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Australia preparing to tighten quarantine rules in response to new Omicron COVID variant

Australians who have been in South Africa and a handful of other countries within the last 14 days are expected to be put in quarantine, as the world races to contain a new COVID-19 variant.

Health Minister Greg Hunt and chief medical officer Paul Kelly will address Australia after 9am AWST following a key meeting with the Prime Minister, after the World Health Organisation renamed B. 1.1.529 ‘Omicron’ a ‘variant of concern’ overnight.

The variant, which originated in South Africa, is still an enigma to global epidemiologists, but the UN health agency said in a statement the variant had a “large number of mutations, some of which are very concerning”.

“The variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage,” the statement said.

Australia does not receive any direct flights from South Africa, however repatriation flights have arrived into the Howard Springs quarantine facility.

Flight Arrivals
Camera IconWhile no direct flights arrive in Australia from South Africa, travellers who have been in South Africa in the last two weeks are expected to be sent into quarantine. NCA NewsWire/Tertius Pickard Credit: News Corp Australia

Australians have also been able to fly from South Africa via a host of other countries.

Currently Australians arriving into Victoria, NSW and the ACT from overseas do not need to quarantine.

But, a series of precautionary measures are likely to be introduced later on Saturday, which could include a period of quarantine or isolation for any Australians who have been in South Africa in the last 14 days.

On Friday, the Prime Minister said Australia was prepared to take stronger action.

“We monitor all of these variants, we note the responses that are made by other countries and we consider those in real time,” Scott Morrison said.

Camera IconHealth Minister Greg Hunt is expected to announce a raft of measures to protect Australia from an outbreak of Omicron. NCA Newswire / Gary Ramage Credit: News Corp Australia

Mr Hunt said the high vaccination levels of Australia put the country in good steed to handle a potential outbreak of Omicron.

More than 86 per cent of Australians aged over 16 are fully vaccinated, while 92.1 per cent have had one dose.

“This is a very different situation to the Delta emergence and the high case numbers we saw in India. We are very highly vaccinated,” he said on Friday.

Queensland’s deputy chief health officer told journalists on Saturday that it was still “too early to panic” about the Omicron variant, but the AHPPC – the group of federal, state and territory chief health officers – would meet later in the day.

“It’s too early. We need to get more information before we act,” he said.

Camera IconAustralians who have recently returned from South Africa are expected to be sent into isolation. NCA NewsWire / James Gourley Credit: News Corp Australia

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said he had been briefed several times on the new variant.

He urged anyone who has been to South Africa in the past fortnight to be “very very aware of their symptoms”.

But he also said people who have visited other countries could potentially spread the variant.

“We‘re still keen to keep the balance in NSW,” Mr Hazzard told reporters.

“It‘s important that we have our economy open, important to mental health, important for a whole range of reasons.”

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said he had made no decision to change the state‘s pandemic rules but added the “road map” could be tweaked if necessary.

“From time to time there will need to be targeted restrictions,” he said.

“Any changes that need to be made in relation to incoming travellers from overseas, who have been to South Africa or those related countries, we will ensure the appropriate steps are taken to keep the community safe.”

He said he had been in contact with the Prime Minister who had indicated some “changes” would be made to Covid-19 rules, but didn‘t specify what those might be.

Mr Perrottet urged people who haven‘t yet gotten vaccinated to do so as soon as possible.

He also said fully vaccinated people should line up for booster shots when eligible.

“That that will ensure that as we move through this next stage of the pandemic, that our community stays safe,” he said.

Mr Hazzard said there were currently no confirmed cases of the variant in NSW but urged people to stay away from crowds and to wear masks if possible.

“The advice is just be very cautious,” he said.

“I think we need to enjoy our life here in NSW, returned to normal but with a caveat, and that is be careful.”

The United Kingdom closed its borders to southern Africa, followed by other countries in Europe, the United States and Canada.

The first case of the variant detected in Europe was announced in Belgium late on Friday night Australian time.

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