Coronavirus crisis: No current plan to change re-opening date, despite new COVID variant

NSW and Victoria have tightened their quarantine requirements for overseas travellers as the Federal Government suspended flights from nine southern African nations amid global fears about the new COVID variant.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt announced on Saturday Australia had shut its borders to South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique for two weeks due to the Omicron variant.

A host of countries around the world have also banned flights from the nations.

But WA Premier Mark McGowan insisted the State was still on track to fully open its interstate and overseas borders early in the new year.

South African scientists identified the new variant this week, and it has now been detected in travellers to Belgium, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel. The World Health Organisation has named the variant “Omicron” after a letter in the Greek alphabet.

Non-Australians who have been to the countries where it has been detected cannot enter Australia. Anyone who has already arrived in Australia from one of the nine banned countries must isolate for 14 days.

And due to concerns over the new strain the NSW and Victorian governments announced on Saturday night that all overseas arrivals now have to isolate for 72 hours.

“There are no known cases of the Omicron variant in Australia,” Mr Hunt said. “We’ve taken precautionary action in the past, we’ve taken early action in the past. We are doing that again.”

The number of people who have arrived from southern African since November 1 is thought to be less than 100.

One of those travellers has tested positive in the Howard Springs quarantine camp in the NT and authorities are waiting for genomic sequencing to reveal which strain it is.

Meanwhile Mr McGowan, pictured below, announced on Saturday that WA had tightened its border with South Australia, upgrading the State to “low risk” after a rise in virus cases, meaning only approved double-vaccinated travellers can enter and must quarantine for 14 days.

The Premier said there was a great deal of uncertainty about the Omicron variant and it was important WA had strong protections in place for States that had relaxed their international borders. He added that at this stage the reopening plan had not changed. “Obviously we will continue to monitor very closely the new variant,” Mr McGowan said.

“The World Health Organisation is very concerned. One, that it is far more transmissible, and two, that it could have more severe impacts. So, we have to see what occurs around the world and when it arrives in Australia — and make sure we do everything we can to keep people safe.”

The WHO has said Omicron has a large number of mutations, and early evidence suggests it carries an increased re-infection risk.

News Gaffer