SA's PCR rules are ruining family holidays – but there's a way for kids to skip the Covid test

Business Insider SA
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(Getty Images)
  • Travellers coming to South Africa need to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 or supply a negative PCR test result not older than 72 hours. 
  • These regulations leave children aged between five and 12, who can't be vaccinated in South Africa, and their families in a tricky position.
  • PCR tests are returning positive results long after kids have already recovered, throwing family vacations into disarray. 
  • But there is a way for children who've already had Covid-19 to avoid the PCR test en route back to South Africa.
  • To do this, travellers need to apply for a "fit to fly" document or "letter of exemption" from South Africa's department of health.
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South Africa requires all incoming travellers to either be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 or provide a negative PCR test result, which makes travelling with children a costly and complicated exercise.

Travelling to and from South Africa has been simplified in recent months, with most Covid-19 restrictions both locally and abroad being eased. This has seen a rebound in travel since the start of the year, with foreign tourists flocking to South Africa and locals finally getting a chance for holidays overseas.

South Africa welcomed almost 100,000 overseas visitors in February, up 45% from the month prior and more than 770% compared to the previous year, according to recent data by Stats SA. More South Africans are travelling, too, with arrivals and departures over the past three months increasing by 20%.

And while signs of recovery have been welcomed by South Africa's embattled tourism industry and travel-starved locals alike, government's continued PCR testing policy is proving a thorn in the side for both.

Travellers wishing to enter South Africa have two options: to show that they've been vaccinated or supply a negative Covid-19 test result not older than 72 hours. Only children below the age of five are exempt from South Africa's vaccine or PCR requirements.

That leaves children between the ages of five and 12 in a tricky position.

South Africa's vaccination rollout is only open to people 12 years and older. For South African travellers with kids aged between five and 12, that means a negative PCR test is unavoidable.

Added to the cost and hassle of acquiring a PCR test is the very real risk of a positive result without any symptoms. This can happen when a person has already recovered from Covid-19 months prior. And, according to travel insurers, it is happening among children travelling with their families overseas.

Using the example of a South African family with two children who've travelled to the Maldives, Uriah Jansen, head of Hollard Travel at Hollard Insure, paints a scenario where one child returns a positive PCR test before the scheduled flight home.

"One returns a positive test, which is the residue of a recent infection, even though the child has long recovered. However, this spanner in the works means they're stuck in the Maldives, at their own cost, until the child returns a negative test. And they could be in for a long wait," explained Jansen.

"This is not an outlandish or isolated scenario, it is happening all the time. We've had a number of our travel insurance customers contact us in a panic, stranded and desperate to get home. An idyllic family holiday can turn nightmarish in the blink of an eye."

But there is a way, permitted by South Africa's department of health, to avoid this nasty surprise and get children back into the country without needing to present a negative Covid-19 test.

This "little-known provision in the law", as described by Jansen, requires that the traveller, child or adult, has recovered from Covid-19 and has the proper certification to prove it.

"A ray of hope is that travellers who have tested positive for the coronavirus, and have served out their isolation period, can obtain a Covid-19 recovery certificate from a medical professional and then apply to the department of health for an exemption to South Africa's entry, re-entry, and quarantine rules," said Jansen

"This "fit to fly" document can save you a lot of unwanted stress."

The health department acknowledges that "persons who have recently contracted Covid-19 may continue to test positive for weeks on PCR after full recovery" and has added a provision for such cases.

"If you are unable to produce a negative PCR test result due to having recently recovered from a Covid-19 infection and wish to travel to South Africa, you must send a request to the department for a letter of exemption," the department noted in a travel update on 31 January.

"This is only applicable to travellers who have fully recovered and intend to travel within 90 days of the initial PCR test result that confirmed the infection."

Travellers looking to apply for this "fit to fly" document must have:

  • A copy of their passport.
  • The PCR test result that confirmed their initial infection.
  • A letter from a medical practitioner confirming that they have fully recovered, are not experiencing any new symptoms, and are fit to travel.

The request with supporting documentation must be sent to

"The recovery certificate from a medical practitioner must include details such as the child's name and surname as reflected on their passport, the date, and the doctor's signature, physical address and contact details," said Jansen.

"Make sure it's legitimate and not a hastily scribbled note, to rule out any reason for your exemption application to be refused."

Travellers are urged to submit their requests "well in advance of the intended travel to allow for sufficient time for processing."

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