Fears over 'Nu' Covid variant from South Africa grow as UK revives red list

European Union considers following Britain in banning flights from South Africa, as alarm over new strain grows

A travel ban is to be imposed by the UK on six African nations because of rising concerns over the B.1.1.529 Covid-19 variant, which officials say is “the worst one we’ve seen so far”.

The European Union is considering following suit, although some of its member states are taking matters into their own hands with Italy imposing an entry ban on travellers who have been in one of the six African countries in the past 14 days.

UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe would be suspended from midday on Friday and all six countries will be added to the red list.

The new strain has also been detected in Hong Kong, Belgium and Israel, but to date they have avoided placement on the UK red list.

Israel identified three cases and the people involved were placed in quarantine.

"The variant discovered in southern African states has been identified in Israel," its health ministry said, adding it was recorded "in a person who returned from Malawi".

The three people were all vaccinated, the ministry said, without specifying the number of doses or type of vaccine.

India also issued an advisory to all states to test rigorously and screen international travellers from South Africa and other "at risk" countries, after easing some of its travel restrictions earlier this month.

The federal health ministry said reports of mutations in the new variant, identified as B.1.1.529, had "serious public health implications".

The return of UK hotel quarantine

Anyone entering the UK from the six African countries from 4am on Sunday will be required to enter quarantine in government-approved hotels.

“If anyone arrives before then, they should self-isolate at home and take a PCR test on day two and day eight," Mr Javid said.

"If anyone has arrived from any of those countries over the last 10 days, we would ask them to take PCR tests."

More on Covid-19 travel

Direct flights from the six nations to the UK are being temporarily banned until 4am on Sunday, once the quarantine hotels have been set up.

The Scottish government also said all arrivals from the six countries will be required to isolate themselves and take two PCR tests from midday on Friday, while anyone arriving after 4am on Saturday will need to stay at a managed quarantine hotel.

The Northern Ireland Executive said it was following England's restrictions.

UK Travel Secretary Grant Shapps on Friday told the BBC the flight ban isn't a silver bullet "but early action will buy more time".

South Africa criticises UK travel ban

This lesson wasn't heeded by South Africa on Friday as it called the British ban rushed.

The rand slumped more than 1 per cent against the dollar early on Friday, as the variant made investors cautious.

Hospitality stocks like Tsogo Sun Hotels and City Lodge Hotels plummeted on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange, falling 9 per cent and 20 per cent respectively, as South Africa is a major destination for British travellers.

"Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries," South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said.

Southern African tourism association SATSA said the British travel restrictions punished countries like South Africa with advanced genome sequencing capabilities.

South Africa will speak to British authorities to try to get them to reconsider their decision, the foreign ministry said.

Bans on Southern Africa flights proliferate

The UK wasn't alone in banning flights from the region.

The EU said Friday it is planning to stop air travel from southern Africa to counter the spread of the South African variant, as the 27-nation bloc is battling a massive spike in cases.

“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn.

EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she “proposes, in close coordination with the member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region”.

Germany said Ms von der Leyen’s proposal could be enacted as soon as Friday night.

Mr Spahn said airlines coming back from South Africa will only be able to transport German citizens home, and travellers will need to go into quarantine for 14 days, whether they are vaccinated or not.

EU member state Italy has jumped the gun on the flight moratorium. Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said Friday the country was following "the path of maximum caution".

WHO convenes meeting to discuss variant from South Africa

The World Health Organisation’s technical working group is to meet Friday to assess the new variant and may decide whether to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.

The WHO says coronavirus infections jumped 11 per cent in Europe in the past week, the only region in the world where Covid-19 continues to rise. The WHO’s Europe director, Dr Hans Kluge, said that without urgent measures, the continent could see another 700,000 deaths by the spring.

Singapore said it would also restrict arrivals from South Africa and nearby countries to try to keep the variant out, while India issued an advisory to all states to rigorously test and screen international travellers from South Africa and other "at risk" countries.

Updated: November 26th 2021, 2:24 PM
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