Covid Victoria: Omicron delays travel routes opening and student arrivals

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Australia’s borders will remain closed for another two weeks for hundreds of thousands of overseas students and migrant workers due to the new Covid strain.

Australia’s borders will remain closed for another two weeks for hundreds of thousands of overseas students, migrant workers and refugees.

The federal government’s national security committee decided on Monday night to pause Wednesday’s planned reopening until December 15 to buy time to assess the new Omicron variant.

Vaccinated travel lanes with Korea and Japan will also not open for two more weeks.

It comes despite top doctors saying the world should want the Omicron variant to spread globally if urgent research confirms it turns the Covid virus into a more mild disease.

Commonwealth chief medical officer Paul Kelly said it would be a “very good Christmas present” if the “highly transmissible” strain turned out to be less harmful and replaced the Delta variant that has ravaged dozens of countries and forced Melbourne into months in lockdown.

But authorities remain on high alert until more is known about the new variant, first detected in South Africa, that has already been identified in several patients in Australia.

NSW authorities last night confirmed two more returning travellers had tested positive to the Omicron strain of Covid-19, taking the state’s total to four.

But genomic sequencing also confirmed a traveller, who visited Victoria from NSW and was suspected of having been infected by the mutant strain, is not carrying the Omicron variant.

Australian scientists are now growing the virus and hope to know within days exactly how effective our existing vaccines are against it.

National cabinet will hold emergency talks on Tuesday to consider tougher precautionary measures, including whether Victoria and NSW will extend their 72-hour quarantine rule for overseas arrivals or force them into two weeks of quarantine.

On Monday night, Scott Morrison’s national security committee met and delayed Wednesday’s reopening of the international border to students, migrant workers and refugees.

Health Minister Greg Hunt also asked the nation’s expert immunisation panel to consider whether to bring forward booster doses from six months after Australians are fully vaccinated, after the Herald Sun revealed leading experts wanted the change to be made.

“If they recommend changes, we will follow those changes,” he said.

More than 415,000 Australians have already received a third shot out of 500,000 who are so far eligible.

Business groups called on state and federal leaders to hold their nerve and avoid “kneejerk decisions” to tackle the new variant.

Mr Morrison said he would move “very quickly” to adjust border settings if required, but cautioned it was “a bit too early” to return to 14 days of quarantine for arrivals.

“It’s important we just calmly and carefully consider this information, work together, take the decisions that are necessary,” he said.

Prof Kelly said Omicron transmitted at least as fast as Delta, and while some reports from South Africa suggested it was “mostly mild”, other information indicated hospital admission rates were rising.

He said there was “no definite evidence” that Covid vaccines would not protect people against the new variant, as he encouraged Australians to be “alert, not alarmed”.

Australian National University infectious diseases expert Professor Peter Collignon agreed, saying: “We’ve got no evidence Omicron is not covered by the current vaccines.”

If Omicron led to a more mild disease, Prof Kelly said that would be “my number one Christmas present”. “We do not know that yet for sure. And I think it’s very much we need to have a precautionary ­approach now until we get that information,” he said.

Former federal deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth said the world should “actually want it to spread within your community” if it was milder. “You want it to out-compete Delta and become the predominant circulating virus,” he said.

Kirby Institute scientists are preparing to grow Omicron virus cells to test them against vaccines, a process Associate Professor Stuart Turville said could be completed in a week.

Griffith University Associate Professor Paul Griffin said if existing vaccines did need to be tweaked to tackle the new variant, those changes could be made by vaccine manufacturers within six to eight weeks.

Mr Hunt said Australia’s contracts with Pfizer and Moderna included the option for variant-specific vaccines.

“The early advice is that there are no signs at this stage that there is any breach to the integrity of the vaccine program. But we will follow the medical advice and the scientific evidence on that,” he said.

Senior state government minister Jacinta Allan said health authorities had been “working through the night” to determine future steps.

Federal Labor frontbencher Bill Shorten said the 72-hour quarantine period for overseas arrivals was not enough and should be extended as Australia’s “front line of defence”.

But Business Council chief Jennifer Westacott said: “The worst thing Australia can do in the face of a new Covid-19 variant is panic. Unless the risk level rises dramatically, state governments should forge ahead with the reopening.”

Victorian Chamber of Commerce and Industry chief Paul Guerra said the emergence of Omicron had caused anxiety and concern in the business community and called for authorities to focus on preparing the health system “to ensure that we never go into lockdown again”.

Group of Eight chief Vicki Thomson, representing Australia’s top universities, said she hoped international students and skilled migrants could still return through short-term quarantine arrangements “if changes are necessary in order to keep Australians safe”.

NEW BAN WOULD BE CRUEL

Melbourne travel agents are facing a new wave of uncertainty this holiday season after travel restrictions were reimposed in response to the Covid-19 Omicron variant.

Bayview Travel in Brighton has been dealt “two or three” cancellations in recent days as holiday-makers fear being stranded overseas.

Owner Michael Nolan said the reintroduction of an international travel ban would be a “deal-breaker” for his business, which has struggled during the pandemic.

“You’re not going to go to Fiji for 10 days if you’ve got to go into a hotel quarantine for any period of time,” he said. “Clearly it’s something we don’t want to see going ahead.”

Canberra placed travel bans on southern Africa and a 72-hour quarantine order for all international arrivals in response to Omicron, which was first detected in South Africa. The variant could not have come at a worse time after Australians this month were allowed to travel overseas without exemption for the first time in more than 20 months.

Mr Nolan said he’d seen a “definite shift” in recent weeks as Victorians rushed to book overseas holidays.

“There’s been a lot of interest in Europe and the United States but very little interest in Asia unfortunately.

“I’m finding clients are choosing destinations they’re familiar with.”

Despite the new rules, Mr Nolan hopes business will pick up.

Q&A ON OMICRON

DO THE CURRENT VACCINES WORK AGAINST OMICRON?
Early preliminary studies suggest the strain is more transmissible then other variants, and vaccines could be less effective against Omicron. While some experts believe Omicron’s wide range of mutations could make the current vaccines ineffective, it is still too early to tell if this is the case. 
However, pharmaceutical giants claim they can respond quickly if the current vaccines are not up to the task. 
Pfizer said it can update its vaccine within 100 days if the Omicron variant can evade immunity. The company will know within two weeks whether its current vaccine can combat the Omicron variant.

HOW LONG UNTIL WE KNOW FOR SURE?
The World Health Organisation says it will take some weeks before we understand the effect of the new variant and how it could affect diagnostics, therapeutics and vaccines.

WHAT MAKES THIS VARIANT DIFFERENT?
The Omicron variant has twice as many mutations as the Delta strain. The high number of spike mutations – which is believed to be 32 – has scientists fearful the variant could be more infectious and potentially less susceptible to coronavirus vaccines.
The concern, according to the World Health Organisation’s Covid-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove, “is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an effect on how the virus behaves”.
However, the Chair of the South African Medical Association says so far the Omicron cases have been mild, with symptoms including “sore muscles and tiredness for a day or two”.

WILL THERE BE MORE RESTRICTIONS?
Chief health officer Brett Sutton has said that Omicron will not put the state “back to square one” while conceding the new variant will be “impossible to keep out”. 
Further international travel restrictions could be on the cards if other countries follow the lead of Israel, which has banned all foreigners from entering the country in response to the new variant.

IS THE VARIANT HERE IN AUSTRALIA?
Two travellers from Southern Africa who entered Sydney on Saturday have been infected with the new Omicron variant. 
The two people, who were asymptomatic, were fully vaccinated and are now in isolation. 
In the Northern Territory, authorities are also waiting to determine whether a positive coronavirus case who arrived from South Africa was also infected with the Omicron variant.



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