Australia has joined other countries in tightening travel rules with South Africa as the world races to contain the emerging threat of the highly infectious and potentially dangerous Omicron Covid-19 strain.
Health Minister Greg Hunt announced five additional precautionary measures on Saturday including introducing a period of time in quarantine for Australians who have travelled to South Africa.
"These actions are taken on the basis of cautious prevention. We're in a strong position, but we know that acting early is what has protected Australia throughout the pandemic," he told reporters.
The five new measures, which are are effective immediately, include:
Non-Australian citizens who have been in African countries where the new variant has been detected will not be permitted to enter Australia. This includes South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Seychelles, Malawi, and Mozambique.
Australian citizens and residents arriving from these countries will need to go into immediate supervised quarantine for 14 days, as subject to the jurisdictional requirements of the relevant states or territories.
These restrictions also apply visa-holders such as international students and skilled migrants who have been in any of the nine countries within the past 14 days.
Anyone who has already arrived in Australia and who has visited any of the nine countries within the past 14 days must immediately isolate themselves and get tested.
All flights from the nine southern African countries will be suspended for a period of 14 days.
Mr Hunt added there are no known cases of Omicron in Australia.
Travellers must provide background
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said incoming travellers will also be required to provide their 14-day travel history.
"We'll continue to be looking very closely at the international advice," he said.
"We do not, at this point, have any clear indication that is is more severe, or any indefinite indication in relation to the vaccine. They're crucial points.
"There is a lot of unknowns still, and that information will come to us very rapidly, as it has in the last 24, and particular 12 hours."
Health Minister Hunt called the new rules "strong, swift, decisive, immediate, but precautionary".
Numerous countries close borders to South Africa
It comes after the US announced it will restrict travel from South Africa and neighbouring countries from Monday.
Europe, Britain, Canada and a host of other countries have also closed their borders to non-residents arriving from those countries.
Omicron, which was first detected in Botswana on November 11, is the fifth variant of concern designated by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The WHO has warned the new variant may spread more quickly than other forms of Covid-19, with early evidence suggesting it poses a much higher risk of reinfection.
Cases of Omicron have so far been found in Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.
More lockdowns not ruled out
Mr Hunt said he will "reserve the right" to strengthen or reduce the new measures as required but refused to rule out additional lockdowns if there was an outbreak of the new variant.
"We will continue to take the actions that are necessary. But the direction has been as a country, to progressively opening up, progressively providing those freedoms and always opening safely and remaining safely open."
Fears Omicron already circulating in NSW
NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said it's "quite possible" the new Omicron variant could have already hit the state.
“I can’t confirm Australia but I don’t believe there have been any in Australia yet. I can say that we appear that we’ve had no positive cases yet in NSW but I would also say that it’s quite possible,” he told reporters on Saturday.
Mr Hazzard added the discovery of the new contagious strain is a reminder to "be alert" but stopped short making any changes to the state's post-lockdown reopening roadmap.
“It could be something which is going to cause us a degree of concern going forward. We don’t know if... any of the vaccines will work with the Omicron variant.
“I would say if anybody has come into NSW and has been in South Africa in the last 14 days, we ask you to be very, very aware of your symptoms. It’s crucial to keep our community as safe as possible,” he said.
New variant triggers alarm
Scientists are urging Australia to remain vigilant until more is known about the variant’s mutations and whether existing vaccines are effective against it.
"It is not time to break the glass on the alarm, I don't think, but I'm as concerned about this as I have been since Delta," Burnet Institute director Brendan Crabb told ABC TV.
"A state of heightened alert and caution is appropriate for us in Australia and for the world."
Professor Crabb described the new strain as having "a whole host of mutations that, I must say, makes me have a sharp inhalation of breath".
He stressed the importance of keeping up vaccine coverage and infection control measures.
Do you have a story tip? Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.