Six southern African countries have now been added to the Red List, less than a month after England removed all countries from the Covid travel ‘Red List’, due to fears over the new variant, B.1.1.529 (Omicron).
In an unexpected update last night, a temporary flight ban has been imposed over the weekend to a group of African countries, while hotel quarantine facilities are being prepared.
A surge in cases of a heavily mutated coronavirus variant raised the alarm amongst global health officials causing concern over traveller safety.
From 04:00 Sunday, any UK residents arriving from the six countries will be required to quarantine in hotels, with those returning before asked to isolate at home.
Last night, the UK governement announced that South Africa, Bostwana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe will be placed back on the high-risk list from 12pm today. EU member states said on Friday that they are also likely to ban travellers from that region.
Two British Airways overnight flights from London Heathrow, BA43 to Cape Town and BA55 to Johannesburg took off just before the announcement was made. The airline tweeted about the governement’s decision shortly after their announcement and started to cancel flights to and from South Africa immediately.
Virgin Atlantic’s fight from London Heathrow to Johannesburg VS449 departed an hour late at 11:30pm on Thursday night. It would also appear passengers were informed of the governement’s decision prior to take off and given the option to offload rather than face hotel quarantine on their return to the UK.
Aviation analyst, Alex Macheras, confirmed that Virgin Atlantic had reported taking more than 32,000 bookings for South Africa in October alone – most of them for the rest of 2021.
The new variant, which is spreading rapidly in South Africa, appears to be out competing with other variants at a rapid rate. The UK Health Secretary Agency (UKHSA) is still investigating the new variant as more data is needed. Though much about this variant is still unknown, nationwide health precautions have been taken immediately. One Senior UKHSA expert said, “This is the worst variant we have seen so far.”
“As part of our close surveillance of variants across the world, we have become aware of the spread of a new potentially concerning variant”
Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said the new B.1.1.529 has a spike protein that is “Dramatically” different to the original COVID strain and “The vaccine we currently have may be less effective”. According to the UKHSA, it has over 30 mutations, which is twice as the Delta variant, and has a high potential to evade immunity build up by vaccination or prior infection. Health officials have also claimed the current vaccine is 30 per cent less effective in combating the new variant.
Although no cases have yet been identified in the UK, Belgium has detected the first case of the new coronavirus variant. Mr Javid went on to say, “We are taking precautionary action to protect public health and the progress of our vaccine rollout at a critical moment as we enter winter, and we are monitoring the situation closely.”
South Africa was effectively off-limits to British travellers for almost a year but was taken off the red list last month only to be reintroduced six weeks later. This is a significant U-turn in the governments decision to add countries on to the UK red list. As earlier reports this month suggested the government showed no prospect of travel rules changing before Christmas.
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