By: Daniel Hurst
Scott Morrison has urged state premiers to “not get spooked” by the Omicron variant of Covid-19 and hold their nerve on internal border closures, while attempting to assure Australians their plans for a more normal Christmas remain on track.
The prime minister will meet with premiers and territory chief ministers at a national cabinet meeting on Tuesday afternoon, as NSW Health said it had detected a likely fifth case of the new variant in the state. The Northern Territory confirmed a case on Monday.
Morrison said the Australian government’s decision to postpone reopening Australia to international students and skilled workers was just a “prudent and temporary” measure so health authorities could gather information about Omicron.
“We don’t know enough yet about it,” Morrison told reporters in Canberra on Tuesday. He said he hoped Omicron would “prove to be a more moderate form of the virus”.
“We’re not going back to lockdowns, none of us want that. None of us want to go back to those long quarantines and all of those sorts of issues, and the way you protect against that, what we did last night, was protecting against that by having a sensible pause.”
The prime minister said the pause would allow the country to “move forward into Christmas with confidence”.
Morrison, who is facing an election by May next year and has campaigned for months on the national reopening plan, added: “I look forward to everybody coming together for Christmas and New Year’s and the summer holidays.”
Asked whether he would be telling the premiers at national cabinet to hold their nerves and stick to their reopening plans so that the internal borders would open by Christmas, Morrison replied: “Yes.”
He said national cabinet would seek to ensure “we’re all on the same page”, adding: “We need to make calm decisions, not get spooked by this.”
Over the weekend, the federal government announced it was banning international entry to anyone who had been in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi and Mozambique in the past 14 days, unless they were a citizen or permanent resident of Australia or their immediate family.
The government followed that up with a decision on Monday night to shift the date for reopening Australia to international skilled workers and students, as well as humanitarian, working holidaymaker and provisional family visa holders, from 1 December to 15 December. The national security committee also delayed the reopening to travellers from Japan and South Korea to 15 December.
Morrison said the decision would not prevent 250 students arriving in Sydney next week in “a pilot program that was already in place” and carried out “under very controlled circumstances”.
He left open the possibility the 15 December date might be brought forward again, if health experts formed a view Omicron was less severe.
“Indeed if the information allows us to bring that forward again, great, tremendous, because in Australia, we’re moving forward,” Morrison said.
“We’re not going back when it comes to this virus. We’re going to keep moving forward into Christmas and into 2022 and we’re going to open safely and we’re going to stay safely open.”
Morrison later told parliament he wanted to maintain momentum for opening up.
In question time, Labor confronted Morrison over comments by the home affairs minister, Karen Andrews, that purpose-built quarantine facilities were “very limited in their capacity” and that hotel quarantine had worked “very effectively”.
Asked whether there had been almost 30 breaches of hotel quarantine that had led to lockdowns and border closures, Morrison sought to attack Labor as “having a bet each way on the pandemic response”.
Labor’s health spokesperson, Mark Butler, told parliament Morrison had failed to establish a single new purpose-built quarantine facility, despite expert advice to do so.
NSW Health said on Tuesday initial testing “strongly indicates” another overseas traveller had been infected with the Omicron variant of concern – which if confirmed would bring the number of confirmed cases in that state to five.
The traveller had been in southern Africa and arrived in Sydney on flight QR908 from Doha to Sydney on 25 November and travelled by car to the Central Coast, according to a NSW Health statement.
The person is now isolating at home on the Central Coast, but “a number of venues were visited by the traveller in Sydney and on the Central Coast before NSW Health directed travellers from southern Africa to go into isolation”.
More than 92% of people aged 16 and over have had at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, while 87% of that age group are fully vaccinated, according to latest nation-wide figures on Monday.