Saudi Arabia suspends international Umrah over new Covid-19 variant

Decision taken after several European countries ban travel from Britain

Muslim worshippers pray around the Kaaba in the Grand Mosque complex, Islam's holiest shrine, in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca on November 1, 2020, as authorities expand the year-round Umrah pilgrimage to accommodate more worshippers while relaxing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic curbs.  / AFP / -
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Saudi Arabia suspended international Umrah, cancelling all international flights and stopping entry through its land and sea ports for at least a week.

The move is an attempt to fend off a fast-spreading Covid-19 mutant strain discovered in Britain.

Umrah is a short pilgrimage that can be performed by Muslims any time during the year. Millions of people come to the Gulf country each year to perform the Umrah to Makkah in Saudi Arabia. But because of the coronavirus outbreak, the kingdom suspended Umrah in March and significantly downsized its Hajj pilgrimage.

The kingdom is "temporarily suspending all international flights – except in exceptional cases – for a period of one week, which can be extended by another week", the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) announced on Sunday.

"Entry to the kingdom through land and sea ports will also be suspended for a week, which can be extended by another week," SPA reported.

The suspension does not apply to international aircraft currently in the kingdom, which will be allowed to leave, the agency said.

The suspensions, it said, would continue until "medical information about the nature of this [mutated] virus becomes clear".

Anyone from a country where the new strain of the virus appeared after December 8 who has arrived in Saudi Arabia must isolate at home for two weeks, the interior ministry said. Those people also have to take a Covid-19 test during the isolation period and retake the test every five days.

Anyone who has returned from or passed through a European country, or any country where the new strain has appeared, during the past three months, must take a Covid-19 test too.

The movement of goods, commodities and supply chains from countries where the new strain has not appeared are excluded from the above-mentioned measures, the Ministry of the Interior said.

Several European countries banned travel from Britain on Sunday as the UK government issued a warning that the new strain of the virus was "out of control".

Kuwait also announced a ban on Sunday on passenger flights from Britain over the mutant strain, which has rapidly spread throughout the country.

Alarm bells are ringing in Europeafter the continent last week became the first region in the world to pass 500,000 deaths from Covid-19.

Last week, Saudi Arabia began its three-phase Covid-19 vaccination programme, after the first shipments of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived in the kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has recorded more than 361,000 Covid-19 cases, including more than 6,000 deaths – the highest among the Gulf states.