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Australia is waking with fresh fears over what the Omicron variant will mean for its immediate future as governments begin to grapple with a new Covid threat.
The confirmed arrival of the highly-transmissible strain on Australian shores on Sunday — after two passengers from southern Africa who landed in Sydney on Saturday night tested positive — has health authorities in a scramble.
Already two states have tightened their borders and Australia has slammed its national border shut to travellers from nine African nations, including South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique.
Anyone who has been in those countries in the past 14 days must immediately quarantine, and all flights from those nations will be immediately suspended for a fortnight at least.
Aussie shares are also expected to fall sharply when markets open today.
But business leaders are calling on governments to hold their nerve and NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has insisted his state’s reopening plan will continue without change.
“This clearly demonstrates the pandemic is not over,” Mr Perrottet told reporters on Sunday. “There are limits to what the state and federal government can do: These variants will get into the country. It is inevitable.”
NSW slams WHO over silence
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard slammed the World Health Organisation for taking so long to sound the alarm.
“It probably hasn’t been all that helpful that the World Health Organisation has really put out the announcements recently when they’ve known about it since about three weeks ago,” Mr Hazzard said.
The state had relaxed its entry questioning for international travellers, unaware there was a highly mutated variant emerging.
“The (passenger) information is not as precise as health authorities would like but it‘s understandable. Now we wish we had more information.”
The health minister also warned more cases were on their way to Australian shores, telling reporters on Sunday it was “safe” to assume the current list of banned nations would not be enough to stop the virus.
“It’s not practical to expect that shutting down flights from nine other countries is going to work,” he said.
Domestic borders closing already
Western Australia reacted swiftly to the situation on Saturday, forcing all arrivals from South Australia to begin isolating for 14 days because of its neighbour’s open border policy with NSW.
“There is a great deal of uncertainty about the recently emerged Omicron variant so it is important Western Australia has strong protections in place for states which have relaxed their international borders,” Mr McGowan said.
“With little known about the variant, it is important we act with an abundance of caution in dealing with potential spread into WA from overseas travellers arriving in other states.”
SA travellers with plans to head to WA in the coming days have been told their existing approval to enter the state has been cancelled.
South Australia made a change of its own, doubling the amount of days international arrivals have to spend in quarantine to 14.
NSW has also indicated the return of hotel quarantine — or home isolation — for overseas travellers is a possibility.
“We will take the necessary measures, including restarting quarantine if required, to protect our community and our economy,” Jobs Minister Stuart Ayres said.
Business leader: Over reaction could be devastating
Australian Industry Group chief executive Innes Willox said any heavy-handed reaction to the Omicron threat could be devastating for business.
“While some caution is understandable, the response to any new and inevitable variant needs to be targeted, proportionate and take into account the nearly 90 per cent of us are vaccinated and tired of lockdowns and border closures,” Mr Willox told The Australian.
“We are just getting our economy back on its feet, but investment and confidence are still uncertain. An over-reaction both in terms of timing and proportionality around shutting Australia off from the world, and state from state, would be devastating.”
The S & P/ASX 200 is set to break below its 200-day moving average for the first time in 13 months and test its September 29 low at 7145.7 points as travel stocks return to the firing line.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa on Sunday called on countries to “urgently” reverse travel bans from his nation.
“We call upon all those countries that have imposed travel bans on our country and our southern African sister countries to urgently reverse their decisions and lift the bans they have imposed before any further damage is done to our economies,” he said in his first address to the nation following last week’s detection of the new variant.
– With AFP