The UK will temporarily ban flights from South Africa and five neighbouring countries over worries about a new, dramatically different Covid-19 variant recently identified in the region.
The U.K.’s travel restrictions go into effect at noon Friday and are a precautionary measure to keep the spread of the new variant in check, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said.
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The six African countries – South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe – will be placed on the U.K.’s red list, requiring travelers to quarantine in hotels upon arrival.
Israel and Singapore have also curbed access from South Africa and neighboring nations to fight an emerging strain of coronavirus that has alarmed health officials across the world. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen proposed an “emergency brake” on air travel from South Africa, which allows EU member countries to act quickly to limit the risks from emerging virus variants.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said that starting Friday night only German citizens will be allowed to fly back from South Africa, and anyone arriving from there will have to go into quarantine for 14 days, even if they’re vaccinated.
Italy also said it would restrict travel from the region.
The South African government has criticised the UK’s decision to temporarily ban flights after the discovery of a new Covid-19 variant in the country.
“Whilst South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, the U.K.’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the U.K. seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps,” Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement on Friday.
The government is concerned about the impact the restrictions will have on tourism and business in both countries, she said.
But Devi Sridhar, a professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, said governments don’t want to take risks now and are “not going to watch and wait like we’ve done in the past.”
Just off @GMB talking about B.1.1529 (new variant). Preliminary reports from S. Africa concerning bc of # of mutations (possibly more transmissible & better able to evade existing immunity). Not yet seeded in the UK so govt moving early to delay importation & retain progress.
— Prof. Devi Sridhar (@devisridhar) November 26, 2021
Scientists are still trying to determine whether the new variant, called B.1.1529, is more transmissible or more lethal than previous ones. What’s clear is that it has the most mutations of any strain yet identified. That’s raised concerns inside South Africa and internationally, with authorities fearing a wave of cases that could increase pressure on already strained health-care systems.
“As part of our close surveillance of variants across the world, we have become aware of the spread of a new potentially concerning variant,” Javid said in a statement, adding that the new strain it’s now under investigation.
"We almost can predict how this is going to move."
— Bloomberg Quicktake (@Quicktake) November 25, 2021
Knock to airline industry
The UK’s move is a further blow to the airline industry, which was starting to recover from earlier travel restrictions and lockdowns but now faces fresh curbs and a resurgent virus in parts of Europe. The measures announced Thursday mark the biggest change in the UK’s Covid travel rules since the so-called traffic light system was overhauled earlier in the autumn to ease border crossings.
From 500 to 700 people daily arrive in the UK via South Africa on flights, a number that would normally be expected to increase in the next four to six weeks due to seasonal travel.
In addition to South Africa, the countries covered by the new restrictions are Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana.
In South Africa, virologists have detected almost 100 cases linked to the new variant to date, according to Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist and head of respiratory diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. No cases have been identified in the UK, the health department said.
World Health Organization officials have met to discuss the variant, which has also been detected in Botswana, where it’s been found in people who were vaccinated against Covid.
“Armed by our experience and understanding of the alpha and delta variants, we know that early action is far better than late action,” Ewan Birney, deputy director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, said in a Science Media Centre briefing note. “It may turn out that this variant is not as large a threat as alpha and delta, but the potential consequences of not acting on the possibility it could be are serious.”
The new variant probably evolved during a chronic infection of an immuno-compromised person, possibly in an untreated HIV/AIDS patient, said Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute. The world’s biggest number of HIV cases has made it more difficult for South Africa to fight the Covid pandemic, because the virus can linger for longer in people whose immune systems are compromised, potentially offering a bigger window for mutations.
WHO experts are meeting Friday with authorities from South Africa, according to UK officials.
It will take several weeks to see the impact of the new variant on hospitalizations and deaths and to study how it may interact with vaccines.
© 2021 Bloomberg