Australia delays border reopening as Omicron cases rise

FILE PHOTO: People sit in the arrivals section of the international terminal of Kingsford Smith International Airport the morning after Australia implemented an entry ban on non-citizens and non-residents intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Sydney, Australia, March 21, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia said on Monday it would delay the reopening of its international border by two weeks after reporting its first cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison convened a meeting of his national security committee and said it received advice from Australia's chief health officer to delay the reopening after the first cases of the new variant were detected on Sunday.

Morrison said earlier this month Australia would reopen its border to foreign visa holders on Dec. 1, in the latest steps to restart international travel. The country shut its borders in May 2020 and allowed only restricted numbers of citizens and permanent residents to enter.

"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," Morrison said in an emailed statement.

The delay is a blow to Australia's A$2 trillion ($1.4 trillion) economy, with employers long calling for a resumption of arrivals of students and skilled migrants to ease labour shortages

The return of foreign students alone are worth about A$35 billion a year to the Australian economy.

Omicron, dubbed a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organization, is potentially more contagious than previous variants. But health authorities do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe COVID-19 compared to other strains.

The announcement came as Australia recorded its fifth case of the Omicron variant.

The bulk of the cases have been detected in Australia's most populous state of New South Wales, while another person who arrived in the Northern Territory from South Africa has also tested positive.

Officials on Sunday ordered 14-day quarantine for citizens returning from nine African countries.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said he asked the country's immunisation advisory group to review the time frame for COVID-19 booster shots, in light of the new strain. About 87% of Australia's population aged over 16 is fully vaccinated, above the rates seen in the United States, Britain and much of Western Europe.

Australia has so far recorded about 209,000 coronavirus cases and 1,997 deaths since the pandemic began.

Neighbouring New Zealand, which has closed its borders since early 2020, said it would go ahead with a planned relaxation of domestic movement restrictions from this week, regardless of Omicron.

($1 = 1.3988 Australian dollars)

(Additional reporting by Byron Kaye and Colin Packham in Canberra; Editing by Stephen Coates and Jacqueline Wong)

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