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Omicron: Japan joins Israel in banning foreign visitors as global travel convulses over new variant

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Japan is joining Israel in banning foreign visitors while Australia announced it will review plans to reopen borders as the new coronavirus variant Omicron casts a growing cloud over global travel

Potentially more contagious than prior variants, the new variant first identified in South Africa has been found in a host of countries including the UK, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Hong Kong, and the Netherlands.

It could take “days to several weeks” to understand the level of severity of Omicron, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which flagged it as a “variant of concern”.

As a precaution to avert a worst-case scenario, Japan announced on Monday that it will close its borders to foreigners from Tuesday.

“These are temporary, exceptional measures that we are taking for safety’s sake until there is clearer information about the Omicron variant,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters.

He did not say how long the restriction would stay. Japanese citizens returning from specified nations would face quarantine in designated facilities, Mr Kishida added.

Watch: Tokyo residents react after Japan slams borders shut over Omicron fears

While Japan has not yet found any Omicron infections, Health Minister Shigeyuki Goto said tests were being run to determine if the new variant had infected a traveller from Namibia who tested positive for the virus.

Israel’s ban took effect from midnight on Sunday. It has also vowed to use counter-terrorism phone-tracking technology to combat the new variant.

Meanwhile has announced it will delay the reopening of its international border by two weeks.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison convened a meeting of his national security committee and said it received advice from Australia’s chief health officer to delay the reopening after the first cases of the new variant were detected on Sunday.

Morrison said earlier this month Australia would reopen its border to foreign visa holders on December 1.

The country shut its borders in May 2020 and allowed only restricted numbers of citizens and permanent residents to enter.

An international traveller wearing personal protective equipment  at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport on Monday (AFP via Getty Images)
An international traveller wearing personal protective equipment at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport on Monday (AFP via Getty Images)

Symptoms of Omicron are so far mild and could be treated at home, according to South African doctor who was one of the first to suspect a different variant.

Elsewhere, Switzerland effectively banned British tourists after it added the UK to its quarantine list.

In another body blow for the international travel industry, Morocco was banning all inbound international passenger flights for two weeks from Monday.

Singapore has deferred the start of vaccinated travel lanes with Middle Eastern countries, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in view of their role as “transport nodes” for affected countries, its health ministry said.

The wealthy southeast Asian city-state and neighbouring Malaysia re-opened their land border, one of the world's busiest, allowing vaccinated travellers to cross after a shutdown that lasted nearly two years.

Meanwhile Britain said it would call an urgent meeting of G7 health ministers on Monday.

South Africa has denounced the measures as unfair and potentially harmful to the economy, saying it was being punished for its scientific ability to identify variants early.

“The prohibition of travel is not informed by science, nor will it be effective in preventing the spread of this variant,” President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Sunday.

“The only thing (it) ... will do is to further damage the economies of the affected countries.”

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