The South African government said it has noted the announcements by several countries to institute temporary travel restrictions on South Africa and other countries in our region following the detection of the new Omicron variant.
South Africa’s statement comes after the World Health Organisation pleaded with world leaders not to engage in knee-jerk reactions and cautioned against the imposition of travel restrictions.
South Africa’s international relations minister Naledi Pandor said: “Whilst we respect the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, we need to remember that this pandemic requires collaboration and sharing of expertise. Our immediate concern is the damage these restrictions are causing to families, the travel and tourism industries and business”.
In a statement seen by The Villager and signed by Clayson Monyela, Head of Public Diplomacy in the international relations ministry, South Africa said it aligns itself with the World Health Organisation’s position on the latest travel bans.
WHO head of emergencies Dr Michael Ryan said it was important to wait and see what the data will show.
“We’ve seen in the past, the minute there’s any mention of any variation and everyone is closing borders and restricting travel. It’s really important that we remain open and stay focused,” Ryan said.
In the statement, South Africa said they have also noted that new variants have been detected in other countries.
“Each of those cases has had no recent links with Southern Africa. It’s worth noting that the reaction to those countries is starkly different to cases in Southern Africa,” Monyela said.
According to Monyela, this latest round of travel bans is akin to punishing South Africa for its advanced genomic sequencing and the ability to detect new variants quicker.
He also said that excellent science should be applauded and not punished.
The global community, Monyela said, needs collaboration and partnerships in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“A combination of South Africa’s capacity to test and its ramped-up vaccination programme, backed up by the world-class scientific community, should give our global partners the comfort that we are doing as well as they are in managing the pandemic.
“South Africa follows and enforces globally recognised Covid-19 health protocols on travel. No infected individuals are permitted to leave the country,” the statement further said.
Dutch health authorities said 61 people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa on Friday tested positive for Covid-19, Reuters reports.
Authorities are conducting further testing to see if any infections are with the recently discovered Omicron coronavirus variant.
Around 600 passengers arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport on the two KLM flights on Friday and then faced hours of delays and testing due to concerns over the new virus variant.
“Travellers with a positive test result will be placed in isolation at a hotel at or near Schiphol,” health authorities said in a statement.
“Of the positive test results, we are researching as quickly as possible whether they are the new variant of concern, now named ‘Omicron’.”
One of the passengers onboard was Stephanie Nolen, the New York Times global health reporter, who was on her first flight since the pandemic’s start. She tested negative but said passengers were being kept in a small space at the airport, with many not wearing face masks.
She tweeted: “Probably 30% of people are wearing no mask or only over mouth. Dutch authorities are not enforcing. We’re just all in this unventilated room at hour 12, breathing on each other.”
The Dutch government banned all air travel from southern Africa early on Friday. The health minister, Hugo de Jonge, determined that passengers already en route to the Netherlands would have to undergo testing and quarantine upon arrival.
Germany & Czech Republic
The first suspected cases of the Omicron Covid variant in Germany and the Czech Republic are being investigated, as Dutch authorities scramble to see if 61 passengers from South Africa who tested positive for Covid-19 have the new variant.
According to reports, Omicron, first identified in South Africa and known officially as B.1.1.529, has already been detected in Belgium, Hong Kong, and Israel.
Australia and several other countries joined those imposing restrictions on travel from southern Africa on Saturday after discovering the variant – described by the World Health Organization as “of concern” – triggered a sell-off on global stock markets.
In Germany, a minister in the state of Hesse said on Saturday the variant had probably arrived in a traveller returning from South Africa.
“Last night, several Omicron-typical mutations were found in a traveller returning from South Africa,” tweeted Kai Klose, the social affairs minister in Hesse, home to Frankfurt international airport.
The 539 passengers who tested negative were allowed to return home or continue their journeys to other countries.
Czech Republic & Namibia
Meanwhile, the Czech Republic is examining a suspected Omicron case detected in a person who spent time in Namibia.
“A lab is checking a possible find of a positive specimen of the Omicron variant. We are awaiting confirmation or refutation of the case,” the spokesperson for the National Institute of Public Health, Štěpánka Čechová, said in a statement on Saturday.
Since the discovery of the variant, described by senior British scientists as the “worst ever” since the pandemic began, countries worldwide have been scrambling to introduce travel restrictions.
Japan Tightens Border Controls
Japan has announced it will tighten border controls for the southern African nations of Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia, requiring a 10-day quarantine for any entrants.
The new rules will take effect from midnight local time and come a day after it tightened border controls for people from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Lesotho.
Qatar Airways said on Saturday it had banned entry to travellers from South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique. Travel bans from certain African countries have been introduced by the UK, US, Brazil, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Oman, and Thailand.
Australia plans to introduce a 14-day quarantine for citizens travelling from nine of the southern African countries.
“Anyone who is not a citizen of Australia or their dependents, and who has been in African countries where the Omicron variant has been detected and spread within the past 14 days will not be able to enter Australia,” the health minister, Greg Hunt, told a press briefing on Saturday.
However, the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, told officials to review plans to ease travel restrictions due to rising concerns over the variant.
*Additional reporting from various sources