Travel bans did little to stop Omicron – but they’ve cost SA more than R2 billion, so far

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South Africa travel bans
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  • South Africa was first to raise the Omicron alarm and was rewarded with far-reaching international travel bans.
  • These restrictions were intended to stem the spread of the newly detected coronavirus variant, but were ultimately ineffective.
  • This is according to a new study which looked at restrictions and their impact on caseloads in Italy and Finland.
  • In the meantime, South Africa has lost more than R2 billion in cancelled tourism spend.
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International bans imposed on travellers from South Africa and neighbouring countries did little to stop the spread of Omicron, new research suggests, but have had severe economic implications.

Scientists from South Africa's Network for Genomic Surveillance raised the alarm around the Omicron coronavirus variant on 24 November. Within 48 hours, several countries, including the United Kingdom and United States, implemented harsh travel bans on travellers from South Africa and neighbouring countries.  

The number of countries with renewed international restrictions imposed on South African travellers ballooned to around 70 by mid-December, with much of Europe, North America, and the Middle East being strictly off limits.

These travel bans, implemented at a time when South Africa's embattled tourism industry had been banking on a busy summer season, were criticised as being unscientific, ineffective, and discriminatory.

Still, despite opposition from global medical experts and economists, most of these bans were stubbornly upheld throughout December, even with evidence of community transmission. European Union (EU) member states only agreed to ease travel restrictions on 10 January, with many countries slow to reopen.

In the meantime, evidence pointed towards Omicron being more infectious but less severe than previous dominant variants. It was also discovered that Omicron had already been in circulation in some parts of the world, weeks before South Africa first raised the alarm.

"It's the classic case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted," said Conrad Clifford, deputy director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), in response to recent research in Finland and Italy which tracked the effectiveness of European travel bans.

"The research is clear that the inevitable delay in identifying new variants means that transmission already occurs by the time travel restrictions are imposed."

This is the same view held by the World Health Organisation (WHO), which during an Emergency Committee meeting on 13 January, noted that travel bans proved to be ineffective "in suppressing international spread, as clearly demonstrated by the Omicron experience, and may discourage transparent and rapid reporting of emerging variants of concern."

Research produced by Oxera and Edge Health, published on Saturday, supports this conclusion. The study specifically analysed the impact of travel testing requirements in Italy and Finland throughout December.

The study split the populations of these countries into categories, including those susceptible, exposed, infected, and removed (SEIR modelling) while factoring in those vaccinated and travel-related cases. Modelling the virus' reproductive ratio, determining the average number of secondary infections that will result from an initial infection at a given time, allowed the study to plot the trajectory of infections under different scenarios, including tighter travel restrictions.

The research shows that travel restrictions have had little to no impact in mitigating the spread of Omicron in Italy and Finland. In both instances, research suggests that the peak of infections would have been reached sooner, at just 2% higher in Finland and 8% higher in Italy without travel restrictions.

"We now have further proof – travel restrictions do have a significant effect – but it's not on public health, it's on economic stability and livelihoods. In short, they are causing more harm than good," said Olivier Jankovec, director general of ACI (Airports Council International) Europe, in response to the study.

This economic impact has been especially damaging for South Africa's tourism sector and broader economy, which had just begun to look towards recovery following the lifting of Beta-induced travel restrictions before Omicron slammed the door shut.

The tourism and hospitality sector lost more than R1 billion in bookings cancelled within 48 hours of the Omicron discovery. By 12 December, just before the United Kingdom removed South Africa from its restrictive red list, these losses exceeded R2 billion, according to Gillian Saunders, an independent tourism and hospitality advisor.

Bookings for South Africa's high season, between December and March, dropped dramatically because of Omicron, although were afforded a slight reprieve due to some major source markets lifting bans earlier than expected.

"Original pre-ban lifting survey responses' indication of 71% lost income was moderated down to 53% lost income as bans were lifted earlier than expected," Saunders noted in a report which surveyed members of Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (SATSA) and Federated Hospitality Association of South Africa (FEDHASA).

"The adjustment for some lifting of bans calculates to R8.7 billion lost revenue over the 4 months."

Total losses because of the travel bans and their lingering psychological affects are expected to reach almost R9 billion for the period between December and March. This foreign spend would support the equivalent of 28,670 annualised direct and indirect jobs in total.

"The December and January losses do not cover the loss of bookings for the rest of 2022, many of which were cancelled or postponed following the announcement of the Omicron red listing," explained Rosemary Anderson, national chairperson of FEDHASA.

"FEDHASA believes it will take us a full year to regain the lost ground although we are encouraged by the support we have seen from domestic tourists and international inbound visitors who chose to travel regardless of travel bans."

Anderson adds that the loss of inbound international tourists has far-reaching consequences for many of South Africa's sectors and industries which are linked to the supply chain.

"What we don't know is the extent to which this impacted the value chain and how long lasting this impact is," said Anderson.

"Consequently, the loss of inbound international tourists impacts everything from dry, wet and perishable goods wholesalers to craftsmen, to petrol stations, taxi drivers, retail etc, all of whom rely on the tourism sector to some extent for their livelihoods. And that doesn't even begin to take into account the loss to the fiscus through VAT not collected."

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