South Africa travel bans Omicron
(Getty mages)
  • Omicron is becoming, or already has become, dominant in several European countries, according to the World Health Organisation.
  • Despite clear evidence of community transmission and the ineffectiveness of travel bans, these same countries are still worried about importing Omicron from South Africa.
  • The European Union, which initially urged member states to restrict travellers from South Africa, is now calling for those bans to be lifted.
  • But most member states are reluctant to reopen travel with South Africa, with dire economic consequences.
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The Omicron coronavirus variant is fast becoming dominant across Europe and is already driving the bulk of new Covid-19 cases in some countries. Yet much of the region is still closed to South Africa, upholding travel bans initially imposed to prevent importing Omicron.

As South Africa's fourth wave shows signs of subsiding, almost as quickly as it peaked, Europe's caseload is reaching unprecedented highs. The seven-day rolling average of daily new confirmed Covid-19 cases per million people is 80% higher in Europe.

The Omicron variant, first detected by South Africa's Network for Genomic Surveillance just 29 days ago, has been found in at least 38 of the 53 member states of the World Health Organisation (WHO) European Region.

"We can see another storm coming. Omicron is becoming, or already has become, dominant in several countries, including in Denmark, Portugal and the United Kingdom, where its numbers are doubling every one and a half to three days, generating previously unseen transmission rates," said Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, the WHO regional director for Europe, on Tuesday.

"Within weeks, Omicron will dominate in more countries of the region, pushing already stretched health systems further to the brink. Omicron is likely to become the dominant variant circulating in our region."

For its service to global health and safety in first identifying Omicron in late-November, South Africa was met with a flurry of international travel bans. Direct flights to and from South Africa have been suspended. Only European nationals and residents have been allowed to return. Mandatory – and costly – quarantine measures have been reintroduced.

More than R1 billion worth of travel bookings to South Africa were cancelled in the 48 hours following the identification of Omicron. And despite the United Kingdom, which led the charge in reimposing travel bans, recently scrapping its red list, South Africa's economy still stands to lose around R25 billion if European restrictions aren't lifted.

Now, the European Union (EU), which implored member states to restrict travel from South Africa and neighbouring countries, is changing its tune. The European Commissioner for Justice, Didier Reynders, recently told Reuters that the EU was urging member states to drop the "inefficient" travel ban. But member states are reluctant.

Although countries like Switzerland, Denmark, and the Netherlands have since restarted flights to and from South Africa, these reprieves are generally caveated by limited exemptions to South African travellers and mandatory quarantine stays. For the most part, Europe remains off limits to South African passport holders, despite Omicron now being driven by community transmission rather than importation.

"Although cases reported initially were linked to travel, an increasing number of cases are now reported to be acquired within the EU/ European Economic Area [EEA], including as parts of clusters and outbreaks, with cases also being detected in representative surveillance systems," noted the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) on Monday.

"Several EU/EEA countries reported cases without an epidemiological link to travel. This indicates that community-associated spread of the Omicron Variant of Concern [VOC] is occurring in the EU/EEA."

Community transmission of Omicron has rendered travel bans redundant. This was the view of the UK in dropping South Africa from its red list and has also been cited by the United States, which is expected to reopen travel soon.

But many European countries, including Germany, France, Spain, Sweden, and Portugal – which are all recording significantly higher new cases compared to South Africa – are maintaining their Omicron travel bans. 

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