We explain what border restrictions have changed and what the new Covid variant means for visa holders planning to travel to Australia
The Omicron variant of Covid-19 has prompted governments around the globe to take rapid action and reintroduce border restrictions in an attempt to stop it spreading from southern Africa.
But the evidence from the two years since the coronavirus emerged suggest those efforts may not be entirely effective. Already, cases of the new variant have been found in the UK, Europe, Hong Kong and Australia.
All of the cases were in people who had recently travelled from countries in southern Africa where the Omicron variant was reported last week.
So how has Australia responded so far and what does it mean for international students and other visa holders planning to return from December?
What has changed?
On Saturday, the federal government reintroduced border restrictions on some countries in southern Africa where the Omicron variant has been detected.
The countries are: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Malawi and Mozambique.
Anyone who has been in these countries and is not an Australian citizen, permanent resident, or their immediate family will not be able to enter Australia.
Australian citizens, permanent residents and their immediate family members arriving from these countries would need to go into “immediate supervised quarantine for 14 days subject to jurisdictional arrangements”.
That also applies to anyone who had already arrived in Australia and has been in any of the nine African countries within the previous 14 days.
The federal government announced on Monday night “these measures will be continued until 15 December” at least.
In New South Wales, the government said returnees from those nine countries “must enter hotel quarantine for 14 days” whether they are vaccinated or not.
What about arrivals from other countries?
All other international arrivals to Victoria, NSW and the ACT must isolate for 72 hours and get tested as a precaution. This can be done at their place of residence or accommodation, rather than hotel quarantine.
Victoria is also reportedly considering reintroducing 14-day quarantine for all international arrivals, although no announcements have been made.
South Australia has reimposed some border restrictions. All international travellers and people arriving in SA from high-risk Australian locations will again be required to quarantine for 14 days. People arriving from lower-risk locations interstate must also have a coronavirus test within the 72 hours prior to arrival and must show proof of a negative result.
Queensland, which still requires international arrivals to complete 14 days in hotel quarantine, said they will monitor news about the new variant, but have no plans to change reopening dates at this stage.
Are further border restrictions being considered?
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, has ruled out closing the international borders to citizens and has called for calm.
Any further action taken is set to be discussed at a national cabinet in the next 48 hours.
Health experts have also suggested that border closures would be unnecessary, while the NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, warned against any “kneejerk” reactions.
“Ultimately we need to open up to the world (and) we need to do so safely,” he told reporters on Monday.
“We don’t need to have a kneejerk 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’.”
What does it means for international students and skilled migrants?
From 1 December, fully vaccinated eligible visa holders were due to be able to enter Australia without needing to apply for a travel exemption. But that’s now been delayed until at least 15 December.
The eligible visa holders included skilled migrants and international students. Fully vaccinated international visitors from Japan and the South Korea were also set to return at the start of December.
But on Monday, Morrison announced the national security committee would meet to discuss whether those changes would be delayed after the discovery of the Omicron variant.
“On the basis of medical advice provided by the chief medical officer, Prof Paul Kelly, the national security committee has taken the necessary and temporary decision to pause the next step to safely reopen Australia to international skilled and student cohorts, as well as humanitarian, working holidaymaker and provisional family visa holders from 1 December until 15 December,” the prime minister said in a statement on Monday night.
“The reopening to travellers from Japan and the Republic of Korea will also be paused until 15 December.
“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.”