A highly infectious variant of COVID-19 has reached Australia and is spreading rapidly around the world.
However, the nation’s chief medical officer says the hotel quarantine system should still prevent its entry into the community.
Sydney, meanwhile, is staring down the barrel of a broader COVID-19 outbreak after a new unsourced cluster in inner-west Sydney’s Croydon was uncovered.
NSW recorded 18 locally acquired cases of COVID-19 in the 24 hours to 8pm on Tuesday – only nine of which are connected to Sydney’s northern beaches area, which remains under a local lockdown.
Six cases, all from one extended family, were connected to Croydon, while the final three cases in Wollongong and northern Sydney are under investigation.
The new local cases have prompted the NSW government to limit indoor New Year’s Eve gatherings across all of greater Sydney to five people. The Sydney foreshore has already been closed off to firework-watchers.
Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said he supported the measure and believed NSW Health would squash the outbreak.
“NSW Health right throughout this pandemic have been our poster people, if you like, in relation to their contact tracing,” Dr Kelly told reporters on Wednesday.
“They are superb at this and it’s always amazing how quickly they get onto things and how quickly they work through what are sometimes very complex chains of transmission and get very detailed genomic analysis.”
The first case in Australia of the South African COVID-19 variant is a woman who arrived in Queensland on December 22. She was transferred to the Sunshine Coast University Hospital on Tuesday.
The variant is causing concern around the world because it spreads faster than novel coronavirus, although it’s not necessary more deadly.
The World Health Organisation is yet to determine whether the new variant – and a similarly-contagious strain that developed recently in the UK – could undermine vaccines being rolled out around the world.
The first Australians are set to be vaccinated by the end of March.
At least 24 countries around the world have recorded cases of the South African or UK coronavirus variants including Lebanon, Singapore, Pakistan, India, South Korea, Japan, France, Germany and Italy.
Australia has identified five cases of the British variant in arrivals from the UK, including two in NSW, two in Victoria and one in South Australia.
Dr Kelly said the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee would meet on Wednesday and discuss the prospect of pre-flight COVID-19 testing, but said Qantas was already performing that function on their flights.
He also said it was unlikely Australia would permit COVID-vaccinated international arrivals in 2021 from skipping 14 days in quarantine.
It comes after the federal government said it was considering granting “alternate entry” to Australians returning from overseas if they can prove they have already been vaccinated for the virus.
“Those decision also have to be thought through carefully over the coming months as to how that will be handled,” Dr Kelly said.
Immigration Minister Alex Hawke has repeated his threat to deport backpackers or expatriates caught having large parties in NSW.
“I have asked the Department of Home Affairs to try to identify anybody who has been disobeying public health orders,” he told the Seven Network earlier on Wednesday.
“If a person is a temporary visa holder we will cancel those visas or take action against those people … there is no excuse at this point.”
As New Year’s Eve approaches, governments across Australia including NSW are warning residents to heed restrictions and social distancing.
Victorians are being urged not to venture into Melbourne’s CBD to celebrate New Year’s Eve despite the state on Wednesday racking up its 61st day without any cases of locally acquired COVID-19.