Australia will stay closed for another two weeks as plans to allow in thousands of skilled workers, students, and refugees are setback due to the Omicron Covid variant.
The federal government’s national security committee decided on Monday to postpone the reopening of international borders from Wednesday as planned until December 15.
A travel bubble with Japan and Korea which was also due to kick off this week has also been pushed back until that date.
‘The temporary pause will ensure Australia can gather the information we need to better understand the Omicron variant,’ Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in a statement on Monday.
‘[This includes] the efficacy of the vaccine, the range of illness, including if it may generate more mild symptoms, and the level of transmission.’
Travellers in personal protective equipment load luggage into a taxi outside the international terminal at Sydney Airport on Monday, as countries react to the new coronavirus Omicron variant amid the coronavirus disease
Australia’s borders are already closed to international travellers except fully-vaccinated Australians, permanent residents and immediate family, as well as green lane travellers from New Zealand and Singapore.
The announcement comes after Australia’s cases of the new South African variant grew to five on Monday after two more travellers tested positive in Sydney.
The two new cases arrived in Sydney from southern Africa on Singapore Airlines flight SQ211 on Sunday night.
NSW Health said they were both fully vaccinated and isolating in the special health accommodation.
Everyone on the flight has been deemed a close contact and will need to get tested and isolate for 14 days.
There are now five cases of the super-mutant South Africa strain in Australia after the two travellers tested positive in Sydney as well as a man at a quarantine facility in the Northern Territory.
The first Omicron cases touched down in Sydney on Saturday on Qatar Airways flight from Doha, before genomic testing confirmed on Sunday the two travellers had the new variant.
The World Health Organization declared Omicron a ‘variant of concern’ quicker than it did with other variants
Omicron highlights the need to boost vaccination in poorer parts of the world such as Africa
Experts say mask wearing, social distancing and better ventilation will help prevent all variants of Covid-19, including Omicron
Both were fully-vaccinated and were placed into special health accommodation.
The third case, a man who arrived at Howards Springs quarantine on a repatriation flight from Johannesburg, tested positive for the new strain earlier today.
All of five cases were asymptomatic and detected in hotel quarantine.
As authorities scrabble to determine the severity of the new strain, NSW, Victoria, and the ACT temporarily re-imposed a 72-hour self-isolation requirement for all international arrivals.
Under new federal restrictions, incoming international travellers who have been in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini, Malawi, and the Seychelles in the past 14 days must undergo two weeks hotel quarantine.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said 141 people have come to the state from the nine countries of concern over the past 24 hours, and all have been sent to hotel quarantine for 14 days.
Although he has ordered all international arrivals to quarantine at home for 72 hours, Mr Perrottet insisted the NSW international and state borders would remain open.
‘Ultimately we need to open up to the world (and) we need to do so safely,’ he told reporters on Monday.
‘We don’t need to have a knee-jerk reaction, we need to have a proportionate and balanced response to the situation that’s in front of us.’
‘The responses should not be ”Let’s shut down”.’
The latest infections bring the number of Omicron cases in Australia to five after two Sydney travellers and a man in the NT tested positive. Pictured: travellers undergo Covid tests at the pre-departure testing facility at Sydney airport on Monday
Mr Perrottet also stressed NSW was better equipped to confront new variants.
‘We’ve got to learn to live alongside the variants of the virus that come our way,’ he said.
‘And the vaccination rate here is one of the highest in the world.
‘That is not the case in the southern African nations.’
The premier has said there are no plans to adjust the state’s reopening roadmap, which has restrictions easing for the unvaccinated on December 15.
However, restrictions will be tailored in response to the variant if needed, he said.
NSW recorded 150 new locally-acquired Covid cases on Monday, and no new deaths for the fifth consecutive day.
Hospitals are treating 170 patients, five more than the previous day, including 25 people in intensive care. Ten require ventilation.
Some 92.4 per cent of NSW residents over 16 are now fully vaccinated, while 94.5 per cent have received one dose.
Of those aged 12 to 15, 81.3 per cent have received one jab and 76.5 per cent both.
The latest virus mutation, first detected in South Africa, sparked concerns around the globe amid fears it is more transmissible than world’s most contagious and dominant strain, Delta.
Early indications suggest the new Omicron variant may spread faster but is not as severe, with patients in South Africa only suffering mild illness.
This has led to speculation that it could replace Delta as the dominant strain and potentially provide those it infects with an immunity boost ahead of any more severe strains in the future.
During a press conference on Monday Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly was asked: ‘What’s your view of the idea that a mild version of Covid that spreads rapidly could contribute to immunity, top-up people’s ability to stave off maybe more severe versions of the virus?’
Professor Kelly replied: ‘I think this morning in my media interviews I said that would be my number one Christmas present. And it would be, if that was how it ended up.’
Giving hope that Australians will be able to enjoy Christmas without the threat of further restrictions, he said: ‘That would be certainly a very interesting change and a positive one.’
Greg Hunt has ordered Australia’s vaccine experts to review the timeframe for booster shots in light of the Omicron variant. Pictured: Prime Minister Scott Morrison gets his booster shot in Sydney on November 19
However, Professor Kelly said more data was needed before scientists can definitely say the strain is less severe.
‘But I just really say very clearly we’re not in that position yet to make that statement, that that’s definitely how it’s gonna end up. But hope for the best and plan for other things,’ he said.
The Omicron variant was identified in South Africa on November 11 and has since spread to countries around the world including the UK, the US and Australia.
Amid fears it could make vaccines less effective, Australia shut its borders to nine nations in southern Africa on Saturday.
Health Minister Greg Hunt has ordered Australia’s vaccine experts to review the timeframe for Covid-19 booster shots in light of the African Omicron variant.
Boosters are currently handed out six months after the second dose but the gap could be shortened to maximise protection against the new mutant strain which is believed to be at least as contagious as the Delta strain.
Speaking to reporters on Monday morning, the Health Minister said: ‘I have asked ATAGI to review the booster time frames in light of international evidence more generally with regards to immunity and also in light of the Omicron variant.
‘And we will, as ever, allow them to act independently and continue to follow their advice. But we’re prepared with supplies.’
Mr Hunt was asked if the timeframe would be reduced to four months after the second dose but said: ‘I wouldn’t speculate on any timeframes.’
He also said he has spoken to Pfizer and Moderna bosses about the companies’ plans to create variant-specific booster shots which could be ready in 100 days, according to Pfizer.
The pharmaceutical giant said it would know in two weeks how well its existing jab works to fight Omicron.
Professor Paul Kelly has revealed it would be his ‘Christmas present’ for a more contagious but less severe Covid-19 variant to rip through Australia. Pictured: Revellers at Christmas last year in Sydney
The Prime Minister has insisted there is no reason for panic yet over the new strain, saying there was no evidence the current vaccines were not effective against Omicron as he prepared for an emergency meeting of national cabinet expected on Tuesday.
‘Of course it is concerning, and that is why we’re getting all the information we possibly can,’ Mr Morrison said.
‘We are not in the situation we were in back in the first half of 2020. We have 86.7 per cent of the population vaccinated.
‘We have already had 13 other strains which have presented. This isn’t the first of the new strains we have seen, and the evidence to date does not suggest it is a more severe form of the virus.
‘On issues of transmissibility and impact on vaccine, there is no evidence yet to suggest there are issues there.’
Meanwhile, Victorian health authorities are also investigating whether a potential NSW Omicron case could have infected anyone there while on a trip to Victoria.
Government sources said the Victorian Government was considering extending quarantine and reintroducing mask mandates in some settings.
NSW Jobs Minister Stuart Ayres announced on Sunday the state government was prepared to clamp down on travellers arriving from overseas.
‘We will take the necessary measures, including restarting quarantine if required, to protect our community and our economy,’ he said.
A government source said work was underway to restore hotel quarantine if required, but the preferred option will be home isolation unless the strain was deemed extremely severe.
WA Premier Mark McGowan on Saturday evening shut his state’s borders to South Australia in a draconian effort to lock out the mutant new strain, as it allows in visitors from NSW and Victoria.
The ruling means only vaccinated South Australians can enter WA, where they must immediately go into quarantine for 14 days.
South Australia also tightened its border rules following the emergence of the Omicron variant.
All international travellers and people arriving in SA from high-risk locations in Australia will once again be required to quarantine for 14 days.
Meanwhile, Queensland authorities said they were unable to guarantee the state’s border would reopen once 80 per cent of the state’s population was vaccinated as planned, in light of the emerging health threat.
Deputy premier Steven Miles said the state would be taking a cautious approach before implementing any new restrictions.
‘As they always do, the health officials are monitoring issues around the world and if that should affect things here,’ he said. ‘Nothing has changed at this moment.’
After the latest Omicron cases were announced on Monday, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk issued a statement about the unfolding health situation, vowing to ‘continue doing everything we can to keep Queenslanders safe’.
‘Tomorrow I’ll attend National Cabinet for an update on the new variant Omicron,’ she Tweeted.
‘The 14-day hotel quarantine in place for international arrivals is a safeguard we have in place here in Queensland.
Ms Palaszczuk said the first stage of the Wellcamp quarantine facility being built in the state is due to be ready by the end of the year.
‘I’ll keep you updated when we know more. In the meantime, now is the time to get the vaccine,’ she said.
What do we know about the Omicron variant?
Scientists have said they are concerned about the B.1.1.529 variant, named by the World Health Organisation as Omicron, as it has around 30 different mutations – double the amount present in the Delta variant.
The mutations contain features seen in all of the other variants but also traits that have not been seen before.
UK scientists first became aware of the new strain on November 23 after samples were uploaded on to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana.
On Friday, it was confirmed that cases had been identified in Israel and Belgium but currently there are no known cases in the UK.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told Good Morning Britain on Friday that sequencing is being carried out around the UK to determine if any cases have already been imported.
Work is also under way to see whether the new variant may be causing new infection in people who have already had coronavirus or a vaccine, or whether waning immunity may be playing a role.
Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford, has said the new variant will ‘almost certainly’ make vaccines less effective, though they would still offer protection.
Pfizer/BioNTech, which has produced a vaccine against Covid-19, is already studying the new variant’s ability to evade vaccines.