The travel industry was today wracked with despair at the new uncertainty caused by the super-mutant Botswana variant, with the mayor of tourism-dependent Cape Town slamming the ‘rushed’ announcement to the world.
Health chiefs in the country hastily called a news conference on Thursday to announce the new B.1.1.529 variant was driving soaring infections – accounting for around 90 percent of all cases in just a matter of weeks.
It has caused a surge in infections, with the 7-day average for daily cases standing at 1,000 on Thursday – a 262 per cent increase on the week before.
Just hours after it was announced, Britain barred all flights from South Africa, and a slew of countries have followed suit, including France, Germany, Italy, Israel and Singapore.
Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis lashed South Africa’s Covid experts for sounding the alarm so early, saying that the country’s tourism industry had been dealt a ‘crushing blow.’
The news comes at a crucial juncture for travel firms around the world as people look ahead to the Christmas holidays – and fears over the new variant have already spooked the market.
Shares in British Airways parent IAG, German carrier Lufthansa and aircraft maker Airbus dropped about 10 per cent on Friday.
Travel expert Paul Charles tweeted: ‘The UK Government have again created a pre-Xmas lottery for travellers by saying they will review the red list in three weeks.
‘Few will risk their bookings and will now assume they won’t be able to travel to the six countries affected during the festive period.’
Health chiefs in SA hastily called a news conference on Thursday to announce the new B.1.1.529 variant was driving soaring infections – accounting for around 90 percent of all cases in just a matter of weeks. It has caused a surge in infections, with the 7-day average for daily cases standing at 1,000 on Thursday – a 262 per cent increase on the week before.
People lineup to get on the Air France flight to Paris at OR Tambo’s airport in Johannesburg, South Africa’, Friday
Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis (pictured on September 30) has slammed the government’s response to the new Covid variant, saying it will ‘crush’ the tourism industry
Travel expert Paul Charles tweeted: ‘Few will risk their bookings and will now assume they won’t be able to travel to the six countries affected during the festive period.’
As well as South Africa, the UK is blocking travel from Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe, adding all six to the red list.
No cases have been detected in the UK so far but everyone who has returned from South Africa in the past 10 days will be contacted and asked to take a test.
Travel data firm Cirium said 289 UK flights were scheduled to and from South Africa in December, with capacity for 79,000 passengers.
Cape Town Mayor Hill-Lewis told radio station SAfm Sunrise today: ‘If we know we’re going to get punished for detecting new variants, as in the past … then surely, we should know what we’re dealing with before we go and announce it to the world.’
FTSE slides amid renewed Covid fears
The dramatic Covid developments sparked jitters on stock markets today.
More than £65billion was wiped off the value of FTSE 100 companies after the index opened.
The 250 point tumble put it on track for the steepest one-day drop in a year.
Shares in major airlines were hit hard, with IAG, the owner of British Airways, falling more than 21 per cent in early trading. EasyJet dropped 16 per cent.
Tourism-sensitive stocks such as plane engine maker Rolls Royce, easyJet and International Consolidated Airlines all saw double digit losses in Europe.
Malaysian rubber glove maker Supermax, which soared 1500% during the first wave of the pandemic, leapt 15 per cent.
Germany’s DAX was down 2.8 per cent.
US equity markets have been shut for Thanksgiving.
‘We’re not even sure if this variant is anything to worry about,’ the 34-year-old said.
‘I do understand that information shouldn’t be withheld, but the national government should have directly approached our travel markets with the news before announcing it publicly. And it shouldn’t have been announced in such a way that sows panic,’ he added.
Mr Charles accused ministers of making ‘another knee-jerk decision’.
The travel consultant said: ‘While Government has to act swiftly on any serious threats, it should be steering away from imposing blanket country measures such as flight bans.
‘It would be better to assess travellers based on their individual risk, and ask fully jabbed consumers to test regularly at home rather than force them to pay over £2,000 per person to stay in grim hotel quarantine.
‘Variants will come and go for years yet so the Government has to find new, less economically damaging measures to deal with each situation.
‘Yet again, we are now in a position where Government is knocking consumer confidence with such draconian measures.’
Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of Advantage Travel Partnership, the UK’s largest independent travel agent group, said: ‘Yet again, an entire industry is informed of drastic changes to travel restrictions by a late-night tweet from Government, leaving travel agents scrambling to repatriate their customers in these southern African countries and cancel and rebook those who had planned to travel over the festive period.
‘It’s important to remember that many of these people who are overseas in these destinations would be visiting friends and family for the first time in over two years – and now they have to make the heart-breaking decision to return home early.
‘Not only that, but there is only a very small window for passengers to try and make it home in time to avoid the inhumane hotel quarantine and a hefty bill to go with it.
‘Why can’t this be replaced with home self-isolation and appropriate testing instead?’
Ms Bue-Said said the wider knock-on effect for consumer confidence is ‘deeply concerning for the travel industry’.
Shares in British Airways parent IAG, German carrier Lufthansa and aircraft maker Airbus dropped about 10 per cent on Friday.
She added: ‘We simply cannot operate our businesses with this level of uncertainty hanging over us for the foreseeable future.’
A spokeswoman for travel trade organisation Abta said the announcement was ‘devastating’ for travel companies that specialise in travel to southern Africa.
She went on: ‘These businesses have had very little opportunity to generate income for almost two years and now face a further period of being unable to trade – just as the region’s peak season begins.
‘The Government must consider stepping in to provide targeted support where precautionary measures such as these close UK travel businesses, as they have done previously for other sectors of the economy.
‘It is also vital the decision is kept under careful review and that restrictions are lifted promptly if it becomes clear there is not a risk to the UK vaccination programme.’
Helpless and furious, South African tour operators are now flooded with cancellations as countries follow Britain’s decision.
‘This is a knee-jerk reaction but with such a strong snowball effect,’ said Richard de la Rey of Dark Giraffe Marketing, which organises safaris and beach holidays in Mozambique, Tanzania and South Africa.
‘No one knows anything about this variant at all and they just assume the worst,’ he huffed.
The World Health Organization cautioned against imposing travel restrictions, saying it would take weeks to understand the implications of the newly discovered strain.
‘Finally, we were starting to see the traction of recovery,’ said Shelly Cox, who organises sustainable trips to Victoria Falls, one of Africa’s most coveted tourist attractions on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe.
High-paying foreign tourists were just starting to return to South Africa, renowned for its wildlife and natural vistas, after the country was shut off from the rest of the world for most of 2020.
Countries then blacklisted South Africa after another variant was found in December – a crippling blow as tourism directly accounts for three percent of the nation’s economy and provided more than 700,000 jobs before the pandemic.
Britain only removed it from its dreaded coronavirus ‘red list’ in October this year, before which travellers were forced to undergo an expensive hotel quarantine upon return to the UK.
Maxine Mackintosh, a 28-year-old genomics researcher, landed in Johannesburg on Thursday and was scheduled to travel around South Africa for 10 days.
By early afternoon Friday, she was airborne on her way back to the UK to avoid have to quarantine.
‘We were going to do fun touristy things… go to vineyards, climb up mountains, go surfing… I feel pretty frustrated because this is my first trip since the pandemic and I had been really looking forward to it,’ said Mackintosh.
‘As a safari operator we had seen a really nice uptick in October,’ Andre Van Kets, co-founder of Discover Africa Group, told AFP.
This chart shows the proportion of cases that were the B.1.1.529 variant (blue) and Indian ‘Delta’ variant (red) over time in Guateng province in South Africa, where the virus is most prevalent. It suggests that the mutant strain could outcompete Delta in the province within weeks
‘Booking rates shot through the roof compared to the pandemic era and we were really optimistic… so to have the hand brake pulled up so suddenly is very significant,’ he added.
International visitors represent 90 percent of the company’s clients. Most come from the UK and the United States, and Van Kets said he dreaded a similar announcement from the White House.
Travel agencies were meanwhile swamped with holidaymakers seeking to change their bookings.
‘We are mostly dealing with cancellations from people who cannot fly,’ said Morongoe Khoboko, who works for Corporate Traveller Evolution in Johannesburg.
‘It’s been a crazy morning,’ she exclaimed.
Many feel South Africa’s blacklisting in unjust. They note that the country has stricter coronavirus rules than many Western nations, including mandatory face masks in public and caps on gatherings.
‘I am a real big rugby fan and I see stadiums full with 50,000 people… but South Africa is still the problem?’ asked de la Rey.
Vaccine uptake has been low, however, with just around 35 percent of the population fully jabbed after a slow campaign start and widespread hesitancy.
Governments ‘panic and I get that to a certain extent, but there has got to be a better way,’ said de la Rey.
‘It seems we, and the African continent in general, are the scapegoat.’
A flight from South Africa to the Netherlands was barred entry into the country today. Passengers are pictured above waiting in their seats
Pictured above is the cockpit shown on screens on the flight (right), and seats on the plane. The Netherlands suspended entry to flights coming from South Africa at noon today
Botswana Covid variant may have emerged in an HIV patient, has twice as many mutations as Delta and could make jabs at least 40% less effective against infection — what we know so far
By EMILY CRAIG HEALTH REPORTER FOR MAILONLINE
A new super mutant Covid variant that has sparked fears of another lockdown in the UK may have emerged in a HIV patient in Africa, is the most-evolved version yet and could make jabs much weaker.
Scientists believe that its extensive mutations mean it must have originated in a severely immunocompromised patient, possibly an undiagnosed person with AIDS.
It has more than 30 mutations, giving it all the transmissibility of the currently-dominant Delta strain and the same ability to escape vaccines as the old South African variant Beta.
Experts fear the new variant — called B.1.1.529 — may make the vaccines at least 40 per cent less effective, because it is so different from the original strain the vaccines were made to target.
Britons have been put on alert that there could be a Christmas lockdown, with one of No10’s vaccine advisers warning ‘we all need to be ready’ for restrictions to be reimposed.
Here is everything we know about the variant so far:
What is so concerning about the variant?
Experts say it is the ‘worst variant they have ever seen’ and are alarmed by the number of mutations it carries.
The variant has more than 30 mutations — the most ever recorded and twice as many as the currently dominant Delta strain. One scientist said these changes made the variant the worst seen so far.
Experts fear the changes could make the vaccines 40 per cent less effective in a best-case scenario, because the new version of the virus is better at dodging the protection the jabs provide.
This is because so many of the changes on B.1.1.529 are on the virus’s spike protein. The current crop of vaccines trigger the body to recognise the version of the spike protein from older versions of the virus.
But because the spike protein looks so different on the new strain, the body’s immune system may struggle to recognise it and fight it off.
It also includes mutations that allow it to spread more easily.
Experts warn they won’t know how much more infectious the virus is for at least two weeks and may not know its impact on Covid hospitalisations and deaths for up to six weeks.
Will it affect Christmas in the UK?
Experts said it will be weeks until they know how worrying the new variant is, so it is not yet clear what extra steps might need to be taken.
The only action measures introduced by the Government so far has been to add six countries to the red list.
But Professor Adam Finn, a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said new restrictions cannot be ruled out.
He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: ‘On the one hand, I don’t want to induce unnecessary anxiety in people, but on the other hand, I think we all need to be ready for the possibility of a change in the restrictions.’
Where has the variant been detected so far?
The variant has so far been spotted in four countries: South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong and Israel.
And Belgian health chiefs said the country has two suspected cases caused by the new strain.
Most cases have been spotted in Gauteng, a province in north east South Africa.
The first case was uploaded to an international variant database by Hong Kong and was spotted by someone who travelled to the country from South Africa.
No cases have been seen in the UK. But scientists do not sequence every positive Covid sample in the UK and not everyone who catches the virus will take a test.
This means there could be people infected with the variant in Britain.
What is the UK doing about the variant?
The Health Secretary announced last night six countries would be added to the red list from midday on Friday November 26.
The red-listed countries are: South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe. This means all direct flights from these countries to the UK are banned.
Anyone arriving in England between midday today and 4am on Sunday from these countries — or who has been in the countries in the 10 previous days — must complete a passenger locator form, quarantine at home and should take a PCR test.
Anyone arriving from these countries after 4am on Sunday must stay in a managed quarantine hotel for 10 days and take a Covid test on or before the second day of their stay, as well as another test on or after day eight.
What mutations does the variant have?
The Botswana variant carries mutations K417N and E484A that are similar to those on the South African ‘Beta’ variant that made it better able to dodge vaccines.
But it also has the N440K, found on Delta, and S477N, on the New York variant, which are also linked to antibody escape.
The variant also has mutations P681H and N679K which are ‘rarely seen together’ and could make it yet more jab resistant.
And the mutation N501Y that makes viruses more transmissible and was previously seen on the Kent ‘Alpha’ variant and Beta among others.
Other mutations it has include G446S, T478K, Q493K, G496S, Q498R and Y505H, although their significance is not yet clear.
Will I be protected if I have a booster?
Scientists have warned the new strain could make the vaccines 40 per cent less effective.
But they said emergence of the mutant variant makes it even more important to get a booster jab the minute people become eligible for one.
The vaccines trigger neutralising antibodies, which is the best protection available against the new variant. So the more of these antibodies a person has the better, experts said.
When will we know more about the variant?
Data on how transmissible the new variant is and its effect on hospitalisations and deaths is still weeks away.
The UK has offered help to South Africa, where most of the cases are concentrated, to gather this information and believe they will know more about transmissibility in two to three weeks.
But it may be four to six weeks until they know more about hospitalisations and deaths.
What is the variant called?
The strain is known scientifically as B.1.1.529, but has not yet been given a name based on letters of the Greek alphabet.
The variants given an official name so far include Alpha, Beta, Delta and Gamma.
Experts at the World Health Organization are holding emergency meetings about the variant today, during which it is expected to be named. It could be called the ‘Nu’ variant.