Former British minister urges Boris Johnson to remove SA from UK Covid red travel list

Former United Kingdom cabinet minister Peter Hain has urged Prime Minister Boris Johnson to immediately remove Covid-19-related travel restrictions to and from South Africa

Nine months after first imposing the restrictions, the UK did not remove South Africa from its red list in a 17 September update.

In a letter to Johnson, Hain says South Africa currently has 3.8 Covid-19 cases per 100 000 residents, which is a tenth of the infections the UK has. 

“It is preposterous that the UK is now permitting travel to and from countries with much higher infection rates than South Africa’s,” Hain writes.

“You removed eight countries from the red list on 17 September, yet three of them (Sri Lanka, Maldives and Turkey) have higher and rising rates of infection in comparison to South Africa.”

Scientists from Britain and South Africa met on Monday 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. 

The South African tourism industry has made progress in recent weeks with the United States, Germany, France, the United Arab Emirates and the Netherlands now accepting fully vaccinated people travelling back from the country with limited or no travel restrictions, acknowledging that there is no risk from Covid-19 variants if both countries have a dominance of the Delta variant, and no negative effect on the health system if the traveller is vaccinated.

But the UK still requires people travelling from South Africa to enter hotel quarantine on arrival whether they are fully vaccinated or not. The cost of that is about R46 000 for solo travellers.

UK ministers have cited the Beta variant as the reason South Africa remains on the red list, but the Delta variant, which is prevalent in the UK, is also dominant in South Africa. 

Hain said the stance taken by the British government was therefore “entirely bogus”.

“This means the risk profile to a double-vaccinated traveller moving between South Africa and the UK is identical. The continued imposition of travel restrictions on South Africa therefore has no justification in science,” he wrote.

“South Africa’s continued red listing is also unjustified under the framework applied by the UK’s very own Joint Biosecurity Centre, and UK Ministers’ interpretation of the data is therefore arbitrary and inconsistent.”

The South African government will now have to wait until next week to know whether the discussions between the scientists have paid off when the UK updates its red list. But Hain asked Johnson to remove South Africa from the red list before then.

“I urge that you immediately direct officials to remove South Africa from the red list. At the very least this should apply to all South Africa-UK travellers double-vaccinated with EMA [European Medicines Agency] approved vaccines,” he wrote.

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Eyaaz Matwadia
Eyaaz Matwadia
Eyaaz Matwadia is a member of the Mail & Guardian's online team.

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