Snap national cabinet meeting called as Covid emergency deepens

An emergency national cabinet meeting will be held on Tuesday amid rising numbers of Covid-19 cases linked to the Omicron variant.

Dec 20, 2021, updated Dec 20, 2021
Prime Minister Scott Morrison. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the emergency meeting after a surge in virus cases n NSW and Victoria as well as smaller jumps in Queensland and South Australia.

With Christmas holiday arrangements thrown into chaos as the Omicron variant spreads throughout the country, the leaders will be under pressure to ensure some certainty for travellers and tourism and hospitality businesses.

National cabinet was initially not scheduled to reconvene until early next year but Morrison said leaders needed to fine tune approaches to Omicron as more became known about the new variant.

He urged states and territories not to bring back restrictions on travel ahead of Christmas.

“We would urge (state and territory leaders) be calm, and consistent messages be given about travel arrangements and the requirements,” he told reporters in Brisbane on Monday.

“It’s not unusual we would be meeting more regularly with Omicron being where it is.

“When we last met, we made some decisions, and it’s a good opportunity to update on all of that before Christmas.”

Experts are warning of a surge in cases in Australia during the Christmas and New Year period due to interstate travel and large gatherings.

Another 49 locally acquired COVID-19 cases have emerged in Queensland with face masks and booster shots recommended amid concerns about a potential Omicron superspreader event.

NSW recorded 2501 new daily cases, with 261 people in hospital. Of those, 33 are in intensive care.

Victoria reported 1302 additional infections. The state has 406 people in hospital including 81 in intensive care.

South Australia recorded 105 new infections, while there were 59 in Queensland. The ACT recorded 13 cases and Tasmania three.

Three new infections were also confirmed in the Northern Territory as it extended a lockdown in the town of Tennant Creek until Wednesday.

It has also opened to fully vaccinated travellers and has scrapped quarantine requirements for arrivals.

Labor deputy leader Richard Marles accused the coalition government of leaving Australia behind other nations when it came to booster shots.

“Scott Morrison has stuffed up the rollout of the vaccine initially this year, now we’re seeing it happen again with the booster,” he said.

“The Omicron variant, obviously, creates another dimension to needing to deal with the virus and I think it’s going to continue to throw challenges up for us.”

More than one million people have already received their Covid-19 booster shot, with take up growing as Omicron cases increase.

The decision to reduce the gap between second and third doses to five months means up to four million people will be eligible for a booster this year.

The prime minister maintained Australia had enough boosters to meet demand, with 13 million doses in the country.

“There was some pressure, but that’s been overcome now and people will be able to get on and (get their booster) over the course of the summer break,” he said.

Morrison played down the prospect of states and territories bringing back harsher pandemic measures as is happening in Europe.

Masks will be mandatory indoors in Tasmania from Tuesday.

Queensland has mandated masks in hospitals and retail shops considered essential, but recommends people wear them elsewhere indoors.

NSW is resisting calls to tighten its pandemic response including bringing back masks indoors.
Premier Dominic Perrottet says it’s a matter of “personal responsibility”.

The new Queensland cases emerged after 13,595 tests in the 24 hours to 6.30am on Monday, however only one unvaccinated case has been seriously ill and is recovering.

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Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk says the jump was expected with 197,546 border passes issued for people from interstate Covid-19 hotspots in the past week.

“We strongly recommend that you wear your mask in an indoor setting, so we’re not mandating it but I will be wearing my mask when I go in and out of cafes or restaurants, and when you’re sitting there you can take your mask off,” Ms Palaszczuk told reporters before getting her vaccine booster on Monday.

“This is just an added precaution until we get to that 90 per cent fully vaccinated (rate), but also too we need Queenslanders to get their boosters, it’s really important.

“If your boosters are due, please go and get your booster.”

Of the 49 new local cases, 16 were linked to a known case, nine were interstate-acquired and 24 were under investigation.

Another 10 cases were recorded in quarantine with at least one of those overseas-acquired.

Queensland Chief Health Officer John Gerrard says 13 cases are Omicron and eight are Delta with the variant of the other 38 unknown.

Brisbane, the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast, Toowoomba and Townsville have new cases with Dr Gerrard concerned about a potential Omicron superspreader event in Brisbane last Monday.

More than 2670 people attended the Griffith University graduation ceremony for nurses and paramedics at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre on that day.

Gerrard said there were already 15 cases linked to the event, including some Omicron cases, and more were expected.

“It’s likely that the whole episode will be an Omicron cluster,” the chief health officer said.

There are 66 people in hospital and 32 being treated at home, but only one COVID-19 patient has been moderately ill during the last week. She was unvaccinated and is recovering.

Gerrard said it was likely the hospital and ICU numbers would pick up over coming weeks, due to the lag time on virus symptoms developing.

“So it will be very instructive to learn in the next one to two weeks what pattern we see in the hospitals,” he said.

The latest figures show 84.7 per cent of Queenslanders are fully vaccinated and 89.8 per cent have had at least one jab.

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