South Africa travel to UK
(Photo by Hollie Adams/Getty Images)
  • South Africa remains on the United Kingdom’s red list, which restricts travel and requires returning British or Irish nationals to endure a 10-day quarantine at their own cost.
  • This has had a devastating impact on South Africa’s already embattled tourism sector and a petition to have its position on the red list reviewed has garnered more than 33,000 signatures.
  • The controversial traffic light travel system is due to be updated on Thursday, and the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association says South Africa should be moved to amber, in line with the UK’s own risk assessment criteria.
  • The tourism association has given five reasons why South Africa can no longer be reasonably kept on the red list.
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

South Africa doesn’t deserve to be on the United Kingdom’s (UK) highly restrictive red list, according to the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (Satsa) which has poked holes in the contentious traffic light travel system.

Travel between South Africa and the UK has been severely restricted since the end of 2020. It’s estimated that being on the red list – the UK’s highest level of restriction determined by the traffic light system introduced in May – has cost the South African economy more than R2.4 billion in lost tourism spend.

Only British or Irish nationals and those with residence rights are permitted to enter the UK from South Africa. But these travellers are still forced to quarantine for ten days in a state-managed hotel at a cost of £2,285 (R44,800). These mandatory quarantine requirements have kept away travellers from South Africa’s most valuable tourism source market.

Travellers from countries on the amber list can avoid quarantine if they’ve been fully vaccinated. Visitors from green list countries only need to test negative for Covid-19.

The traffic light system is updated every three weeks, with the UK’s Joint Biosecurity Centre responsible for determining the level of restrictions – red, amber, or green – according to a specific country’s Covid-19 risk profile.

These risk assessments focus on Covid-19 variants, active caseloads, transmission rates, and genomic sequencing capabilities.

But the Joint Biosecurity Centre has been criticised for inconsistencies in its approach to determining which countries are categorised as red, amber, or green. That fully vaccinated travellers from red list regions are not afforded a reprieve – as is the case in other countries which have recently opened to visitors – is another contentious aspect of the traffic light system.

With the traffic light system due for an update on Thursday, Satsa, which hopes to have South Africa removed from the red list by October, has taken another swipe at the UK’s unrelenting restrictions. This comes after the UK's Department for Transport said it would “not compromise” in response to an official petition to have South Africa removed from the red list.

The petition, which was started in early August, has attracted more than 33,000 signatures.

“Every week the UK keeps South Africa on its red list it erodes the vital economic and environmental ties between our two countries,” said Satsa CEO David Frost on Monday.

“Long after the threat from the pandemic fades, memories of Britain’s duplicity will endure.”

Satsa argues that South Africa meets all the Joint Biosecurity Centre requirements to be moved from the red list to amber and provided a breakdown of five fundamental criteria.

Covid-19 transmission risk

South Africa’s average number of daily new infections has halved over the past two weeks; a reduction responsible for the lightening of lockdown restrictions which came into effect on Monday.

Satsa points out that South Africa’s infection rate is less than a quarter of the UK’s. It’s also lower than “most EU countries on the amber list such as France, Greece, Portugal, Belgium, and the Netherlands”.

South Africa’s rolling 7-day average of daily new confirmed Covid-19 cases per million people is less than 100. The United Kingdom’s rate is more than 500 and the European Union’s above 100.

Variants: Delta dominant, not Beta

The UK, along with most other countries, reacted to South Africa’s detection of the Beta variant in December by swiftly imposing an outright travel ban.

Since then, however, the Beta variant has taken a back seat in South Africa, overtaken by the Delta variant which is now responsible 96% of infections, according to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD).

The Delta variant is also dominant in the UK.

“Likewise, recent fears over a new variant (C.1.2) have been significantly exaggerated, as it is now in decline, representing less than 1.5% of recent cases,” added Satsa.

Genomic surveillance capability

The Network for Genomics Surveillance in South Africa (NGS-SA) assesses and monitors the evolution of Covid-19. Genomic analysis identifies mutations which may affect the virus’ properties, potentially resulting in a higher rate of transmission and severity of disease. Early detection, led by NGS-SA, helps the global community prepare vaccines, therapeutic medicines, diagnostic tools, or other public health and social measures in response to new variants.

“South Africa is a world leader in genomic sequencing, with some of the leading experts working in the country. They currently rank 23rd in the country rankings of most genomes sequenced per week, and 1st in Africa,” said Satsa.

Antibody and vaccination rates

Up to 80% of South Africans may have already been infected with Covid-19, according to a figure recently cited by Discovery and repeated by Satsa as an argument for naturally acquired immunity.

“This means that South Africa has amongst the highest levels of naturally acquired immunity of any country in the world,” said Satsa.

Country-specific vaccination rates are only considered by the Joint Biosecurity Centre as “contextual information” and are not part of the fundamental criteria for determining traffic light classifications. This is good news for South Africa, which still lags behind most other countries in the world in terms of its vaccination rollouts.

“Although the Joint Biosecurity Centre has removed local vaccination rates as a primary criteria in its risk methodology, South Africa is further augmenting its antibody levels through a vaccine programme which is inoculating over 1 million people every week,” said Satsa.

South Africa’s young population

Satsa further argues that South Africa’s young population, with a median age of 17 versus the UK’s 40, means that the country has already “achieved high levels of protection in its at-risk group of 60-plus years.”

Almost 60% of all South Africans over the age of 60 have been vaccinated, according to President Cyril Ramaphosa.

UK’s traffic light system due for a big shake-up

And while South Africa’s tourism industry fights to have the country removed from the red list in the next round of upcoming changes to the traffic light system, the BBC reports that green and amber list rules could be completely revamped in October.

This new system will apparently merge green and amber list countries, emphasising vaccinations over quarantine requirements. Sources say that the red list – and its restrictions – is likely to remain in place. 

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