Travel bans
(Constantine Johnny, Getty)
  • The United Kingdom has temporarily halted all passenger flights from South Africa and surrounding countries.
  • Anyone who has been in South Africa and its neighbours in the previous 10 days has been banned from entering the UK.
  • UK and Irish nationals who can make it back to the UK will have to quarantine in hotels from Monday.
  • The UK government thanked South Africa for spotting the new coronavirus variant it now designates a "Variant under Investigation"
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The United Kingdom has temporarily halted flights from South Africa and surrounds, and said it would refuse entry to South Africans and others who had been in the southern African region in the previous 10 days, as a safety measure.

It simultaneously declared the B.1.1.529 coronavirus variant – due to be given a name by the World Health Organisation during the course of Friday – to be a Variant under Investigation.

"No cases have been identified in the UK," the governments said in a statement. "We are taking these precautionary measures to protect public health and the progress we’ve made so far through our successful vaccination programme."

Six countries are now on the UK's red list for travel, as of Friday:

  • South Africa
  • Botswana
  • Lesotho
  • Eswatini
  • Zimbabwe
  • Namibia

For those countries, both commercial and private planes carrying passengers have been banned from midday (on Friday) until the early hours of Sunday morning, while the UK scrambles to set up quarantine.

Once that ban lifts, though, South Africans will still not be welcome.

See also | UK’s new travel ban on South Africa is a ‘knee-jerk reaction’ say SA travel agents

"From midday on Friday 26 November, non-UK and Irish residents who have been in these countries in the previous 10 days will be refused entry into England," said the UK government. "This does not apply to those who have stayed airside and only transited through any of these countries while changing flights."

After the weekend, Irish and UK residents who can make it to the UK border from southern Africa will be required to quarantine in "in a government-approved facility" for 10 days, with coronavirus tests on days two and eight. Those who manage to make it into the country before next week – and so before those hotel isolation facilities are set up – will be told they must self-isolate at home, with PCR tests on days two and eight. (Previously, residents needed to take only the cheaper and easier lateral flow test on day two after arrival.)

Managed quarantine hotel stays are currently charged at £2,285 (just under R49,000) for the first adult, £1,430 (just over R30,000) for any additional person older than 11, and £325 (about R7,000) for children over five.

"The UK government thanks the government of South Africa for its surveillance of this variant and its transparency," it said in announcing the measures.

See also | British Airways begins cancelling flights to and from SA as UK travel ban takes effect

South Africa's Department of Health and scientists from the Network for Genomic Surveillance in South Africa on Thursday detailed what they knew about the new variant, expressing alarm at its potential while stressing that very little was known yet with any certainty.

B.1.1.529 has been detected in South Africa, Botswana and in Hong Kong, in one case that was linked to travel from South Africa. It is not known if it may have spread beyond southern Africa. It may be more transmissible than previous variants, scientists believe based on what they know about its genetics, but neither lab work nor real-world studies have shown that to be the case. Its mutations may also allow it to escape immunity, but that too is currently only supposition.

But the early indications of potential trouble demands a precautionary approach, the UK government said.

"This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine-susceptibility," said Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, in a statement. "The results of these investigations will determine what public health actions may limit the impact of B.1.1.529."

(Compiled by Phillip de Wet)

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