Omicron fears for Christmas should be kept in check

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If you found yourself asking this week “when will this ever end”,you were not alone.

With restrictions mostly lifted,state and international borders reopening and quarantine scrapped for vaccinated travellers,this month was meant to be one of catharsis for NSW residents,who have struggled through a tough winter lockdown and been kept apart from friends and family for almost two years because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Families reunite at Sydney airport after the border reopened on November 1.

Families reunite at Sydney airport after the border reopened on November 1.Jessica Hromas

Butthe arrival of the Omicron variant in Australia last weekend has cast a pall of uncertainty over much anticipated travel plans and reunions. As writer Mandy Nolanput it in November,“if there’s one thing COVID has taught us,it is to expect nothing,except disappointment. When it comes to that,COVID really delivers.”

Fears COVID-19 will scupper yet another Christmas are understandable.We do not know enough about Omicron to properly assess its threat,Sydney has just recorded its first likely case of community transmission and the previous response to such developments has been a sharp and sudden increase in restrictions.

NSW had only just begun to enjoy a more normal life 12 months ago when the Northern Beaches outbreak prompted a local lockdown and new restrictions for Greater Sydney,just in time for Christmas.

However,NSW is in a far better position than this time last year,when the state’s vaccination coverage stood at zero. Now,more than 92 per cent of residents aged over 16 are fully vaccinated in NSW. That vaccination rate is holding COVID-19 at bay. Case numbers are steady and hospitalisations have fallen to a fraction of what they were at the height of the Delta outbreak in September. This gives public health authorities some breathing roomas they await further information on what Omicron can do.

In the meantime,given our high vaccination rate,the state government was right to resist any temptation to reimpose lockdown or universal quarantine in response to Omicron and to instead impose targeted measures,like 72 hours of quarantine for all international arrivals and in line with the federal government decision,mandatory quarantine for those coming from southern Africa.

Passengers are tested for COVID-19 at Sydney Airport.

Passengers are tested for COVID-19 at Sydney Airport.Getty Images

Knowing the government and our health system can withstand new variants without resorting to immediate and more extreme restrictive measures will encourage businesses and customers to spend money. And the economy needs them to do thatafter it contracted by 1.9 per cent in the September quarter.

Consumer confidence is increasing on the back of eased restrictions. As reported inThe Sun-Herald today,new restaurants are opening in Sydney nightspots and patrons are returning. The government must protect our health system from being overrun by COVID-19,but it also must shelter these economic shoots of recovery as much as possible from further pandemic-related harm.

Economic growth depends on a level of certainty. This is especially the case in the travel industry,which is relying on a reopened Australia this summer to knock it out of its two-year hibernation. The news of Omicron has rattled it – share prices and client bookings both fell last week – but further scientific information,and a continued measured response from government,will hopefully restore some confidence in the industry before Christmas.

The news of any new COVID-19 variant is worrying. But NSW is well positioned to respond to such a development thanks to our high vaccination rate and access to booster shots. Now is the time for hope,patience and evidence-based decision-making – not panic. NSW has worked hard to regain its freedoms over the past six months. It should only relinquish them when the evidence shows it is necessary.

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