• John McDonnell

No need to panic over omicron

I have a neighbour, Josef, who hails originally from Slovakia. According to the famous novel, ‘The Good Soldier Schweik’, all Slovakians are pessimists, and this certainly applies to Josef. After a quarter of century as a public servant, in a variety of departments, he is convinced that when it comes to governments, anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.

On Saturday, Josef learned from the ABC that there was a new variant of Covid-19, but the government had everything under control. This was enough to convince him that we were on the brink of mass destruction.

The same mood seems to have affected the stock-markets around the world because they took an immediate hit. Speculators started shorting the market and pundits were declaring that the threat of global inflation had receded. The pessimists declared that any chance of global economic recovery had been eliminated. Within Australia there were calls for restrictions on travel and enhanced quarantine measures.

The responses of governments were mixed. South Australia imposed new border restrictions on travellers from the eastern states. NSW and Victoria, who are the only states that allow travellers from overseas to enter without quarantine, announced that there would be no changes to their travel regulations and the commonwealth announced bans on travel for people who were not Australian residents and who were arriving from 9 African hot-spot countries. Australians coming from these countries will have to quarantine for 14 days, albeit under different conditions depending on where they arrive.

The general message from the federal government was not to panic. Health minister, Greg Hunt, said Australia would be protected by its high rate of vaccination. He told a press conference in Canberra on Monday that he was looking at bringing forward the implementation of the national booster strategy. He said he has asked the government's expert immunisation panel to review the time frame for Covid-19 booster shots, after the detection of the Omicron "variant of concern" in Australia.

The Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation's (ATAGI) current advice for the booster shot is that it be administered six months after a person has received their second dose.

Mr Hunt said Australian vaccine supplies were ready if ATAGI recommended a shorter booster time frame:

"We will, as ever, allow them (ATAGI) to act independently and continue to follow their advice.
"But we're prepared with supplies. We are already one of the earliest nations in the world, after Israel, to have a whole-of-nation booster program.
"If they recommend changes, we will follow those changes."

Mr Hunt said 415,000 people had so far received booster shots, out of an eligible cohort of about 500,000.

Two cases of the Omicron variant were confirmed in NSW yesterday, and NSW Health authorities are conducting urgent genomic testing to determine whether another two people who arrived from southern Africa last night have the Omicron COVID-19 variant.

The federal government on Saturday announced that non-Australian citizens who had been in 9 countries in southern Africa where Omicron had been detected were barred from entering Australia.

Mr Hunt said the government would not hesitate to take additional measures if required, but the government's aim was to "remain safely open":

"We're in a vastly different position from where we were on February 1, 2020."
"We are one of the most highly vaccinated, one of the most recently vaccinated, and one of the first to commence a whole-of-nation booster program from around the world."

He also urged calm, as he noted that early evidence suggested symptoms caused by the Omicron variant appeared to be mild.

The Chief Medical Officer said there was no evidence yet that vaccines were less effective against the Omicron variant.

None of this is likely to make Josef feel more secure. He is convinced that Christmas will be a super spreader event and that governments will handle the pandemic so incompetently that next year’s election won’t be held. I suggested that this might mean that we wouldn’t have a government and this government would be in permanent caretaker mode.

I can’t be sure, but I think that for the first time I saw him look happy.