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Australia COVID-19 numbers surge as omicron outbreak strains domestic politics

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Australia recorded another surge in COVID-19 infections on Tuesday as an outbreak of the highly infectious omicron variant disrupted a staged reopening of the economy, while state leaders argued over domestic border controls.

The three most populous states, New South Wales (NSW), Victoria and Queensland, reported just under 10,000 new cases between them the previous day, putting the country on course to eclipse the previous day’s record total of 10,186 cases.

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There were five COVID-19 deaths reported, although the authorities did not specify whether any were related to the omicron variant.

The country’s five other states and territories, which have also been experiencing flareups of the virus, were yet to report figures.

The omicron variant, which medical experts say is more transmissable but less virulent than previous strains, began to spread in Australia just as the country got underway with its plan to reopen after nearly two years of stop-start lockdowns.

With the resumption of rising case numbers – despite a vaccination rate of more than 90 percent for Australians aged over 16 – the country’s state leaders have brought back some containment measures like mandatory mask-wearing and QR code check-ins at public venues.

But the rising case numbers have led to mandatory self-isolation for thousands of workers in the hospitality, entertainment and airline sectors – the sectors worst hit by lockdowns – resulting in canceled theater shows, closed restaurants and postponed flights.

The new outbreak has also fueled a resumption of fractious domestic politics which defined much of the pandemic as some states resist calls to remove internal border controls.

NSW, home to Sydney and a third of Australia’s 25 million population, called on neighboring Queensland to shift from mandatory clinical testing to on-the-spot rapid antigen testing for people traveling to the tourist-popular state following complaints of hours-long wait times.

NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard said a quarter of his state’s PCR tests were “tourism tests”, causing enormous pressure of the health system, extraordinary long testing queues and wait times for results, sometimes for days.

In one case, a Sydney testing clinic sent incorrect negative test results to some 1,400 people. Hazzard said the bungle was the result of “human error, and when people are under presure, human errors are more frequent”.

Queensland has promised to review its border testing rules from Jan. 1, but Hazzard urged Queensland to drop the rule immediately.

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Queensland Health Minister Yvette D’Ath did not respond to Hazzard’s comments about border testing at a news conference, but said the state would remove another testing rule for interstate arrivals: people arriving in the state would no longer have to take a virus test five days after arriving.

Australia’s international border remains effective closed, but Australian nationals may return without mandatory hotel quarantine and the country has said it would allow certain skilled workers and foreign students in.

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UAE reports 3,014 COVID cases, four new deaths in 24 hours

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The UAE reported on Thursday 3,014 COVID-19 infections and four new deaths in 24 hours after conducting 504,831 tests.

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Saudi Arabia reports 5,591 new COVID-19 infections, two deaths in 24 hours

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The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia reported 5,591 COVID-19 cases and two new deaths in 24 hours, according to the Ministry of Health.

This brings the total number of cases in the Kingdom to 638,327.

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Thailand to resume quarantine-free travel from Feb. 1 after pause due to omicron

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Thailand will resume its quarantine-free travel scheme from February 1, officials said Thursday, after the program was suspended due to the fast-spreading omicron COVID-19 variant.

Read the latest updates in our dedicated coronavirus section.

Pandemic travel curbs have hammered the kingdom’s tourism-dominated economy, sending visitor numbers dwindling to a trickle.

Fully vaccinated travelers will now be able to enter under the “test and go” scheme as long as they take COVID-19 tests on the first and fifth days after arriving, spokesman for the country’s COVID-19 taskforce Taweesin Visanuyothin told reporters.

Visitors will have to isolate at a hotel while waiting for their test results and will be required to download a tracking app to ensure they comply with the rules.

Seeking to bounce back from its worst economic performance since the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Thailand launched the “test and go” scheme in November as an alternative to two weeks’ hotel quarantine.

The program was suspended late last month over fears about omicron, but with deaths and hospitalizations not spiking, Taweesin said it could resume, though the authorities will keep it under review.

“In case there are more infections or the situation changes, there will be a re-assessment for inbound travelers and adjust toward the sandbox scheme,” Taweesin said.

Under the sandbox program launched last year as a first step towards resuming tourism, fully jabbed visitors spend seven nights in certain designated locations, such as the resort island of Phuket, before being allowed to travel on to the rest of Thailand.

In a further relaxation of COVID-19 restrictions, restaurants will be allowed to serve alcohol until 11:00 p.m. – easing the current 9:00 p.m. cut-off.

The tourism ministry estimates that some five million foreign visitors will come to Thailand in 2022 — down from nearly 40 million in the year before the pandemic.

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