Australia has announced new travel rules “effective immediately” following the identification of a concerning new Covid variant of concern.

Australia will close its borders immediately to nine African nations as the world races to contain a new Covid-19 variant.

In addition, Australians who have been to, or are due to arrive in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique within the last 14 days will be ordered into immediate supervised quarantine.

Health Minister Greg Hunt and chief medical officer Paul Kelly said the “strong, swift, decisive and immediate” move was required after the World Health Organisation renamed B.1.1.529 ‘Omicron’ a ‘variant of concern overnight.

In addition, non citizens who have been in those nine countries in the past 14 days will not be able to enter Australia.

International students and skilled migrants who have been in any of the nine countries in the past two weeks will not be allowed to enter Australia, and all flights from the nine countries have been suspended for 14 days “as a matter of precaution”.

The variant, which originated in South Africa, is still an enigma to global epidemiologists, but the UN health agency said in a statement the variant had a “large number of mutations, some of which are very concerning”.

“The variant has been detected at faster rates than previous surges in infection, suggesting that this variant may have a growth advantage,” the statement said.

Mr Hunt said he wanted to emphasise how “well-placed” Australia was to fight the Omicron challenge.

“(But) on the basis of medical advice, the Australian government will be implementing additional precautionary border security measures in order to protect Australians while more is learnt about the nature and impact of the Omicron variant of concern,” he said.

“There are currently no known cases of the Omicron variant in Australia.”

Australia does not receive any direct flights from South Africa, however repatriation flights have arrived into the Howard Springs quarantine facility.

There are currently 20 people in that facility who arrived from South Africa last week. One person has tested positive to Covid-19, with authorities yet to confirm what strain that person has.

Currently Australians arriving into Victoria, NSW and the ACT from overseas do not need to quarantine.

Professor Kelly said he knew there were a “small number” of travellers who had arrived in from the nine African countries in those states who authorities were trying to track down.

“It is less than 100. I can’t give an accurate figure right now, but we’re working with jurisdictions and with others to make sure that is the case,” he said.

Whether those people go into hotel quarantine or isolate in their homes will be up to the state or territory authorities.

Mr Hunt and Professor Kelly would not rule out the potential need for more restrictions, even a lockdown, should the situation worsen.

”In terms of ruling in or out what we might do, we will do what we need to do,” Professor Kelly said.

“(But) that is premature.”

Mr Hunt said it was a timely reminder for the small percentage of Australian adults who have not been vaccinated that they should come forward for their jab.

Queensland’s deputy chief health officer told journalists on Saturday that it was still “too early to panic” about the Omicron variant, but the AHPPC – the group of federal, state and territory chief health officers – would meet later in the day.

“It’s too early. We need to get more information before we act,” he said.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said he had been briefed several times on the new variant.

“We‘re still keen to keep the balance in NSW,” Mr Hazzard told reporters.

“It‘s important that we have our economy open, important to mental health, important for a whole range of reasons.”

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet said he had made no decision to change the state‘s pandemic rules but added the “road map” could be tweaked if necessary.

“From time to time there will need to be targeted restrictions,” he said.

“Any changes that need to be made in relation to incoming travellers from overseas, who have been to South Africa or those related countries, we will ensure the appropriate steps are taken to keep the community safe.”

The United Kingdom closed its borders to southern Africa, followed by other countries in Europe, the United States and Canada.

The first case of the variant detected in Europe was announced in Belgium late on Friday night Australian time.

Australia’s new border rules:

  • Anyone who is not a citizen of Australia or their dependents, who has been in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique in the last 14 days will not be able to enter Australia;
  • Australian citizens and permanent residents and their dependents arriving from these countries will need to go into immediate supervised quarantine for 14 days;
  • Restrictions apply to international students and skilled migrants – anyone who has been in one of the nine countries in the past 14 days will be denied entry to Australia;
  • Anyone who has already arrived in Australia and been in any of the nine countries in the past 14 days must immediately isolate themselves, get tested, and quarantine for 14 days from the time of their departure;
  • All flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, the Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique have been suspended for 14 days.