State and federal leaders will soon meet to discuss their responses to the new Omicron variant of COVID-19, Prime Minister Scott Morrison says, but it is “too early” to say if Australia should revert to enforcing 14 days of quarantine for all incoming travellers.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Saturday announced the classification of COVID-19 variant B.1.1.529, a mutated form of the virus driving a spike in cases throughout southern Africa.
While research into the variant is still underway, the WHO states the mutated virus, labelled Omicron, may have a “growth advantage” compared to its predecessors.
NSW Health has revealed two fully vaccinated and asymptomatic travellers who entered Sydney on Saturday tested positive to COVID-19, with genomic testing revealing they are infected with the Omicron variant. Those travellers arrived in Australia from southern Africa.
On Monday morning, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet announced a third detected case of COVID-19 may have the Omicron variant. The Sydney Morning Herald reports Victorian health officials are also investigating a suspected Omicron case.
In response to growing Omicron case numbers on the continent and a lack of data on the strain’s differences to prior variants, the Australian Government on Saturday banned entry to travellers from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Seychelles, Malawi, and Mozambique, with exceptions for Australian citizens, permanent residents, and their immediate families.
New South Wales and Victoria also announced fully vaccinated travellers from all other countries must now undergo 72 hours of quarantine after arrival, stepping back from their recent pledges to remove quarantine requirements entirely. In the Australian Capital Territory, all recent international arrivals have been urged to self-isolate until Tuesday.
Appearing on “Sunrise” Monday morning, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said “it is a bit too early” to declare if Australia will reintroduce 14-day quarantine periods across the board in response to Omicron.
“This isn’t the first of the new strains we have seen,” he added, “and the evidence to date does not suggest it is a more severe form of the virus, and issues of transmissibility and impact on vaccine, there is no evidence yet to suggest there are issues there.
“But should that information come forward, then obviously we will be considering that.”
Australia’s national plan for emerging from the depths of COVID-19 lockdowns “is about opening safely so we can remain safely open,” Morrison added.
Perrottet echoed that position Monday morning, telling a Sydney press conference, “We don’t just need to learn to live alongside COVID, we need to learn to live alongside the variants as well.
“And we’re very confident, based on our high vaccination rate. I said yesterday, and I’ll say it again, vaccination is key to New South Wales being able to continue to open up safely.”
Beyond quarantine requirements for returning travellers, there are broader questions around Australia’s plan to welcome skilled workers and international students after nearly two years locked out of the country.
Under the current plan, a swathe of visa holders will be permitted entry into Australia from 1 December.
Those travellers face an anxious wait for government guidance, with long-awaited travel plans now hanging in the balance.
Morrison said meetings of the National Security Committee and National Cabinet will consider border policies either today or tomorrow, “in the light of all the new information”.
As border restrictions and reopening plans warp under the weight of uncertainty, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly says it’s “not warranted to panic at this stage”.
Australian health authorities are “very much alert” to the variant, Kelly told “The Today Show” Monday morning, but key questions remain over how Omicron differs to prior iterations of COVID-19.
While it “seems to be at least as infectious as the Delta virus”, which has become the dominant form of COVID-19 in Australia and abroad, Kelly said there are “conflicting reports” over whether it leads to more severe illness.
There is currently “no evidence that there is a problem with either vaccines or treatments,” Kelly added.
“But that’s a matter for very intense research right now, and we will look for further information in coming days and weeks.”