Peng said there had been many "misunderstandings" following her social media post in November in which she had appeared to accuse a former Chinese vice premier of sexual assault.

"I have never said or written that anyone sexually assaulted me," she was quoted as saying in the interview.

But the WTA, which has suspended tournaments in China after Peng's post was deleted and she was not seen in public for weeks, is worried she is being coerced to retract her allegations.

"We remain steadfast in our call for a full, fair and transparent investigation," the body said on Monday, adding that it was at least good to see the 35-year-old in public again.

If this post brings up any issues for you, or if you just feel like you need to speak to someone, please call 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732) – the national sexual assault, domestic and family violence counselling service. It doesn’t matter where you live, they will take your call and, if need be, refer you to a service closer to home. 

Around the world.

- Queen Elizabeth will celebrate Christmas at Windsor instead of her usual choice of Sandringham, a palace source said on Monday, as a precaution with the Omicron variant continuing to spread rapidly.

- British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not excluded the possibility of further restrictions, including banning socialising and limiting tourism, as the UK struggles to contain the Omicron variant

-With AAP.

Feature image: Getty.