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Omicron Covid variant: Greg Hunt backflips as Australia shuts border to southern Africa

Australia has suspended flights from nine southern African countries and closed its borders to any foreign nationals who have been to the region, amid concern about the emerging Covid-19 variant of concern, Omicron.

The announcement, made by the federal health minister, Greg Hunt, on Saturday afternoon, followed travel restrictions imposed by the United States, United Kingdom and European Union.

The new measures were discussed in a series of meetings, including between the prime minister, Scott Morrison, and the chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, early on Saturday morning. The previous day, Hunt had said Australia had no intention of closing its border to South Africa and surrounding nations.

The restrictions apply to nine African countries: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique.

Australians attempting to return home from that region will be allowed into the country, but ordered into mandatory hotel quarantine.

Anyone who is already in Australia, who has visited one of the listed nations in the past 14 days, is ordered to quarantine and get tested immediately.

Authorities say fewer than 100 recent arrivals to Australia would be subject to such orders. There are 20 people from South Africa, who have arrived during the past week, quarantining at the Howard Springs facility in the Northern Territory. One of those cases is positive, though the variant is not yet known.

Hunt said there were no known cases of Omicron in Australia, but that precautionary measures were needed given emerging concern about the variant.

Hunt said the government had taken “strong, swift, decisive and immediate actions”.

“They’re taken on the best medical advice,” he said.

“We’ve taken [precautionary] action in the past. We’ve taken early action in the past. We are doing that again.

“The difference is that we now have strong vaccines, we have one of the highest levels of coverage in the world, we have one of the most recently vaccinated populations in the world, and we have strong public health and social measures, and we also have, most significantly, a well-prepared hospital system.”

Hunt said the measures could be quickly altered – scaled up or wound back – as the world learned more about Omicron.

“If the medical evidence shows that further actions are required, we will not hesitate to take them,” he said.

Protesters move down Bourke Street in Melbourne, Australia, to protest against mandatory vaccination. Photograph: Darrian Traynor/Getty Images

The World Health Organisation and the EU have quickly classified the variant as “of concern”. Kelly said authorities still did not have “any clear indication” that it was more severe that other variants, or how it affected people who had been vaccinated.

“They’re crucial points,” he said. “It’s the reason why we’re taking this precautionary approach, which is proportionate to that risk, and putting in place the measures that the minister has outlined in relation to that.”

Earlier on Saturday, the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, called for the borders to be closed to South Africa and surrounds.

“We know the impact that Delta had when it came here,” he said. “And we can’t afford to be complacent.

“We should close the border with southern African countries, just like our counterparts in advanced economies in the northern hemisphere have done.

“The health authorities are still examining the detail but what we should have is an attitude which mitigates risk.”

State health authorities have already begun contacting international arrivals in an attempt to quickly identify and isolate anyone who has been to southern Africa.

NSW Health said all travellers who had been in the region in the 14 days before arriving in Australia should get tested and isolate until further notice.

“The emergence of this new variant reinforces the critical importance of all fully vaccinated travellers who return from overseas complying with the NSW Health guidelines; there are requirements to be tested and restrictions on attending certain high-risk premises,” NSW Health said in a statement.

On Saturday, Victoria recorded 1,252 new Covid-19 cases and five deaths.

In the third consecutive weekend of Victorian protests against vaccine mandates, thousands gathered outside state parliament at midday before moving on to Bourke Street Mall.

Protesters waved Australian and Eureka flags as well as those of other countries including Greece, Lebanon and Macedonia, and held signs with slogans such as “fear God not Dan”, “end segregation now” and “kill the bill”, in reference to the pandemic legislation before parliament.

Several bus and tram routes were affected by the protest, with motorists urged to allow plenty of extra time if travelling into the city.

A protest against mandatory vaccination was also held in Sydney’s Hyde Park.

In New South Wales there were 235 new Covid cases on Saturday.

The NT recorded two new Covid cases, including the man on a repatriation flight from South Africa. Queensland had one new case, in hotel quarantine.

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