The UK will put six South African countries back on its red list of travel restrictions, after an apparent increase in cases of a heavily mutated coronavirus variant prompted global health officials to warn.
Travelers returning from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini will be forced into a 10-day quarantine at a government facility from noon Friday, government officials said.
Direct flights from South African countries have been temporarily banned due to the lack of infrastructure to support hotel quarantine, a tourism industry executive has said. The government is working towards having dedicated passenger terminals and hotels ready to receive redlisted passengers from Monday, the person said.
The Red List, which once included more than 50 countries, was suspended on November 1.
The rule change follows scientists’ growing concern about the ability of the B. 1.1.529 Sars-Cov-2 variant to evade vaccines and transmit more rapidly than the Delta variant. This strain, first identified in Botswana, is believed to be responsible for a resurgence of Covid cases in South Africa over the past week.
South Africa and other countries in the region only left the UK’s previous red list in October. Travel restrictions were first imposed on the region at the start of the year for the Beta variant, which was first imposed on the region at the start of the year. replaced with Delta.
The new red list could dash South Africa’s hopes of salvaging this year’s summer tourist season, which is crucial to the economy. South African business leaders and officials have long felt they were being punished for the country’s relatively advanced genomic surveillance capabilities.
Sajid Javid, the UK’s health and social care secretary, said the UK Health Security Service was “investigating a new variant. More data is needed but we are taking precautions now.”
He said in a tweet that from noon tomorrow, “six African countries will be added to the red list, flights will be temporarily banned and British travelers must be quarantined”.
The World Health Organization is holding an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss the new variant, first identified on Tuesday, where it is expected to designate the strain as ” variant of interest”. Earlier, on Thursday, Israel banned visitors from South Africa and neighboring countries, Haaretz reported.
This variant has been described as the most interesting coronavirus variant that researchers have encountered. Unconfirmed data seems to suggest it is spreading faster than thought in South Africa, where the rate of testing positive has increased dramatically over the past few weeks.
At least 59 cases of the variant, mainly of South African origin, have been sequenced. But local health officials told the Financial Times that initial PCR results indicated that 90% of the 1,100 new cases in the Gauteng region of South Africa on Wednesday, including Johannesburg, were due to the new variant causing out.
Tulio de Oliveira, director of the Center for Epidemiological Response and Innovation in South Africa, told the Financial Times he was “worried” about the tension.
There are traits present in the new variant that have previously been associated with high transmissibility, De Oliveira said. And the key question that needs to be answered is the exact effect of the vaccine, he added.
Soumya Swaminathan, WHO chief scientist, said the new variant had “some disturbing mutations in the spike protein”. “Initial analysis shows that this variant has a large number of mutations that need and will be studied further,” the WHO said in a statement.
Professor Christina Pagel, a member of the Independent Sage scientific advisory group, welcomed the UK government’s decision.
“We are now ahead [this variant] in the UK,” she said. “Action now is our best chance to stop the import while we learn more about it.”
Ewan Birney, Deputy Director General of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, has called for international support for South Africa in the fight against this new strain of bacteria. “The international community should get drugs and vaccines to South Africa as soon as possible,” said Birney.
South Africa was last added to the UK’s travel redlist for the last time following a spike earlier this year in cases of the Beta variant, which has shown some resistance to the vaccine.
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne and Philip Georgiadis