Australia and the world’s COVID recovery has received a sharp shock as new variant Omicron spread from Southern Africa all the way to Europe and New South Wales over the past few days.
Naturally, this has been striking fear in those with travel plans as Omicron and the world’s response has served up a stern reminder of how quickly circumstances can change and borders can slam shut, with Australia, the US, the European Union, Japan and more all swiftly closing their borders to a range of Southern African countries.
NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has revealed there is a confirmed two cases and a “possible” third of the new strain in NSW. NSW, the ACT and Victoria are now requiring all overseas arrivals to get tested and isolate for 72 hours and South Australia is now requiring all international arrivals to do a full two weeks of quarantine.
At a Federal level, Australia has closed its borders and suspended flights to nine Southern African countries, including South Africa, Namibia and Zimbabwe.
The question for travellers, particularly those with international bookings already made, is of course, do I panic? Before you do, here’s everything you need to know to continue to make informed and safe decisions about your travel.
Is Omicron more dangerous than other variants?
The first worries of a new COVID strain generally leads to two worries: if it’s more deadly than previous variants; and if our vaccines will remain effective against it.
While at this stage, it isn’t possible to provide definitive answers to these concerns, initial signs don’t show reason to panic yet.
The South African Medical Association chair Dr Angelique Coetzee was one of the first doctors to discover the new variant and despite bringing the virus to the attention of the world, has actually criticised the world’s response and the “hype” around the strain.
“Looking at the mildness of the symptoms that we are seeing, currently there’s no reason for panicking as we don’t see severely ill patients.”
“The hype that’s been created currently out there in the media and worldwide, doesn’t correlate with the clinical picture. And it doesn’t warrant to just cut us off from any travelling and ban South Africa, as if we are the variants in the whole process, it should not be like that.”
Ms Coetzee also commented that vaccine effectiveness isn’t yet able to be evaluated, as about 50% of patients with the strain that she has treated are not vaccinated, adding “So far, we’ve only seen breakthrough infections, not severe infections..for now it seems as if it might protect you, but again it’s very early.”
As far as what’s coming out of Australia, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly has said it is currently “early days” and while evidence appears to be showing that Omicron is as infectious as Delta, it doesn’t yet appear to be more severe.
“On severity, there are some signs in South Africa but particularly those in other countries – and that number is growing overnight – that it is relatively mild compared with previous versions.”
“But it’s early days and we need to be careful of that. But there’s no sign that it is more severe at the moment.”
“In terms of the vaccines, there is no solid evidence that there is a problem with that. But we are looking very closely and we’re looking for further advice and laboratory studies in coming days and weeks.”
What does this mean for borders?
Countries across the world including the US, European Union, Brazil, Canada and more have placed restrictions on those entering from Southern African countries, while these are unlikely to affect Australian travellers, they more so serve as reminders to how quickly you can get shut out.
Some countries have taken even more drastic actions, with Israel completely shutting down borders to all non-citizens and Morocco suspending all incoming flights for the next fortnight.
Many travel insurance policies at the moment are not covering for border closures, highlighting an importance to be aware of what your insurance covers.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed that national cabinet will be meeting tomorrow afternoon, with premiers and chief ministers set to discuss the Omicron variant, also commenting that he is not yet willing to comment on whether quarantine could be reinstated before Christmas.
Mr Morrison said: “We have had many new variants, we have had many variants of concern.”
“This is another variant of concern and it is one that the initial information is suggesting some [increased] transmissibility but even that, as yet, is not fully proven. So it is important we just calmly and carefully consider this information.”
“National Cabinet will come together over the next couple of days and a key purpose of that is to ensure we are all working off the same information.”
In terms of travel within Australia, there is yet to be cause for concern, with Queensland Deputy Premier Steven Miles confirming that “nothing has changed at this stage” in relation to Queensland’s reopening plan.
“Officials are monitoring developments around the country and around the world, and whether that will affect any settings here.”
“People should be assured we will continue to take a cautious, well-prepared approach.”
Explore more: https://www.smartraveller.gov.au/