Greg Hunt asks for a review of timing of booster shots as Scott Morrison brings forward national cabinet meeting
Four cases of coronavirus from the Omicron variant have been confirmed in New South Wales after the discovery of two more infected people.
Almost 150 people have arrived in NSW from southern African countries where the new Omicron Covid variant is running rampant, with four cases now confirmed.
The two new cases arrived on a Singapore Airlines flight from southern Africa on Sunday and every other person who was on that flight is now a close contact who needs to get tested and isolate for 14 days immediately.
Both of the newly confirmed cases are fully vaccinated and are in special health accommodation, the health department said on Monday.
Genomic testing on Sunday confirmed two overseas travellers who arrived in Sydney on Saturday night had been infected with the new coronavirus variant.
Both passengers were asymptomatic when they arrived and are also in isolation in health accommodation. Both were fully vaccinated.
The NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, said 141 people had come to the state from the nine countries of concern over the past 24 hours and all have been sent to hotel quarantine for 14 days.
Although he has ordered all international arrivals to quarantine at home for 72 hours, Perrottet insisted the NSW international and state borders would remain open.
The three-day quarantine order is on top of a federal government requirement for travellers to enter quarantine for two weeks if they have been in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini, Malawi or the Seychelles in the past 14 days.
“Ultimately we need to open up to the world [and] we need to do so safely,” the premier told reporters on Monday.
“We don’t need to have a knee-jerk reaction, we need to have a proportionate and balanced response to the situation that’s in front of us. The responses should not be ‘Let’s shut down’.”
Perrottet also stressed NSW was better equipped to confront new variants.
“We’ve got to learn to live alongside the variants of the virus that come our way,” he said. “The vaccination rate here is one of the highest in the world. That is not the case in the southern African nations.”
The premier has said there are no plans to adjust the state’s reopening roadmap, which has restrictions easing for the unvaccinated on 15 December.
However, restrictions will be tailored in response to the variant if needed, he said.
Meanwhile, the state added 150 new infections to its caseload on Monday. For the fifth consecutive day, no new deaths were reported.
Hospitals are treating 170 patients, five more than the previous day, including 25 people in intensive care. Ten require ventilation.
NSW is 94.5% single-dosed for everyone 16 and over, while 92.4% are fully vaccinated. Of 12- to 15-year-olds, 81.3% have received one jab and 76.5 per cent both.
Also on Monday, the Northern Territory government confirmed a man in his 30s had tested positive to the Omicron variant after returning on a repatriation flight from Johannesburg. The man was in quarantine in the Howard Springs facility.
The territory’s deputy chief health officer Charles Pain said it was “business as usual” at the quarantine facility, but it was possible there could be more cases from the man’s flight.
“It’ll be an interesting outcome if there are further cases on there because of the higher infectivity of this virus, but we just don’t know that yet,” he said.
Amid global concern and border closures after the emergence of the new variant, the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, announced he had asked Australia’s Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation to provide advice on whether the rules on booster shots need to be reviewed.
Booster shots are available to people who had their second vaccination six months ago or more, but Hunt said the new strain had prompted him to ask for advice on whether those timeframes should be brought forward. More than 400,000 Australians have received a booster shot.
“If they provide advice that there is a change required then we will take it. I wouldn’t speculate on any timeline, I’ve given them an open brief,” he said.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, confirmed an urgent national cabinet meeting would be held in the next 48 hours to consider whether plans to reopen the international border to students and visa holders will go ahead as planned.
On Monday, Morrison said it was “too early” to make a decision about whether hotel quarantine regimes should be introduced before Christmas, but urged state leaders to stick to their current plans.
“It is important we just calmly and carefully consider this information, work together, take the decisions that are necessary and that is exactly what everybody is doing,” he told the Seven Network.
“We have to live with this virus. The fact we’ve had a new variant is not a surprise. We’ve been saying all through the pandemic that new variants also come and we’ll deal with them as they turn up.”
Also on Monday, the country’s chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, said authorities were still trying to understand what, if anything, Omicron meant for transmission and the efficacy of vaccines. He called for people to be “alert, but not alarmed”.
Kelly said information out of southern Africa suggested the strain was particularly transmissible, but that were mixed reports about the symptoms for people infected with the strain.
“Some reports out of South Africa are that it’s mostly mild. Other information we have is that hospitalisation rates are increasing. So, we need to get further information there, and we are getting that information,” he said.
“What we do know of the two cases that have so far been diagnosed in Australia – and there may be more, but at the moment, two – both young people, both from South Africa, both fully vaccinated, asymptomatic. That’s just two people.
“We know in Hong Kong: two cases there. Young people, a transmission in hotel quarantine from one person to the other, young, fully vaccinated, asymptomatic.
“So, we need to see whether that is actually the characteristic of this virus. Of course, if it is, that’s very reassuring, but it’s too early to definitely say that.”
The South African doctor who alerted authorities to the new variant emphasised the strain did not appear to cause severe illness.
A man in his 30s came to see Dr Angelique Coetzee suffering from fatigue, body aches and pain before he and his family tested positive.
“They were not very sick, none of them were extremely sick,” Coetzee said.