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Just 14 days before cruise ship ban renews and now Omicron delays Australia’s restart

New COVID strain Omicron has halted Australia’s cruise restart with just 14 days to go before the Biosecurity Act ban on foreign flagged vessels is due for renewal.

The state has told Cruise Passenger it is now waiting for the Federal Government’s all-clear before it can start planning the return of ships.

Last week, we reported a meeting with cruise lines and NSW government officials looked set to result in permission to sail as early as next February for local waters.  But the sudden concerns over Omicron and the world’s response has meant health officials were forced to delay any announcement about cruising in the state.

It had been expected that an early announcement on the Biosecurity Act ban on foreign flagged vessels, which expires on December 17, would allow homeported fleets like those of Princess, P&O and Carnival could be back.

But after news of the new strain and the first cases in Australia, P&O Cruises Australia cancelled further sailings until March 3, 2022. “Recent speculation about the lifting of the ban on cruise ships has been encouraging but uncertainty continues around the resumption of cruising in Australia,” said P&O Cruises Australia President Sture Myrmell.

There is widespread support from NSW and Federal Government for a return of cruising, and the move is still expected to eventuate.

Ironically, nine more vessels have returned to service around the world, bringing to 239 cruise the number of ships operating from 68 brands globally, according to the December edition of the Cruise Ships in Service Report by Cruise Industry News.

there are concerns that Australia could now miss the season until next October. Executive Chair of Australian Chamber of Tourism, John Hart, said on radio yesterday:  “It takes three to six months to get ships into Australia once we have a date set and it’s just not worth doing that and committing to that timeline if we’re not certain that we’ll be able to cruise.”

“Even if the ban was removed we really wouldn’t have ships in the country until maybe March,” Mr Hart said. “If we miss March, we miss the whole cruising season in Australia.”

Here’s what cruisers need to know:

Is Omicron more dangerous than other variants?

While at this stage, it isn’t possible to provide definitive answers to these concerns, initial signs don’t show reason to panic yet.  The South African Medical Association chair Dr Angelique Coetzee was one of the first doctors to discover the new variant and despite bringing the virus to the attention of the world, has actually criticised the world’s response and the “hype” around the strain.

“Looking at the mildness of the symptoms that we are seeing, currently there’s no reason for panicking as we don’t see severely ill patients.”

“The hype that’s been created currently out there in the media and worldwide, doesn’t correlate with the clinical picture. And it doesn’t warrant to just cut us off from any travelling and ban South Africa, as if we are the variants in the whole process, it should not be like that.”

Ms Coetzee also commented that vaccine effectiveness isn’t yet able to be evaluated, as about 50% of patients with the strain that she has treated are not vaccinated, adding “So far, we’ve only seen breakthrough infections, not severe infections..for now it seems as if it might protect you, but again it’s very early.”

As far as what’s coming out of Australia, Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly has said it is currently “early days” and while evidence appears to be showing that Omicron is as infectious as Delta, it doesn’t yet appear to be more severe.

“On severity, there are some signs in South Africa but particularly those in other countries – and that number is growing overnight – that it is relatively mild compared with previous versions.”

“But it’s early days and we need to be careful of that. But there’s no sign that it is more severe at the moment.”

“In terms of the vaccines, there is no solid evidence that there is a problem with that. But we are looking very closely and we’re looking for further advice and laboratory studies in coming days and weeks.”

What does this mean for borders?

Countries across the world including the US, European Union, Brazil, Canada and more have placed restrictions on those entering from Southern African countries, while these are unlikely to affect Australian travellers, they more so serve as reminders to how quickly you can get shut out.

Some countries have taken even more drastic actions, with Israel completely shutting down borders to all non-citizens and Morocco suspending all incoming flights for the next fortnight.

Many travel insurance policies at the moment are not covering for border closures, highlighting an importance to be aware of what your insurance covers.

What’s next?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said he is planning on calling a meeting of state and territory leaders to discuss the nation’s response to the Omicron variant and has said he is not yet willing to make decisions about whether quarantine could be reinstated before Christmas.

Mr Morrison said: “We have had many new variants, we have had many variants of concern.”

“This is another variant of concern and it is one that the initial information is suggesting some [increased] transmissibility but even that, as yet, is not fully proven. So it is important we just calmly and carefully consider this information.”

“National Cabinet will come together over the next couple of days and a key purpose of that is to ensure we are all working off the same information.”

Explore more: https://www.smartraveller.gov.au/