The planned reopening of Australia’s international borders for international students and skilled migrants has been delayed by two weeks in light of Omicron variant fears.
The federal government has made a last-minute decision to delay the reopening of international borders to international students and skilled migrants, as well as travellers from Japan and South Korea, from 1 December to 15 December.
The decision, announced by the National Security Committee late on Monday, came just two days before overseas students and skilled workers were due to begin arriving in Australia after being locked out for nearly two years.
The government is expecting around 200,000 students and visa holders in total to travel to Australia in the coming months.
The decision was made in light of the discovery of a new variant of COVID-19, dubbed Omicron, as the government hopes to better understand the risks of the new variant to Australians before welcoming additional travellers from overseas.
“The temporary pause will ensure Australia can gather the information we need to better understand the Omicron variant, including the efficacy of the vaccine, the range of illness, including if it may generate more mild symptoms and the level of transmission,” the committee said in a statement on Monday evening.
National Cabinet will meet on Tuesday to further discuss the Omicron variant, and agree upon any additional necessary measures, while research continues into the variant’s risk.
“Australians can be assured that we are in a strong position to deal with COVID and its emerging challenges,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
“We will continue to take sensible and responsive evidence-based action, led by medical experts. This will ensure we can open safely and stay safely open as we learn to live with the virus.”
Vicki Thomson, CEO of the Group of Eight, which represents some of the nation’s leading universities, said the National Security Committee’s decision was “unfortunate”, but understandable.
“To all of our students, the 30,000, that the Group of Eight have got offshore at the moment, hang in there,” Ms Thomson told the media. “Every decision that’s made is in their best interest, so hopefully it’ll be a good outcome before Christmas.
“If this is what we need to do, whilst we’re in this very uncertain period, then we understand the government’s objectives in that.”
It comes after the government introduced new restrictions on overseas arrivals over the weekend, which will see all international travellers forced to get a test upon arrival and self-isolate for 72 hours.
Further, arrivals from nine countries, including South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, The Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique, will be forced to enter a 14-day hotel quarantine.
Flights from these countries into Australia have been temporarily suspended.
Additionally, all overseas arrivals will now be required to declare a list of all the countries that they have visited within the last 14 days prior to arrival in Australia, on top of existing entry requirements, which include proof of vaccination and a negative PCR test result.
The changes come just weeks after NSW, Victoria and the ACT opened up their borders for fully vaccinated overseas arrivals, with no quarantine required.
The new variant, dubbed Omicron, originated in South Africa and was deemed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization on Friday, 26 November.
Omicron has already been found on Australian shores, with two passengers who travelled from southern Africa returning a positive result for the mutated virus, despite returning a negative pre-flight test result and being fully vaccinated against COVID-19. The travellers were asymptomatic.
A further three cases of Omicron have since been located in Australia.
Chief medical officer Paul Kelly said on Saturday that around 100 other people who had flown from countries of concern into NSW, ACT and Victoria were now being directed into hotel quarantine.
“The crucial thing is supervised 14 days’ quarantine. Where that occurs [be it home or hotel quarantine] will be a matter for states to determine,” Professor Kelly said.
“If the medical evidence shows that further actions are required, we will not hesitate to take them and that may involve strengthening or expanding the restrictions,” he said.
“The world will learn a lot over the coming weeks.”
The emergence of the Omicron variant has also brought into question whether or not the states will reopen their domestic borders as planned.
More information on whether or not this is a possibility will likely come to light following Tuesday’s National Cabinet meeting.