Omicron variant Australia: NSW investigating possible third case of new Covid strain

Photograph: Mark Baker/AP

Scott Morrison brings forward national cabinet meeting to discuss Australia’s response and potential further restrictions

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New South Wales is investigating a possible third case of the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 as the premier, Dominic Perrottet, has warned against “knee-jerk” reactions to the new strain.

The NSW health department announced on Sunday that two people who had recently returned from southern Africa had tested positive for the new variant in Sydney.

They were among 141 people to have flown into NSW from the handful of countries in southern Africa which have been subject to increased border restrictions since the new variant was detected.

Related: What does appearance of Omicron mean for the double-jabbed?

They include South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini, Malawi and the Seychelles.

But on Monday Perrottet said there had “possibly” been a third case, which the state’s health department was investigating

New rules introduced by the government over the weekend mean that people arriving from those nine southern African countries – where the variant was first detected – must undergo 14 days quarantine after arriving in the state. All other international arrivals are required to isolate for 72 hours.

But the premier – who has resisted any changes to the state’s roadmap out of Covid-19 restrictions – warned he was not interested in returning to wide-scale hotel quarantine or heavy-handed restrictions.

“We don’t just need to live alongside Covid, we need to learn to live alongside the variants as well,” he said.

“When there are new variants the response should not be, ‘let’s shut down.’

“Ultimately we need to open up to the world, we need to do so safely, we don’t need to have a knee-jerk reaction, we need to have a proportionate and balanced response to the situation that’s in front of us.”

It comes as Scott Morrison confirmed an urgent national cabinet meeting would be held in the next 48-hours to consider whether plans to reopen the international border to students and visa holders will go ahead as planned.

On Monday prime minister Scott Morrison said it was “too early” to make a decision about whether hotel quarantine regimes should be introduced before Christmas, but urged state leaders to stick to their current plans.

“It is important we just calmly and carefully consider this information, work together, take the decisions that are necessary and that is exactly what everybody is doing,” he told the Seven Network on Monday.

“We have to live with this virus. The fact we’ve had a new variant is not a surprise. We’ve been saying all through the pandemic that new variants also come and we’ll deal with them as they turn up.”

Also on Monday the chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, said authorities were still trying to understand what, if anything, Omicron meant for transmission and the efficacy of vaccines.

“It does transmit from person-to-person quite readily, at least at well as the Delta virus. And so that means that it will spread,” he told the ABC.

“In terms of the vaccines, there is no solid evidence at the moment that there is a problem with that. Although we will wait for further advice and laboratory studies in coming days and weeks.”

The South African doctor who alerted authorities to the new variant emphasised the strain did not appear to cause severe illness.

A man in his 30s came to see Angelique Coetzee suffering from fatigue, body aches and pain before he and his family tested positive.

“They were not very sick, none of them were extremely sick,” Dr Coetzee said.

Labor’s NDIS spokesman Bill Shorten said the Omicron strain highlighted the need for an effective quarantine system.

“I don’t think that 72 hours is enough. And if we don’t want to have more severe restrictions, then quarantine is our front-line of defence,” he told the ABC.

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