Australia delays relaxing border, 5th omicron case reported

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australian authorities announced on Monday that they would delay plans to relax border restrictions by at least two weeks, as the country reported its fifth case of the omicron COVID-19 variant.

New South Wales state authorities reported on Sunday that two travelers from South Africa to Sydney had become Australia’s first cases of the new variant. Both were fully vaccinated, showed no symptoms and were in quarantine in Sydney.

On Monday, another two Sydney cases were confirmed after arriving in Australia’s most populous state on a flight from southern Africa on Sunday, the state government said.

A South African man in his 30s who flew from Johannesburg to the northern Australian city of Darwin last Thursday also tested positive for the omicron variant, officials said.

Australia’s government decided later Monday that plans to relax border restrictions from Wednesday would be postponed until Dec. 15.

“The temporary pause will ensure Australia can gather the information we need to better understand the omicron variant, including the efficacy of the vaccine, the range of illness, including if it may generate more mild symptoms, and the level of transmission,” a government statement said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison had announced last week plans to allow vaccinated students, skilled workers and travelers on working vacations to land at Sydney and Melbourne airports without quarantining.

Vaccinated citizens of Japan and South Korea with certain Australian visas would also have been allowed in without quarantining, as well as people on humanitarian visas, according to the now-delayed border plans.

Morrison on Monday urged a calm response to omicron, which the World Health Organization has designated a variant of concern.

“Case numbers of themselves are not the issue. It’s about whether people are getting a worse illness or it’s going to put stress on your hospital system,” Morrison said.

New South Wales and Victoria, Australia’s second-most populous state, as well as the national capital Canberra have introduced a blanket 72-hour quarantine requirement for all international arrivals.

The government announced on Saturday that because of the concerns about omicron, non-Australian citizens and permanent residents who have been to South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi, and Mozambique within the past 14 days will not be able to enter Australia.

Australians will be allowed in but must quarantine for 14 days.