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The federal government is prepared to slap further travel bans on arrivals from overseas as health officials scramble to understand the seriousness of the new Omicron variant, with Australia’s borders already shut to non-citizens from nine southern African nations.
The Sunday Age and The Sun-Herald can reveal that several state and territory chief medical officers pushed for a temporary pause on all overseas arrivals during a meeting of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committees on Saturday.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt says Australia won’t hesitate to take further action in response to a new COVID-19 variant.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen
Two sources familiar with details of the AHPPC discussions said several state and territory medical officers expressed “significant concerns” about the fact that Australia’s recently reopened borders left the country exposed to the Omicron variant.
In a sign of how seriously authorities are taking the emergence of the Omicron variant, Mr Hunt said that even with 92.2 per cent of Australians over the age of 16 having had a first jab, the government “will be implementing additional precautionary border security measures in order to protect Australians whilst more is learnt about the nature and impact of the Omicron variant”.
There are no known cases of the Omicron strain Australia and fewer than 100 people have arrived from southern Africa since November 1.
Asked if the federal government could go further than the temporary suspension of flights from affected countries, Mr Hunt said “if more actions are required, we will not hesitate”.
“If the medical evidence shows that further actions are required, we will not hesitate to take them. And that may involve strengthening or expanding the restrictions.”
Federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese urged the Morrison government to go further and reintroduce a period of quarantine as soon as possible for “all relevant international visitors whilst an assessment of what the potential health impact of this variant will be”.
In reality, that could mean a much larger list of countries, including parts of Europe and North Asia.
“The precautionary principle should apply here,” he said.
All flights from nine southern African countries – South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique – have been suspended for two weeks.
WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus… the UN health agency has labelled Omicron a variant of concern.Credit:AP
Australians and permanent residents who have been to these countries within the last 14 days, or who are due to arrive, will be ordered into immediate supervised quarantine.
The restrictions will also apply to international students and skilled migrants arriving under travel bubble arrangements who have been in any of the nine countries within the past 14 days. In addition, anyone who has already arrived in Australia and who has been in any of the countries within the past 14 days must immediately isolate themselves and get tested.
The WHO’s Technical Advisory Group said overnight on Friday the Omicron had a large number of mutations that made it concerning, and that preliminary evidence suggested “an increased risk of reinfection” compared to the other variants of concern, including Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta.
“The number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in South Africa,” the group said in a statement.
“This variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage.”
Federal Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said health authorities were still gathering information about Omicron and that it was not yet clear if the strain was more severe or more resistant to vaccines.
“It’s the reason why we’re taking this precautionary approach, which is proportionate to that risk,” he said.
“We will find out much more in the coming days, and we’ll work from there. In terms of ruling in or out what else we might do, as their minister has clearly said, we will do what we need to do.”
University of Melbourne epidemiologist Tony Blakely said the federal government’s move on the nine nations was appropriate but “they will probably need to expand this list as the virus spreads around the world”.
“There are three things about this variant to worry about. One is its infectiousness, two is its virulence – how much mortality it causes – and three is its resistance to the vaccines we have,” he said.
“It certainly appears more infectious. We don’t know about two or three yet.”
Professor Blakely said the number of mutations in the Omicron variant – thought to be 32 – was a concern as it could mean the strain was more resistant to vaccines.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard told reporters on Saturday that Omicron appeared highly contagious
“That’s concerning for anyone in public health across the world. At this stage, on the early evidence, it is possibly even more transmissible [than Delta],” he said.
“It could be something which is going to cause us a degree of concern going forward. We don’t know if … any of the vaccines will work with the Omicron variant.”
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