Ministers are poised to add more countries to the travel ‘red list’ as the threat to foreign winter holidays from the new ‘Botswana’ Covid variant grows.
Officials were considering whether to add Malawi and Mozambique to the ‘no-go’ list as soon as this weekend – amid criticism from blacklisted countries, the UN and travel bosses that Britain has overreacted.
South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) and Lesotho were added on Thursday night over growing fears about the variant.
It came as the first European case of the ultra-infectious and potentially vaccine-busting new strain was confirmed in Belgium, leading to concerns of travel restrictions to countries outside Africa.
The Government’s move on Thursday night triggered a scramble among the up to 20,000 or so Britons who are in South Africa for leisure travel to return before 4am tomorrow.
Anyone arriving back after this will be forced to quarantine in hotels for 11 nights at a cost of £2,285 per adult.
Ministers defended the move yesterday, saying it was a necessary ‘safety-first approach’ which would ‘buy time’ by stemming the import and spread of the variant.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced that flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from midday Friday and all six countries will be added to the red list
Stephanie Cramer, 55, (pictured) is stranded in Cape Town after flying from London to visit her sick father and celebrate her parents Wedding Anniversary
Gill Dixon, 52, (pictured), who flew to South Africa to attend her nephew’s funeral, has criticised the government for not giving British nationals any notice over the travel ban
But South Africa’s foreign minister Naledi Pandor hit out at the move, saying it ‘seems to have been rushed’.
She added: ‘Our immediate concern is the damage this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries.’
Officials at the World Health Organisation studying the new strain, officially named yesterday as the Omicron variant, suggested the border curbs were an overreaction.
‘At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,’ spokesman Christian Lindmeier said during a briefing at the UN agency’s headquarters in Geneva.
He said it would be several weeks before scientists knew how much less effective vaccines are against the variant.
Q&A on everything you need to know about the new ‘Omicron’ variant
What is the new variant of concern?
B.1.1.529 was identified on Tuesday by South African scientists. They raised the alarm after routine analysis of Covid samples taken from patients in mid-November uncovered the most heavily mutated version of Covid-19 to date. Last night the World Health Organistion formally named it Omicron. It was initially referred to as both the ‘Nu’ and ‘Botswana’ variant.
How widespread is the variant?
About 100 cases have been confirmed across the world, the vast majority in South Africa. Four other countries have confirmed cases: Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and Belgium.
Why are scientists now worried?
Omicron contains 50 mutations – 32 of which are on the spike protein, used by the virus to bind to human cells and attack the body. The spike protein is the target of vaccines and antibodies – therefore the number of mutations means it may no longer be recognised by our immune system. UK health officials say the variant is the most ‘worrying’ seen because the mutations are linked to increased transmission and evasion of immunity.
Will vaccines still work?
The new variant is likely to evade existing immune responses to some extent –both from prior infection and vaccination. But vaccines are still likely to offer some protection. Both AstraZeneca and Pfizer are confident they can tweak existing vaccines to target concerning variants.
Is it more deadly and do existing treatments still work?
There is no evidence the variant is causing more severe disease or deaths. But it is likely to make antibody treatments which target the virus’s spike protein less effective. Health Secretary Sajid Javid told MPs the variant may ‘impact the effectiveness of one of our major treatments, Ronapreve’. But other key treatments including antivirals will be unaffected.
Do we need to panic?
No. As chief medial officer Chris Whitty put it yesterday: ‘To be honest I just think there is speculation about the [new variant] at the moment … the sensible thing at this stage is to be precautionary.’ There have been previous scares about new variants – such as Beta/South African and Brazilian – that turned out not to trouble the UK. There is also nothing yet to suggest another UK lockdown is on the cards.
Travel bosses also reacted with anger. Paul Charles, chief of the PC Agency luxury travel consultancy, said: ‘It’s a complete overreaction.
There’s no evidence at the moment that this variant has any impact on the vaccines.
‘It will now hit confidence and lead to lots of people being worried about Christmas holidays in South Africa and possibly elsewhere.’
Figures compiled for the Daily Mail by flight data analysts Cirium show 289 flights with 79,299 seats were scheduled to fly between the UK and South Africa next month.
Direct flights into the UK from the six African countries were banned from midday yesterday.
The red list will be reviewed again in two weeks, but Health Secretary Sajid Javid warned it is likely to be expanded in the coming days to include more countries with travel links to South Africa.
He told MPs the new variant potentially poses a ‘substantial risk to public health’. He said it is ‘highly likely’ the variant ‘has now spread to other countries’.
No cases have yet been detected in the UK.
Three confirmed cases in Israel were in people who had travelled from Malawi. It has also been detected in Hong Kong.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: ‘It is important to act immediately. That gives us a bit of time for the scientists to work on sequencing the genome… so we can find out how significant a concern this particular variant is.
‘It is a safety-first approach… it’s about buying time.’
Boris Johnson spoke yesterday with South African president Cyril Ramaphosa.
A No 10 spokesman said: ‘They discussed the challenges posed globally by the new Covid-19 variant, and ways to work together to deal with it and reopen international travel.’
The two leaders also ‘agreed to stay in close contact as we deal with the ongoing threat’.
Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands followed the UK’s lead yesterday by restricting travel from South Africa and its neighbouring countries.
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Union’s top eurocrat, urged all the bloc’s leaders to do so.
The US has also restricted flights from eight African countries.
A woman who flew to South Africa to attend her nephew’s funeral has criticised the Government for not giving British nationals any notice over the travel ban.
Gill Dixon, 52, suffered the bereavement a fortnight ago after visiting her relative in the ICU in the coastal city of George.
But her plans to fly back on Monday evening to return to work have been thrown into turmoil following yesterday’s announcement.
Mrs Dixon, pictured right, said: ‘I cannot believe the UK Government has pulled something like this on Britons in South Africa.
‘I woke up this morning to find out about the news, that they’ve cancelled all the flights back home.’ Mrs Dixon said the treatment of British nationals is nothing short of a disgrace.
‘There was no warning from the Government,’ she added. ‘They should help repatriate British nationals. I’m absolutely furious.’
Even if she can return to her native Kent, the extortionate cost of a quarantine hotel only adds to her anguish. She said: ‘There is no reason why I even have to be in quarantine when I come back. I’ll have tested negative, and I live on my own. To add to this, they have pushed up the price of quarantine.’
Mrs Dixon added: ‘It’s time to consider flying to the US or Europe and staying there for ten days before returning to the UK.’
Stephanie Cramer is stranded in Cape Town by the new variant after flying over to visit her sick father.
She received a text from Virgin late on Thursday telling her that her flight back home to London had been cancelled.
Miss Cramer, 55, pictured, said she was incredibly stressed by the situation as she is starting a new job on Monday.
‘There are no flight options,’ she said. ‘I’m desperate and I’ve run out of ideas.
‘This is beyond a nightmare. I came to see my dad who is ill in hospital and was here for just seven days.
‘Now I have no idea when I will get home.’
Miss Cramer, a former enrolment officer for a training company in London, also made the trip to South Africa to celebrate her parents’ wedding anniversary.
One of South Africa’s biggest airline ticketing agencies, Flight Centre, said no flights would be leaving for the UK or Europe until 4am on Sunday at the very earliest.
Arrivals from this time will have to isolate in expensive quarantine hotels in the UK for two weeks. But Miss Cramer said she cannot afford the cost of the hotel. ‘Everywhere I turn it is costing us more money and it is more complicated,’ she added.