International travellers wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) arrive at Melbourne's Tullamarine Airport on November 29, 2021 as Australia records it's first cases of the Omicron variant of Covid-19. ( AFP / William WEST)

Posts mislead on Australia's Covid travel restrictions after Omicron cases recorded

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Posts shared tens of thousands of times on Facebook and Twitter have questioned how the new Omicron coronavirus variant reached Australia if "the unvaccinated cannot leave or enter", implying that vaccines provide ineffective protection against the disease. The claim, however, is misleading: unvaccinated Australians are allowed to leave or enter the country under certain exemptions. Experts have consistently said that while Covid-19 vaccines reduce the chances of severe disease and death, vaccinated individuals can still transmit the virus.

"How did the Omicron variant get into Australia if the unvaxxed can't leave or enter?" reads this post shared on Facebook on November 29 by an Australia-based user.

"This is where the narrative falls apart. IF people can't see it now there is no hope. We have to stand up once and for all or it will never stop," the post continues.

The post shared a screenshot of this Twitter post, which has been retweeted tens of thousands of times.

The claim circulated online shortly after the state of New South Wales confirmed two fully vaccinated people who travelled to Sydney from southern Africa were found to be infected with the Omicron coronavirus variant.

The variant -- first detected by South African researchers in November -- has sparked global concern over its rapid spread.

On December 3, Australia reported a student with no history of foreign travel had also tested positive for the variant, the country's first detected case of community transmission.

Identical posts were also shared on Facebook here, here and here.

But the posts are misleading.

Border restrictions

Unvaccinated travellers are allowed to leave or enter Australia under certain exemptions, according to the Australian Department of Health website.

The website states unvaccinated travellers must comply with stricter border measures than those who have been vaccinated, or they could face penalties.

"This includes seeking an exemption to travel, travelling within international passenger caps, and undertaking mandatory 14 days managed quarantine," the page reads.

Exemptions for unvaccinated travellers include urgent medical care, work and compelling or compassionate grounds.

The rules state unvaccinated travellers must quarantine for 14 days in a government-administered facility, while vaccinated travellers can quarantine at home.

Virus transmission

Experts have repeatedly warned that while Covid-19 vaccines reduce the risk of severe disease and death from the virus, vaccinated people can still transmit Covid.

"[Vaccinated people] may have as much virus in their nose and throat as people who haven't been vaccinated, but they seem to have it for less time, so they have less time to transmit [the virus]", Professor Nancy Baxter, head of the University of Melbourne's School of Global Health and Population, told AFP.

She said it remains unclear how vaccines will respond to Omicron.

"With each new major variant of Covid they seem to kind of evade the vaccine a little bit more," she said. "Because they aren't as effective at preventing people from getting sick, there can still be transmission."

On its website, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also states: "Vaccinated people can still become infected and have the potential to spread the virus to others, although at much lower rates than unvaccinated people."

In November, the World Health Organization's director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus warned that vaccinated people can still transmit the virus.

"If you are vaccinated, you have a much lower risk of severe disease and death but you are still at risk of being infected and infecting others", he said.

Other misleading claims about Covid vaccination in Australia have been debunked by AFP here, here and here.