The tourism industry has been ready to welcome tourists from the UK for months and it will know in the next two weeks whether or not its preparations have been in vain.
Having been one of the hardest hit industries following restrictions on international travellers, the industry will be looking at the UK’s review of South Africa’s position on the red list, following a meeting between scientists from the two countries.
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The visit was initiated by the UK High Commission and the South African government, to ensure that both countries shared the most up-to-date and accurate information about the latest Covid-19 trends, testing strategies and the prevalence and risk posed by the variants of concern on South Africa’s vaccination programme. This follows the UK’s decision to keep South Africa on the red list two weeks ago.
Discussions between the countries’ scientists included talks about the recognition of each other’s vaccine certificates with the UK explaining that it was seeking to extend its recognition of vaccine certificates around the world.
The decision to keep South Africa on the red list was met with criticism from the South African government that felt that it was unfair and based on outdated information on the dominant variant of concern currently circulating in the country.
Speaking at a tourism event following the announcement by the UK government, the Minister of Tourism Lindiwe Sisulu said that a joint team of experts would be meeting to discuss the red list.
“They are confusing the variant with South Africa because it was first detected here. But it does not mean it is a South African variant. We have agreed to have a joint team of scientists to advise the South African and British governments so they can get us out of the red and come with the right result,” said Sisulu at the time.
According to the red list requirements which will come into effect on 4 October, only British or Irish nationals, and those who have residence rights in the UK, will be allowed to enter into the country. The British and Irish nationals travelling from the red listed countries or territories can either be fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated or unvaccinated, provided that they take a pre-departure Covid-19 test three days before they can travel into the country. They must book a quarantine hotel package which includes two Covid-19 tests, and complete a passenger locator form 48 hours before they arrive in the UK.
Such stringent regulations have meant further devastation for the tourism industry which is losing an estimated R790-million every month that South Africa remains on the red list. About 1.5-million workers within the industry are facing a bleak holiday season which usually booms in the European winter and South African summer.
The chief executive of the Tourism Business Council of South Africa (TBCSA) Tshifhiwa Tshivhengwa told Mail and Guardian they welcomed the news of the review.
“The news of the meeting that took place between the South African scientists and the UK scientists is positive news and we need them to give us more details about what was discussed,” said Tshivhengwa.
“Although we believe that the meeting should’ve happened before they made a decision on the red list, we are ready for international tourists and we have also had people telling us that they wanted to travel to South Africa, so everything is ready from our side once travel to our country is allowed,” he told the M&G.
The head of African Governance and Diplomacy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs, Steven Gruzd, also agrees that the visit by the UK scientists should have been done before the red list measures were announced.
“I have certainly never heard of this sort of visit before, and it seems to have been brought about by South Africa’s vehement protest about remaining on the red list for seemingly arbitrary, non-scientific reasons,” he said.
“The UK based its opinion on the supposed widespread nature of the Beta variant of Covid-19 in South Africa, which was shown to be totally inaccurate. At least even if the country remains on the list, there will be solid science behind the decision. It has been a source of diplomatic tension between the UK and South Africa,” explained Gruzd.
Department of international relations and cooperation spokesperson Clayson Monyela shared his frustrations when South Africa was placed on the red list. He tweeted stating that other nations should do the same and “force” the UK to reconsider its decision.
“Nations affected by this inexplicable decision should return the favour. If all reciprocated, the UK would be forced to reverse their decision. It’s simply mind boggling.”
But according to the department of health spokesperson, Foster Mohale, the meeting was only between scientific experts from the two countries and the other departments were not invited.
“We will only know if the country will be removed from the red list when the UK reviews its list in two weeks’ time,” said Mohale.
As of Monday 27 September, South Africa had administered more than 16.99-million vaccine doses and more than 12.26-million adults had been vaccinated, making this a total of about 30.83% of the total adult population that had been vaccinated.
The National Institute for Communicable Diseases announced on the same day that South Africa had officially exited the third wave, recording only 578 new Covid-19 cases.
This has raised hopes that South Africa could be off the red list by mid-October.
“We are hoping for a positive review, but that will have to be left to the visiting team. The tourism industry should watch this issue closely, as this is SA’s biggest market, and a positive review would allow the flow of British tourists to resume. They spend a lot of money in South Africa, and the industry has really suffered in the ongoing lockdown,” Gruzd added.