Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he ‘fully supports’ the move by New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT to make all overseas arrivals go into isolation as authorities scramble to contain the threat posed by the super-contagious Omicron strain of Covid-19.
But Dr Paul Griffin, Director of Infectious Diseases at Mater Health in Brisbane, said it was still too early to judge the risks of Omicron.
‘I don’t think we’re back to square one. I mean, I think a lot of us thought this is what this virus is going to keep doing, going to keep evolving and we are going to keep finding new variants,’ he told ABC.
Three arrivals to Australia on flights from Africa have tested positive for Covid, prompting urgent analysis of their samples amid fears they could be carrying the Omicron strain.
Scott Morrison (pictured centre) says he ‘fully supports’ the move by NSW, Victoria and the ACT to make all overseas arrivals go into isolation as authorities scramble to contain the threat posed by the Omicron strain of Covid-19 .
Two of the passengers arrived into Sydney from Doha on Saturday and one into the Northern Territory on a repatriation flight from South Africa on Thursday.
‘The very serious issues regarding the new variant have been moving quickly,’ said Mr Morrison.
‘We took strong action yesterday. I had good discussions with the premiers in New South Wales and Victoria, and fully support the actions they are taking.’
Mr Morrison continued: ‘It is a fast moving issue but we will continue, as we always have, sensible, balanced, guided by the best possible medical evidence and medical expert advice.
‘That is what has enabled Australia to be so successful throughout the Covid [pandemic] to be safe and to remain open.’
The Prime Minister urged people to get vaccinated against the pandemic. ‘I want to encourage it and if you’ve already had your vaccine, your second dose and it is six months, please go and get your booster shots.
‘Booster shots are very important to ensure Australia is in as strong a position as we can to deal with these sorts of issues. This is not like it was back in February and March and 2020,’ he said.
Three cases of Covid in arrivals from southern Africa are being tested to see if they are the Omicron strain
Mr Morrison added that the government now has good advice on Covid. ‘The uncertainties are not like they used to be.
‘We have good systems which have been proven which is demonstrated by one of the lowest fatality rates, strongest economies and highest vaccination rate in the world.’
He said the Australian people and the government has worked ‘to open safely and remain safely open’.
NSW recorded 185 new Covid-19 on Sunday morning, while Victoria recorded 1,061 new cases and four deaths.
Australia has closed its border to nine nations in southern Africa, which is the source of Omicron, and anyone who has already arrived from those countries must immediately undergo 14 days quarantine.
Passengers disembark off a Qantas flight after landing at Sydney Airport. Three arrivals to Australia on flights from Africa have tested positive for Covid, prompting urgent analysis of their samples amid fears they could be carrying the Omicron strain.
New South Wales, Victoria and ACT have gone further and announced that arrivals from any overseas country must now self-isolate for 72 hours and get tested on arrival.
The two people who tested Covid positive arrived in Sydney on a Qatar Airways flight from Doha on Saturday night, just five hours before the midnight closure of the border, and it was not yet known whether their strain of the virus was the new Omicron version or the now common Delta strain.
The Minister for Health, Greg Hunt said the government will not hesitate if more needs to be done to combat the Omicron strain.
‘Overnight international evidence came in and we took the immediate steps yesterday and will continue to do that to protect Australians,’ he said.
‘Yesterday, there were over 3,800 passengers who arrived in Australia … 54 were from southern Africa.
‘They had been there and identified in the previous 14 days across the nine countries and what we are pleased to see is that all of the orders that were issued yesterday had been put in place, actions had been taken, Border Force is implementing in states and territories and public health is supporting.’
The Northern Territory authorities as yet have no genomic sequencing in relation to the passenger’s infection strain, NT Health Minister Natasha Fyles said.
But the person has been in supervised quarantine at the national Howard Springs facility, south of Darwin, since arriving, she said.
‘So there is a very low risk to the community and we wish that person well,’ Ms Fyles said.
NT health chief Dr Charles Pain says he expects the sequencing test results for the South African case to be processed by Monday.
The passenger arrived in Darwin on Thursday and his positive virus result was confirmed on Friday evening.
The Northern Territory’s other infection was locally acquired and is of a 50-year-old man from Katherine who is a household contact of an existing case.
He has also been housed at Howard Springs during his entire infectious period and is not considered a risk.
A total of 14 people on the flight that arrived in Sydney were from the nine southern African countries identified as an Omicron risk, and they have all been put into supervised quarantine.
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
The new quarantine restrictions came into effect at midnight on Saturday and require all international arrivals in the three states – including fully vaccinated passengers – to be tested when they land.
The three state governments announced the change just hours after Australia closed its border to nine African nations – South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini, Seychelles and Malawi.
Dr Griffin, from the Mater Health in Brisbane, said ‘The way we’ve controlled this virus so well so far will still work, will still help us.
‘Things like masks, social distancing, ventilation will protect us from Omicron.
‘The main thing is we still don’t really know the properties of this variant, so it certainly has a large number of concerning mutations but now we have to establish what that means in terms of how infectious it is…
‘Its capability to evade our vaccines, and all of that hasn’t been established yet, so he we just need to get that information now,’ he said.
Returned travellers from those countries must enter hotel quarantine for 14 days on arrival into Australia.
The introduction of self-isolation rules in the three states comes only four weeks after Victoria and NSW removed hotel quarantine requirements for fully-vaccinated travellers on November 1.
The ACT ended hotel quarantine for overseas arrivals on November 12.
The Victorian health department says the new rules will apply to unvaccinated children under 12 and unaccompanied minors, along with any household contacts of the returned travellers.
All airline cabin crew arriving from overseas into NSW will also have to isolate for 14 days or until their next departure.
These rules are slightly different in Victoria with vaccinated cabin crew to isolate for 14 days if they had been to one of the nine African countries of concern.
In the 24-hour reporting period to 8pm on Saturday night, NSW recorded 185 new Covid cases, with 94.5 per cent of people aged 16+ having had one Covid vaccine dose and 92.4 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Victoria recorded 1,061 new cases and four deaths. Of those aged 12 and over, 90 per cent are fully vaccinated.
Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan on Saturday evening shut his state’s borders to South Australia in a bid to lock out the mutant new strain.
United States and Europe earlier placed six countries on the red list before Australia added another three – Malawi, Mozambique and Seychelles
The ruling means only double-vaccinated South Australians can enter WA, where they must immediately go into quarantine for 14 days.
South Australia has 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.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said authorities were also in the process of tracking down about 100 Australians who recently arrived from the blacklisted countries and will now need to go into quarantine for two weeks.
Professor Kelly warned it was too early to tell if Australia would be plunged back into lockdown if the virus made its way across the Indian Ocean.
‘In terms of ruling in or out, what else we might do, as the health minister has clearly said, we will do what we need to do,’ he said on Saturday.
‘At this stage, to move toward speculation about where we might end up in Australia, even if it came here, and we don’t have it here yet, that is premature.’
He said while little was known about Omicron, it was ‘quite different’ to previous variants of concern.
‘We do not, at this point, have any clear indication that it is more severe, or any definite indication of issues in relation to the vaccine.’
Mr Kelly added that there was too little information about the current variant to make any long-term decisions.
The UK confirmed its first two official Omicron infections on Saturday, with Germany and the Czech Republic also reporting suspected cases.
Germany’s initial sequencing suggests a traveller from South Africa was carrying the virus with several mutations shared by Omicron.
Officials are awaiting full sequencing later on Saturday local time.
This chart shows the proportion of cases that were the B.1.1.529 variant (blue) and Delta variant (red) over time in Guateng province in South Africa, where the virus is most prevalent. It suggests that the mutant strain could outcompete Delta in the province within weeks
Belgium has also revealed its first Omicron case – named by the World Health Organisation on Friday night – prompting EU chiefs to call for an ’emergency brake’ on all travel from southern Africa after it was also found in Israel.
The Belgian health ministry said a case of the new B.1.1.529 strain was confirmed in an unvaccinated young woman who had returned from Egypt 11 days ago, suggesting it is already being seeded across the continent and is widespread in Africa.
It came as the WHO designated it a ‘variant of concern’, its highest category.
Experts said there is early evidence to suggest Omicron has an ‘increased risk of reinfection’ and its rapid spread in South Africa suggests it has a ‘growth advantage’.
However, Angelique Coetzee, the chairwoman of the South African Medical Association, said that it was too early to begin imposing travel restrictions.
‘It’s a hasty decision,’ she said. ‘I would understand if it was two weeks later and we knew much more about this viral infection that is going around, this mutation.
‘But for now, it is a storm in a tea cup, we have only become aware of this viral mutation … in the last week. So far what we have seen are very mild cases, so I’m not sure why we are all up in arms.’
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.