Prime Minister Scott Morrison has defended the decision to postpone the arrival of working visa holders and international students by two weeks, as travellers lament another last-minute setback caused by Australia’s pandemic response.
After a meeting of the National Security Committee on Monday night, called to discuss the threat of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19, the federal government moved to delay the return of select visa holders to Australian shores.
Nearing two years after Australia first slammed its border shut over pandemic fears, working visa holders, international students, and a suite of other visa holders were set to re-enter the country from 1 December.
That date has now been pushed back to 15 December, a move which Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said would allow local health authorities to assess the unique risks posed by the Omicron variant.
Planned travel bubbles linking Australia to Japan and South Korea, slated to open on 1 December, have also been set back by two weeks.
In addition, Australia has issued a temporary ban on travellers arriving from nine countries across southern Africa, where the Omicron variant was first detected.
Elsewhere, the ability for Australian citizens, permanent residents, and their immediate families to travel remains unchanged.
Speaking in Canberra Tuesday afternoon, Morrison said the visa holder postponement did not signal a long-term return to wholesale border closures, but was instead a policy designed to temporarily shield Australia from the concerning new variant.
“This is a prudent and temporary pause,” Morrison said. “We don’t know enough yet about it.”
The emergence of Omicron is “not a reason to step back” from Australia’s reopening plan, Morrison added.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which supported the initial decision to welcome visa holders back to Australia from 1 December, today said the postponement is a “sensible precaution”.
Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight, also told the ABC that students ought to “hang in there” while medical experts fully examine the new variant.
But advocates for students and migrant workers waylaid by the decision have taken their frustration online, questioning what they see as another painful setback.
“Just ‘hang in there’ as if people aren’t about to be homeless, don’t have to reschedule already very expensive flights, haven’t sold their cars, belongings,” wrote Reconnect Australia, an organisation which has railed against closed border policies through the pandemic.
State and federal leaders will discuss further courses of action this afternoon at a National Cabinet meeting, which advocates hope will not result in harsher lockouts.
Earlier, Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews said the government recognised the profound impact the decision could have on those planning to travel to Australia in the coming days.
“We are acutely aware of the impact this will have on individuals, families, and businesses here in Australia, but I do stress this is a 14-day pause,” she told a Canberra press conference.
Australia has now detected six cases of the Omicron variant within its borders. At least five of those were fully vaccinated and have exhibited very minor symptoms or none at all, Kelly said at the same event.
While the pause will help local experts get a handle on the new variant, the nation cannot expect to hide from Omicron much longer, Kelly added.
“We cannot keep this Omicron variant out forever from Australia,” he said.
“Eventually it will be here. Most importantly we now do what we can to slow down that introduction, and all of the measures that have been introduced will assist with that.”