The Omicron variant has been classed by the World Health Organisation as a “variant of concern” with early evidence suggesting it has a heightened reinfection risk. Detected in South Africa: the UK’s immediate response was to put South Africa and 9 other Southern African countries on the red list, Nigeria a more recent edition making the 11th African Nation on the list.
AstraZeneca said in a statement, “Despite the appearance of new variants over the past year, vaccines have continued to provide very high levels of protection against severe disease and there is no evidence so far that Omicron is any different.”
South Africa was removed from the UK’s red list in October, after a travel-ban since February of this year, however, due to their discovery of the #Omicron variant, the UK has reinstated their red list status.
A big blow to South Africa’s economy which was heavily reliant on the reopening of its borders to tourists, Brits make up the majority of foreign tourists in South Africa. The country had already been hit heavily by the pandemic, losing an estimated 26 million rand (£1.2m) for every day it spent on the UK’s red list from February.
October’s headlines such as “Hopes for surge in holiday bookings as England’s red list cut” are now redundant. As the travel industry as a whole is now bracing itself for the damaging impact that the growing daily travel restrictions are going to have.
Flight sales were up due to high demand for winter sun destinations as well as long-overdue family reunions. Liz Matthews, UK General Manager of Flight Centre said in October: “By far the most important thing now is that we don’t see any back-tracking or U-turns.”
But South Africa has found itself back on the red list, heavily condemned by SA saying they should be lifted immediately, with health minister Joe Phaahla stating, “there is absolutely no need to panic, this is no new territory for us.”
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa said the bans would not be effective in preventing the spread of the variant, “we are deeply disappointed by the decision of several countries to prohibit travel…this only causes further damage to the economies of the affected countries and undermines their ability to respond to, and recover from, the pandemic.”
Speaking with South African’s who have lived in the UK for more than 20 years, and who returned to London from South Africa this week, days before the discovery of Omicron, it is easy to understand the frustration and anger at these latest changes.
One South Africa returnee said, “Having just spent three weeks in Johannesburg where the rules are much harsher than in the UK, I find the latest travel restrictions a hard pill to swallow. There, you have no choice but to wear a mask everywhere, even when outside in sparse open spaces. You are sprayed with hand sanitiser in every establishment, otherwise entry is not permitted. Most technology is contactless and does not require any physical contact. These extra precautions are much more vigorous than those here in the UK.
My extended family and I were looking forward to reuniting in England this Christmas, after postponing celebrations for two years. Yet, the South African government’s transparency in their detection of the Omicron variant has backfired and they are once again finding themselves being unjustly penalised.”
To add further irritation, it has now been reported that the Omicron variant was circulating in Western Europe as early as November 19th, indicating that it was already spreading much closer to home before the first cases were identified in southern Africa.
The Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany have also said that sample tests confirm the variant was in those countries prior to November 24th when South African health officials alerted the world to its existence.
South Africans citizens including politicians and scientists are feeling punished for their country’s advanced COVID-19 screening program. Leading us to ask why the UK quickly closed its borders to African countries and the media engine appears to be fear mongering.
African countries on the UK’s travel red list – along with South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia.
By Phoebe Fraser