In light of the discovery of a new variant of COVID-19, the Australian government has introduced new restrictions on overseas arrivals, 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.
The passengers arrived in Australia on Qatar Airways flight QR908 from Doha to Sydney, at about 7pm on Saturday. They returned a positive result for the Omicron variant on Sunday.
NSW Health has said all 260 passengers and crew who were onboard the flight are now considered close contacts, and have been directed to isolate for 14 days, even if they return a negative COVID test result.
Further, 12 passengers on board that flight also flew in from southern Africa, all of whom have been moved into mandatory 14-day hotel quarantine.
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.
Currently, the Queensland government has stuck by its decision to reopen its border with NSW and Victoria from 17 December, despite concerns over the new variant, however officials say they will watch the situation in the southern states closely.
Queensland’s acting chief health officer Peter Aitken welcomed the federal government’s changes for overseas arrivals on Sunday, as he confirmed that Queensland was not yet going to change its current reopening plan.
“These are all sensible measures to buy us time, because at this stage, this is a new virus, and we don’t know the details of what it means for our communities or anybody else at this stage,” Dr Aitken said.
“We need to be cautious – we don’t need to be alarmed.”
Meanwhile, Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan has said he won’t hesitate to extend border closures with the eastern states over Omicron concerns.
“NSW no longer has a hotel quarantine system. It is a big risk and that is why we have had a very cautious approach about other states,” McGowan said.
“Borders are effective, if you stop the flow of people coming in you virtually eliminate the prospect of the virus getting here.
“Being cautious works. Being adventurous doesn’t.”