Premier Dominic Perrottet has vowed NSW will stay open and forge ahead with its Covid roadmap despite fears about the Omicron variant.
NSW Health confirmed on Sunday urgent genomic testing found two travellers who touched down in Sydney from southern Africa on Saturday night have the new strain.
The latest virus mutation, first detected in South Africa, sparked concerns around the globe amid fears it is more transmissible than world’s most contagious and dominant strain, Delta.
But Mr Perrotet said Omicron could be contained and the state’s timeline of lifting restrictions at 95 per cent vaccination or on December 15 was on track.
Two cases of the super-mutant Covid Omicron strain have been confirmed in NSW, sparking fears tough restrictions could again be cast over the state. Pictured: A group of woman drink in a Sydney bar
He said ‘for the moment’ he intended to stick with the state’s plan as NSW could not be a ‘hermit kingdom on the other side of the world’.
‘Ultimately, we not only need to learn to live alongside the virus, but live alongside the variants as well,’ he said.
‘This pandemic is not over. These variants will continue, cases will continue to rise and the best thing we can do to keep the community safe, keep your family safe is to go out and get vaccinated and get that booster shot when you can.’
The World Health Organization declared Omicron a ‘variant of concern’ quicker than it did with other variants
Omicron highlights the need to boost vaccination in poorer parts of the world such as Africa
Experts say mask wearing, social distancing and better ventilation will help prevent all variants of Covid-19, including Omicron
The NSW Government confirmed 29 people, including the two confirmed Omicron cases, arrived on Saturday aboard two flights from the nine African nations feared to be infested with the variant.
Mr Perrottet, his Victorian counterpart Daniel Andrews, and ACT Premier Andrew Barr temporarily re-imposed a 72-hour self-isolation requirement for all international arrivals.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has also banned all flights from the nine nations of concern – which include South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), Seychelles and Malawi.
Under the federal rules, passengers already on flights to Australia who have been in those countries over the past 14 days will be forced into two-week hotel quarantine.
Mr Perrotet said it was inevitable that Omicron would seep onto our shores.
‘If you look at Delta… how quickly that come into countries around the world, the prime minister cancelled flights into here,’ he said.
‘The reality is these variants are highly transmissible and that means it is almost certain it will get into countries around the world. That is the reality of the situation.
‘We can’t look at the world as we want it to be, we need to look at the situation as it is.’
But despite concerns about the new South African variant, Premier Dominic Perrotet has vowed to forge ahead with a plan to reopen NSW next month
Two overseas travellers who arrived in Sydney on Saturday night have been confirmed to have the new super-mutant Covid strain, Omicron
From December 15, restrictions will ease across NSW for the unvaccinated, mask and QR codes will be scrapped for most venues, and proof of vaccination certificates will only be needed for indoor music festivals with more than 1,000 people.
Masks will only be required on public transport and planes, at airports and for indoor hospitality staff who aren’t fully vaccinated.
QR code check-ins will only be required for ‘high risk venues’ such as hospitals, gyms, airports, aged care facilities and limited hospitality venues.
Mr Perrottet cautioned restrictions may be re-imposed if the Omicron fuelled another major outbreak, but assured NSW his intention was to stick to his plan.
‘We have a road map and that’s clearly set out,’ he said.
‘There will be variants from time to time. We have said that from the outset. This pandemic is not over, challenges will continue to come our way.
‘We have said if there are instances along the way where we need to put in certain restrictions at certain points in time in a targeted way we will, but we are not there.’
Changes to Covid-19 restrictions at 95 per cent vaccination
Masks will only be required on public transport and planes, at airports, and for indoors front-of-house hospitality staff who are not fully vaccinated
No density limits (previously one person per 2sqm)
Covid safety plans will be optional for businesses and will be supported by SafeWork NSW
QR check-ins will only be required at high-risk venues including hospitals, aged and disability care facilities, gyms, places of worship, funerals or memorial services, personal services (e.g. hairdressers and beauty salons)
Hospitality settings like pubs, small bars, registered clubs and nightclubs and for indoor music festivals with more than 1,000 people will still require QR codes
Proof of vaccination will no longer be required by Public Health Order for most activities (businesses can still require proof at their own discretion).
Proof of vaccination will still be required for indoor music festivals with more than 1,000 people.
NSW recorded 185 new Covid-19 on Sunday morning, while Victoria recorded 1,061 new cases and four deaths.
So far, 92.4 per cent of NSW residents over 16 are vaccinated and 94.5 per cent have received a first dose.
Of those aged 12 to 15, 81.3 per cent have received one jab and 76.5 per cent have had both.
The premier said the focus of his government would be to ensure vaccination continued, as that would combat the new variant.
‘That has been the key success here in NSW, key to ensuring that as we open up, we continue to open up safely and that is the focus of the government,’ he said.
‘We need everybody in NSW to roll up their sleeves, get the booster shots and ensure people in NSW are going to stay safe.’
However, in light of the new cases, NSW Jobs Minister Stuart Ayres announced on Sunday the state government was prepared to clamp down on travellers arriving from overseas.
‘We will take the necessary measures, including restarting quarantine if required, to protect our community and our economy,’ he told the Sydney Morning Herald.
Passengers disembark off a Qantas flight after landing at Sydney Airport. Two other arrivals to Australia on flights from Africa have tested positive for Covid in the Northern Territory and Victoria, with genomic testing underway to identify the strains
Mr Perrotet did not rule out restrictions in the event of a major outbreak, but said he intends to stick to NSW’s Covid roadmap
A NSW government source said work was underway to restore hotel quarantine if required, but the preferred option will be home isolation unless the strain was deemed extremely severe.
Despite the premier’s assurances, some experts urged state leaders to crack down early while scientists work to determine the severity of the new strain.
Two other passengers who tested positive to Covid after arriving from southern Africa, one in Sydney and another at the Howard Springs facility near Darwin, are being screened to see if they also have the Omicron variant.
Victorian health authorities are also investigating whether the potential third NSW Omicron case could have infected anyone there while on a trip to Victoria.
University of NSW epidemiology professor Mary-Louise McLaws said all international arrivals should be subjected to mandatory quarantine.
‘Omicron still not fully understood. Is transmission faster, does it reduce vaccine efficacy, is it as hard to mitigate outbreaks [like] Delta?’ she tweeted on Sunday.
‘Until +90% vaccination coverage of total pop (not just +12yr) quarantine must be supervised for every traveller from every country. [With] testing on day-1, 4, 5.’
US and Europe earlier placed six countries on the red list before Australia added another three – Malawi, Mozambique and Seychelles
Dr Paul Griffin, Director of Infectious Diseases at Mater Health in Brisbane, was far less concerned and said it was still too early to judge the risks of Omicron.
‘I don’t think we’re back to square one. A lot of us thought this is what this virus is going to keep doing, going to keep evolving and we are going to keep finding new variants,’ he told ABC.
Similar sentiments were echoed by Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton, who conceded that it was ‘impossible’ to keep the strain off Australian shores but measures were already in place to reduce its spread.
Professor Sutton said he was ‘very confident’ vaccines would provide some level of ‘cross protection’ for the new variant, even if Omicron differs significantly in terms of ‘how our immune system recognises it’.
‘This is not back to the beginning,’ he said.
‘We are not back at square one by any means. The vaccination coverage that we’ve got – over 90 per cent of eligible Victorians being fully vaccinated already – is absolutely more than useful.
‘It is absolutely critical in protecting them and will, I’m sure, provide protection against these variants as well. We just need to understand how much.’
Government sources told The Age the Victorian Government was considering extending quarantine and reintroducing mask mandates in some settings.
New health orders could be announced as early as Monday, the sources said, and were likely to be also rolled out by state and territory leaders across the country.
The two infected passengers were on Qatar Airways QR908, via Doha, which touched down in Sydney around 7pm. Twelve other passengers on the same flight who travelled from southern Africa are undertaking 14 days of hotel quarantine.
As well as the two arrivals in Sydney, another two African arrivals have also tested positive for Covid in different states and the same testing will be done on their samples to identify the strains.
Passengers undergo COVID-19 tests at the Histopath Diagnostic Specialists pre-departure area at Sydney International Airport on November 28, 2021
The first arrived in NSW on November 23 before travelling to Victoria two days later, sparking fears Omicron is already in the southern state.
Victorian health officials will complete a full interview with this case tonight to track down any close contacts in the event the passenger does have the Omicron variant.
The second, a man, arrived on a repatriation flight from South Africa to the Northern Territory on Thursday and was in isolation at the Howard Springs quarantine facility.
Meanwhile, Queensland authorities said they were unable to guarantee the state’s border would reopen once 80 per cent of the state’s population was vaccinated as planned, in light of the emerging health threat.
Acting chief health officer Peter Aitken said officials were monitoring the situation and incoming visitors from hotspots interstate may be subjected to quarantine.
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said it only took the Delta variant three weeks to reach 53 nations, and the effectiveness of Omicron against vaccines was still being established.
Drug company representatives said it would take around 100 days to develop an updated vaccine to combat Omicron, if required.
Omicron, deemed a ‘variant of concern’ by the World Health Organisation, has more than 30 mutations in the spike protein alone.
If it is more transmissible than Delta, as feared, experts said Omicron could become the second-most contagious disease after measles.
Mr Morrison said he ‘fully supports’ the move by NSW, Victoria and the ACT to make all overseas arrivals go into isolation as authorities scramble to contain the threat posed by the Omicron strain.
‘The very serious issues regarding the new variant have been moving quickly,’ he said.
‘We took strong action yesterday. I had good discussions with the premiers in NSW and Victoria, and fully support the actions they are taking.
‘It is a fast moving issue but we will continue, as we always have, sensible, balanced, guided by the best possible medical evidence and medical expert advice.
‘That is what has enabled Australia to be so successful throughout the Covid [pandemic] to be safe and to remain open.’
Health Minister Greg Hunt said the government would not hesitate if more needed to be done to combat the Omicron strain.
‘Overnight international evidence came in and we took the immediate steps yesterday and will continue to do that to protect Australians,’ he said.
‘Yesterday, there were over 3,800 passengers who arrived in Australia… 54 were from southern Africa.
‘They had been there and identified in the previous 14 days across the nine countries and what we are pleased to see is that all of the orders that were issued yesterday had been put in place, actions had been taken, Border Force is implementing in states and territories and public health is supporting.’
The introduction of self-isolation rules in the three states comes only four weeks after Victoria and NSW removed hotel quarantine requirements for fully-vaccinated travellers on November 1.
The ACT ended hotel quarantine for overseas arrivals on November 12.
The Victorian health department says the new rules will apply to unvaccinated children under 12 and unaccompanied minors, along with any household contacts of the returned travellers.
What do we know about the Omicron variant?
Scientists have said they are concerned about the B.1.1.529 variant, named by the World Health Organisation as Omicron, as it has around 30 different mutations – double the amount present in the Delta variant.
The mutations contain features seen in all of the other variants but also traits that have not been seen before.
UK scientists first became aware of the new strain on November 23 after samples were uploaded on to a coronavirus variant tracking website from South Africa, Hong Kong and then Botswana.
On Friday, it was confirmed that cases had been identified in Israel and Belgium but currently there are no known cases in the UK.
Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told Good Morning Britain on Friday that sequencing is being carried out around the UK to determine if any cases have already been imported.
Work is also under way to see whether the new variant may be causing new infection in people who have already had coronavirus or a vaccine, or whether waning immunity may be playing a role.
Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford, has said the new variant will ‘almost certainly’ make vaccines less effective, though they would still offer protection.
Pfizer/BioNTech, which has produced a vaccine against Covid-19, is already studying the new variant’s ability to evade vaccines.