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Covid update: NSW health minister says Omicron may ‘already be here’ | Australia news

Australian states and territories are bracing for the spread of the new Omicron Covid variant, with authorities conceding positive cases were inevitable.

Urgent genomic sequencing is being undertaken to determine whether two international passengers are carrying the new Omicron variant of Covid, after testing positive upon arrival in Sydney.

New South Wales premier Dominic Perrottet has warned it is “inevitable” that new variants will enter Australia.

“The clear point today is that this clearly demonstrates the pandemic is not over,” the premier told reporters on Sunday.

“There are limits to what the state and federal government can do: these variants will get into the country, it is inevitable.”

“We need to learn to live alongside the virus and to live alongside the various strains of the virus that will come our way, and the best thing we can do is get vaccinated and get booster shots.”

Perrottet said there were no plans to change the state’s reopening timeline, with restrictions on the unvaccinated to ease on 15 December.

The two passengers arrived on a Qatar Airways flight from Doha on Saturday night, with 14 other passengers arriving from southern African countries that are now affected by the new variant.

“We’ll make that decision when there’s evidence available that needs a change in position. But at this stage there’s no evidence available to support a change in position,” he said.

It comes as Queensland authorities refused to guarantee the state’s borders would fully reopen in December as planned.

“We’ll make that decision when there’s evidence available that needs a change in position. But at this stage there’s no evidence available to support a change in position,” he said.

Northern Territory health authorities are also running tests on an international arrival from South Africa who tested positive, and is now in quarantine at Howard Springs.

NSW Health confirmed the testing in a statement, with results expected on Sunday evening.

The passengers were transported to Special Health Accommodation, and are undertaking 14 days of quarantine.

Both the NSW and Victorian governments have introduced 72-hour isolation requirements for all fully vaccinated international arrivals, regardless of where they have arrived from.

NSW health minister Brad Hazzard said the new variant may “already be here” and that little is known about it.

“What we do know is that it’s going to be hard to ascertain just how many people are here who have been in those African nations.”

NSW recorded 185 new locally acquired cases on Sunday, and Victoria recorded 1,061 new cases and four deaths.

Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton said it would be “impossible to keep out” the new strain, but that international border closures may be a “step too far”.

“We just need the time to be clear about whether this virus is in this country already, and the extent to which it has spread globally. It’s going to be impossible to keep out, I imagine.”

“If it’s more transmissible than Delta, then it will become the global variant for sure.”

About 40 Victorians have been identified as having travelled through one of the nine southern African nations that are subject to the new restrictions.

“This is not back to the beginning,” Sutton said. “We are not back at square one by any means. The vaccination coverage that we’ve got – over 90% of eligible Victorians being fully vaccinated already – is absolutely more than useful.”

Federal health minister Greg Hunt announced a two-week ban on non-citizens arriving from South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Eswatini, Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique, the countries attempting to tackle the spread of the new variant.

Australian citizens arriving from those countries will now need to enter 14 days of supervised quarantine upon arrival.

Hunt said the federal government “will not hesitate” taking further actions if necessary.

“As information is provided, as medical advice develops, if more measures are needed we will not hesitate.”

“We took a big step yesterday to block flights from nine countries … and to require the quarantine for 14 days for people who have been in those nine countries. It is a significant hardship, but it was an important step forward,” Hunt said.

Fifty-four people who have been in those southern African nations have arrived in Australia since Saturday.

Hunt said there was preliminary advice that the new variant is not more dangerous than previous variants, in that it is does not appear to cause increased hospitalisation, serious illness or loss of life.

Prime minister Scott Morrison backed the move to introduce 72-hour isolation periods for international arrivals, calling the move “sensible and practical”.

“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.”

No cases of the Omicron variant has been recorded in Australia, with the strain already being detected in countries around the world such as the UK, Germany, Italy, Hong Kong and Israel.

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