The Australian government has suspended flights from nine African countries as a precautionary measure against the emergence of the Omicron variant of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, which causes the COVID-19 disease.
The nine countries of concern include South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Seychelles, Malawi, and Mozambique.
Additionally, Australia has implemented four other immediate actions to protect against the new variant entering Australia.
Effective immediately, any non-Australian citizen who has been in one of those African countries in the past 14 days will not be allowed entry to Australia. Any Australian citizens, residents, and their dependents will go into supervised quarantine for 14 days upon entry.
The ban extends to those with visas, such as students or skilled migrants, who arrive via countries with “travel bubbles” with Australia who were in the countries of concern in the past 14 days.
Further, anyone already arrived in Australia who was in one of the nine countries of concern must isolate, get tested for COVID-19, and follow state rules in regards to quarantine, which will require 14 days of quarantine.
“These actions are taken on cautious prevention,” Health Minister Greg Hunt told reporters at a press conference around 1 p.m. local time Saturday.
“We’re in a strong position (due to our high vaccination rate) but we know that acting early is what has protected Australia throughout the pandemic.”
Twenty people arrived from South Africa last week and they are in the Howard Springs quarantine facility, Hunt said, adding that there are currently “no known cases” of the Omicron variant in Australia. However, one of the 20 arrivals did test positive for COVID-19, but it is not yet known if it is the latest variant of concern.
Earlier, Hunt said the new COVID-19 variant emerging from southern Africa would not have any immediate effect on Australia’s plan to reopen after rolling lockdowns.
The health minister had said this was because there has been “very little traffic” directly from South Africa, and Australia’s high vaccination rate.
But he said Australia would be flexible and responsible, as it was during the Delta outbreak in India when it paused flights.
“As we’ve always been, we’re flexible. And if the medical advice is that we need to change, we won’t hesitate,” he told reporters Friday.
Hunt said Australian officials were working with the World Health Organisation (WHO) and international partners to investigate whether it is a “major new variant.”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia monitors in real time all new variants and pays attention to how other countries respond.
But regarding the new B1 1529 variant, he said during a press conference in South Australia, “I’m advised that is under investigation and not as a variant of concern. But that can change.”
The WHO have named the latest variant Omicron. It first emerged in Botswana and has been detected in South Africa, Hong Kong, Israel, and Belgium.
It has double the number of mutations as the Delta variant that sparked a third wave of outbreaks and lockdowns in Australia this year.
“It is not time to break the glass on the alarm, I don’t think, but I’m as concerned about this as I have been since Delta,” Burnet Institute director Brendan Crabb told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“A state of heightened alert and caution is appropriate for us in Australia and for the world.”
Crabb described the new strain as having “a whole host of mutations that, I must say, makes me have a sharp inhalation of breath.”
He said vaccination and infection control measures, like wearing protective masks and contact tracing, would be most important, against the Omicron.
About 86 percent of Australians aged 16 and older are double-dosed.
The federal government is sending letters to every household in the country urging people to get their booster shot six months after becoming double-dosed.