Australia’s reopening plans stumble as Omicron cases rise

SYDNEY, Nov. 29 (Reuters) – Australia said it would review some of its border reopening plans this week after reporting its first cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant, but called for calm until the severity of the strain was determined .

Four people who arrived in Sydney from southern Africa on Sunday tested positive for the newly identified variant when officials ordered a 14-day quarantine for citizens returning from nine African countries. Another person who arrived in the Northern Territory of South Africa was tested positive.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Monday that Australia would review plans to reopen the borders for skilled migrants and students from 1 December. But he said it was too early to reintroduce a two-week mandatory hotel quarantine for all foreign travelers and called for patience, as data had not, however, determined the severity, transferability and vaccine resistance of the Omicron strain.

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“We just take this one step at a time, get the best information, make calm, sensible decisions,” Morrison told Nine News.

Omicron, called a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization, is potentially more contagious than previous variants. But health authorities do not yet know if it will cause more or less severe COVID-19 compared to other strains.

Morrison said the National Security Committee would meet later on Monday to assess easing of border reopening to happen from Dec. 1, while federal, state and territorial leaders meet on Tuesday.

Australian employers have called for a resumption of arrivals of students and skilled migrants due to labor shortages from the information technology sector to kitchen staff in restaurants.

People are sitting in the Arrivals Department of the Kingsford Smith International Airport International Terminal the morning after Australia implemented an entry ban for non-citizens and non-residents aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sydney, Australia, March 21, 2020. REUTERS / Loren Elliott

The return of foreign students to the Australian economy, worth about $ 35 billion ($ 25 billion) a year, will be a major boost for the education sector.

Federal Health Secretary Greg Hunt said he asked the nation’s immunization advisory group to review the time frame for COVID-19 booster shots in light of the new strain. About 87% of Australia’s population over the age of 16 are fully vaccinated, which is higher than in the US, UK and large parts of Western Europe.

The variant emerged when Sydney and Melbourne, Australia’s largest cities, began allowing vaccinated citizens to enter from abroad without quarantine from 1 November, after closing their borders for more than 18 months.

Both cities have tightened their travel rules with all international travelers ordered to quarantine for 72 hours. Other states have not yet opened their borders to foreign travelers due to varying vaccination rates.

Australia has so far registered about 209,000 coronavirus cases and 1,997 deaths since the pandemic began.

Neighboring New Zealand, which has closed its borders since early 2020, said it would move forward with a planned easing of domestic movement restrictions from this week, regardless of Omicron.

($ 1 = 1.4010 Australian dollars)

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Additional reporting by Byron Kaye; Edited by Stephen Coates and Jacqueline Wong

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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