UK travel industry says 'knee-jerk' bans won't stop Omicron variant

Hard-hit sector fears latest measures will suppress customer demand

A woman uses a swab to take a sample at a Covid-19 testing unit in Uxbridge, west London. Scotland has confirmed six cases of the Omicron Covid-19 variant, after England confirmed three infections. AFP
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The UK travel industry has reacted with frustration and some anger at the reintroduction of travel bans after the emergence of the heavily mutated Omicron variant.

Former British Airways boss Willie Walsh was among the dissenting voices on Monday, describing the move as "knee-jerk".

“It’s clear that these measures have been completely ineffective in the past but impose huge hardship on people who are trying to connect with family and friends – and massive financial damage to the tourism and airline industry,” he told the BBC.

Mr Walsh, director general of airline industry body the International Air Transport Association, said travel bans had "no long-term benefit" and proposed a "sensible testing regime" as an alternative.

The UK government's blanket reimposition of mandatory PCR testing for arrivals into the country, regardless of their Covid-19 status, is not considered sensible by UK travel trade association Abta. It fears the such measures will suppress customer demand and compound the misery of a sector already one of the "hardest hit" by the pandemic.

“While Abta understands that this is a rapidly evolving situation and public health must come first, the decision to require all arrivals to take a PCR test and self-isolate until a negative result is returned is a huge blow for travel businesses, many of whom were only just starting to get back on their feet after 20 months of severe restrictions,” an Abta spokesman said.

“These changes will add cost to people’s holidays, which will undoubtedly impact consumer demand and hold back the industry’s recovery, so it’s vital that this decision is kept under careful review and restrictions are lifted promptly if it becomes clear there is not a risk to the UK vaccination programme.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the UK's new travel rules on Saturday, having already resurrected the red list for travel, which consists of 10 African countries.

Scientists welcomed the new restrictions.

“The decision by the government to reimplement the need for a PCR test from all individuals arriving in the UK from abroad on day two, with self-isolation until a negative test is reported, while frustrating for those travelling is essential in order to rapidly identify cases of infection with the Omicron variant and implement prompt isolation and targeted contact tracing to limit the spread of the variant in the UK,” said Dr Nathalie MacDermott, a lecturer at King’s College London.

Omicron cases treble in UK

As the British government rushes to secure its borders, the number of cases of the new strain in the UK has trebled.

Six new cases of the B.1.1.529 variant, named Omicron by the World Health Organisation, have been identified in Scotland after England confirmed three infections, taking the total in Britain to nine. Four cases were detected in Lanarkshire and two in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, the Scottish Government confirmed.

The UK government joined nations around the world in introducing tougher curbs on public freedom to slow the spread of the new variant, which was first identified in South Africa.

Public Health Scotland and local protection teams were working together and contact tracing was being undertaken to establish the origin of the strain and any people with whom those infected they have come into contact.

“This will be a worrying time for the six people now identified as having the new variant,” Scotland’s Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said.

“There is still much to learn about the Omicron variant. Questions remain about its severity, transmissibility and response to treatments or vaccines and scientists are working at pace to provide additional information.

“Until more is known, we must be cautious and do everything we can to minimise the risk of spreading infection.”

Speaking at a briefing on Monday, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called for stricter travel restrictions. Ms Sturgeon and Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford have jointly written to Mr Johnson proposing that people arriving in the UK have to self-isolate for eight days, with tests on day two and day eight.

Ms Sturgeon said some of the Omicron cases identified in Scotland have no travel history, which suggests some degree of community transmission is already at play.

The first two cases in the UK – in Nottingham and Essex – were announced on Saturday, while a third Omicron infection was detected on Sunday in a person with travel links to southern Africa.

Secondary school pupils were “strongly advised” to wear face masks in communal areas. From Tuesday, face coverings will once again be compulsory in England in shops and on public transport, four months after the rules were relaxed.

Anyone who refuses to wear a mask could be fined £200 for the first offence, lowered to £100 if paid within 14 days, and £400 for the second offence. People who are repeatedly caught in public spaces without a face covering could accumulate fines of up to £6,400.

Later on Monday, the government’s vaccine advisers were expected to call for the booster vaccination programme to be expanded to all over-18s. Britain was also set

Only last month the PCR rule was eased to allow people arriving in the UK to use a cheaper lateral flow test on day two.

Speaking before the cases in Scotland were confirmed, UK Health Minister Edward Argar said authorities were monitoring the Omicron figure but warned, “I would expect that to rise”.

After the cases north of the border were confirmed, Mr Argar said: “That’s in the nature of the virus, the disease, and the likely, not certain but likely increased transmissibility of the virus.”

He told the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the new rules announced by Mr Johnson last week were “proportionate” and would “slow down the seeding and the spreading of this new variant”.

He said the measures would give scientists in the UK two to three weeks to study the variant to try to figure out how it responds to Covid-19 vaccines.

In an interview with Times Radio, Mr Argar said he was “confident” that NHS Test and Trace would be able to “scale up and meet the challenge” of the new coronavirus strain.

He said about nine in 10 contacts given by people who have tested positive for Covid-19 were successfully reached by officials “within the appropriate time”.

Health experts in South Africa, where Omicron is thought to have fuelled a fresh outbreak of coronavirus cases, say the variant appears to cause mild symptoms.

But the WHO has assessed the variant’s risks as “extremely high” and called on member states to test widely. Understanding the new strain will take several days or weeks, the agency said.

“We don’t have enough data to determine vaccine effectiveness against Omicron or disease severity, so any claims about either at this stage are not evidence-based,” said Raina MacIntyre, professor of global biosecurity at the University of New South Wales in Sydney and a member of the WHO’s Covid Vaccine Composition Technical Advisory group.

“So far, the virus has not mutated to become less severe — in fact, the opposite.”

Global health experts have said the emergence of Omicron is due to the low number of vaccines distributed to African nations compared with Western countries.

“We will only prevent variants from emerging if we are able to protect all of the world’s population, not just the wealthy parts,” said Seth Berkley, chief executive of Gavi, the organisation co-leading the Covax vaccine equity initiative.

Former British prime minister Gordon Brown, who is ambassador for global health financing at the WHO, called on wealthy nations to donate excess Covid-19 vaccines to developing countries before they expire.

“We’ve got to get vaccines out to the rest of the world,” he told Sky News. “There are probably about 100 million vaccines in the West that will be wasted by the end of the year because they’re not going to be used. And I think people hate waste and hate the idea that vaccines will pass the expiry date and not be used

“If you waste a vaccine, you’re actually putting a life at risk."

Mr Brown, who served as leader of the Labour Party and prime minister from 2007 to 2010, said only 7 per cent of people in Africa have been vaccinated and “hardly any tests” had been done on the continent, “so you don’t detect things quickly enough”.

He called on G7 health ministers to agree a “month-by-month plan” to pool vaccines and testing equipment for Africa at their meeting on Monday.

Asked about Britain’s contributions to the global vaccine distribution scheme Covax, Mr Brown appeared sceptical.

“Boris Johnson said on Saturday that Britain was leading the way – we offered 100 million vaccines. We’ve provided only 11 per cent of them so far.

“America has offered a billion vaccines and provided 25 per cent and even that’s not enough, so Britain’s record is not very good.

“And when Boris Johnson said on Saturday that the real problem in Africa was that people were not taking up the vaccines, he was wrong because the real problem in Africa, the biggest problem, is the lack of supply.

“It doesn’t help us when there has been a collective failure to get vaccines out to everybody in the world. Everybody should have access to this vaccine.”

Countries rush to stop spread of Omicron

Governments are rushing to impose travel bans and increased restrictions as the Omicron variant takes root in populations around the globe.

The variant has been detected in at least 14 countries and territories including the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Belgium, France, Austria, Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Botswana and South Africa.

On Monday it emerged that 13 cases of Omicron had been found at a football club in Portugal. One player had recently travelled from South Africa.

On Sunday, Dutch authorities said 13 cases had been identified in the country.

Two cases of Omicron have been confirmed in Australia in passengers who flew on the same flight from South Africa to Sydney, Australian health officials confirmed on Monday. Both are fully vaccinated and are isolating in the designated accommodation. The infections bring Australia’s Omicron total to five.

Japan will on Tuesday restrict entry of all foreign visitors as an “emergency precaution to prevent a worst-case scenario,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said.

Hong Kong, which has confirmed two cases of Omicron, has joined a growing list of nations to tighten border restrictions for a string of southern African nations.

New Zealand on Sunday moved to protect its borders by banning flights from nine African countries – South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique. The move came as Auckland, the country’s largest city, prepared to move out of lockdown on Monday.

Israel has barred entry to all foreigners, while Morocco has announced its intention to suspend all incoming flights for two weeks from Monday.

The WHO has criticised leaders for imposing travel bans. Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the UN health body’s regional director for Africa, said they would “place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods”.

“If restrictions are implemented, they should not be unnecessarily invasive or intrusive and should be scientifically based, according to the international health regulations, which is a legally binding instrument of international law recognised by over 190 nations,” she said.

Updated: November 29, 2021, 1:46 PM