Travel doors slam shut as new Covid variant triggers alarm

(CNN) – The European Union and other major destinations moved to ban flights from African countries after an aggressive surge of the Covid-19 virus was detected, echoing previous emergency responses that led to a global travel freeze.

Italy, Austria, France, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom are among those imposing restrictions on flights and travelers from six African countries after the new strain, known as the B.1.1.529 variant, was discovered in South Africa and Botswana and in a visitor to Hong Kong from South Africa.

While only dozens of Cases have been identified so far, and news of the variant, which contains about twice the amount of mutations as the delta variant, has already raised concerns around the world.

The string of lockdowns began late Thursday as the United Kingdom announced it was temporarily suspending flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini, with Health Minister Sajid Javid calling the surrogate “the worst ever” of the Covid-19 strain.

Tourism concerns

The move prompted the South African government to issue a statement calling the UK’s decision “hasty” and expressing concern about the damage it could cause “to both the tourism industries and businesses in both countries”.

In the hours that followed, Japan tightened border controls for travelers from the same six countries, imposing a 10-day quarantine starting at 12 a.m. on November 27.

Meanwhile, Germany plans to declare South Africa a “virus changing region” from Friday night, meaning that airlines may only enter from the country to bring back German nationals.

Sister EU countries, Austria, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Malta, have announced an imminent entry ban for all travelers who have entered South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini in the past two weeks.

French Health Minister Olivier Veran said the “rapid” spread of the variant in South Africa “means that it is potentially contagious or highly contagious”, justifying France’s precautionary stance.

Singapore has opted to ban entry to all non-residents from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, while citizens and permanent residents returning from any of these countries will be required to submit a 10-day stay-at-home notice (SHN). Malaysia has also taken similar steps.

The developments have led to speculation that some of the strict travel restrictions imposed at the start of the pandemic may be on their way back.

Back to restrictions?

Germany also joined the list of countries banning flights from South Africa.

Boris Rossler/Alliance Image/Getty Images

“There is definitely a feeling right now that restrictions are coming back,” said Rory Poland, travel editor for consumer magazine Witch? He tells CNN.

“Not only South Africa, Portugal has reinstated testing of dual vaccines, and other countries are working to increase restrictions.

“When you are in the country as well, a lot of countries require tests in addition to vaccination. There are increasing restrictions on boosters.

“There is a feeling that travel is becoming more difficult again – against the background of a lot of people who don’t feel confident about traveling already.”

WHO experts said, while it is still too early to gauge what kind of impact the mutation will have, people should start taking precautions now to reduce their chances of exposure.

She said it will take researchers a few weeks to understand what it is [the new variant] Mean, but work was required in the meantime.

“Everyone out there needs to understand that the more this virus spreads, the higher the chances of the virus changing, and we’ll see mutations,” she said.

“Everyone who sees it has a role to play in reducing transmission, as well as protecting yourself from severe illness and death.

“So get vaccinated when you can, make sure you get the full course of your doses, and make sure you take steps to reduce your exposure and prevent yourself from passing this virus on to someone else.”

Financial Impact

While it may be too early to gauge the impact of the virus, news of its emergence and flight bans have been enough to spook stock markets. European markets opened significantly lower on Friday – Britain’s FTSE 100 index fell more than 3%, while Dow Jones futures fell sharply. Travel stocks, including airlines EasyJet, Lufthansa and Air France, were hit.

The new concern comes as another blow to the travel industry, which has struggled to recover after coming to a near standstill during the first waves of the pandemic.

There are now concerns that some travel companies may not survive if the situation worsens with the new variant.

“I think so unfortunately – I’m not saying they might go bankrupt in the next couple of weeks, but the financial situation that a lot of people are going through is very, very challenging,” Poland said.

“It’s not just about bookings going down but they have to constantly issue refunds. They are having a hard time getting financing from banks. There are a number of market conditions working against them.

“The UK has had very little support for a certain sector of government, so there is a real risk of more holiday chaos and airline bankruptcy.”

He went on to stress that consumers should always check the restrictions in any destination they are planning to travel before booking and ensure they have adequate coverage in case this happens.

“It’s really important to have cover for your holiday company or an airline that goes down. Otherwise you could end up losing hundreds or thousands of pounds.”

Highest image credit: Leon Neal/Getty Images

Julia Buckley, Barry Nield, Niamh Kennedy, David Mackenzie, Angela Dewan, Allegra Goodwin, Mick Craver, Xiaovei Shaw, and Pierre Byrne contributed to this story.

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