South Africa says UK red list travel decision on new Covid variant is premature

Less than two months after being removed from the United Kingdom’s red list, South Africa has again been red listed.

The “precautionary” measure by the UK follows the announcement by South African scientists on Thursday of the detection of a new Covid-19 variant.

Currently listed as a variant under monitoring by the World Health Organisation (WHO), variant B.1.1.529 has been found to have multiple mutations in the spike protein as well as across the virus genome, with some of these mutations having been identified in previous variants that have been highly transmissible such as the Alpha and Delta variants.

The new variant has been identified in 22 positive cases and possible cluster outbreaks in Gauteng and are under investigation.

In addition to South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Namibia and Zimbabwe have been included in the list of countries that the UK has temporarily banned flights from.

Travellers from these countries will be expected, from Sunday morning, to book and pay for a government-approved hotel quarantine facility for 10 days on arrival in the UK. Direct flights from these countries will remain banned from Friday 25 November until the quarantine facility has been set up, which is expected to be on 28 November. 

The department of international relations and cooperation said the UK’s decision was premature.

“While South Africa respects the rights of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, the UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the country, seems to have been rushed as even the WHO is yet to advise on the next steps, ” said Clayson Monyela, the department’s spokesperson.

The department said its immediate concern was the damage the travel ban could cause to the tourism and business industries in both countries.

“South Africa will engage the UK government with the view to persuade them to reconsider this decision,” Monyela said. 

The tourism industry is still trying to recover from the previous travel ban to South Africa and this latest one will no doubt reverse the work that had gone into making up for the loss of up to R790-million a month in tourism revenue.

“This is a knee-jerk reaction from the UK. They reacted overnight and have not even met the South African authorities,” said South African Tourism Business Council chief executive Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa.

“This is going to be bad for us because we have worked hard and we are concerned that other countries might follow what the UK has done and impose a travel ban on South Africa.

“We respect the work that the scientists are doing but we feel like yesterday’s announcement should not have happened because we have too little data about this variant,” said Tshivhengwa, adding that announcements should be done with precaution to avoid “stoking” fear.

On Friday, the minister in the presidency, Mondli Gungubele, said in a statement that President Cyril Ramaphosa would meet the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) on Sunday to assess the developments in the Covid-19 pandemic, including updates about the new variant.

Gungubele added that updates from the NCCC would be communicated in the coming days.

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Marcia Zali
Marcia Zali is an award winning journalist

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