SA questions UK flight ban amid global alarm over Covid variant

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Passengers wear face masks as a preventive measure while they talk to a security guard at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. (Guillem SARTORIO / AFP)
Passengers wear face masks as a preventive measure while they talk to a security guard at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. (Guillem SARTORIO / AFP)
  • South Africa says a British ban on flights from six southern African countries over a new Covid-19 variant seems rushed.
  • EU authorities are preparing similar moves.
  • The WHO has convened an emergency meeting, and the NCCC will be meeting on Sunday to discuss the next steps.


Local authorities on Friday said a British ban on flights from six southern African countries over a new Covid-19 variant seemed rushed, as EU authorities prepared similar moves and the World Health Organisation (WHO) convened an emergency meeting.

Scientists have so far only detected the B.1.1.529 variant in relatively small numbers, mainly in South Africa but also in Botswana and Hong Kong, but say they are concerned by its high number of mutations which could possibly make it vaccine-resistant and more transmissible.

Britain said the variant was the most significant one found yet after banning flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, and Namibia from midday on Friday.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said the EU also aimed to halt air travel from the region, describing the variant in a tweet as "of concern".

READ | EU move to halt travel from South Africa over variant

A WHO working group on virus evolution is due to meet on Friday to discuss whether to officially give it that label, a designation only given to four variants so far.

WHO epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said in a video posted on Twitter that it could take a few weeks to understand the impact of the variant's mutations.

The rand slumped over two percent against the dollar early on Friday, as the variant unnerved investors while the country's hospitality stocks also plummeted.

Local authorities will speak to their British counterparts to try to get them to reconsider their ban, the Department of International Relations and Co-operation said.

"Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries," International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement.

As Asian countries also moved to tighten curbs, two Welsh rugby clubs in South Africa for a tournament scrambled to leave as soon as possible, and British and Irish golfers withdrew from the Johannesburg Open.

South Africa - the worst affected in Africa in terms of total reported Covid cases and deaths - had been experiencing a lull after a severe third wave of infections, until last week when new infections started to pick up.

On Thursday, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) reported 2 465 new cases, almost double the previous day's number. Although the NICD did not link the resurgence to the B.1.1.529 variant, leading local scientists suspect it is the cause.

The Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention strongly discouraged travel bans on countries that had reported the variant.

"Imposing bans on travellers from countries where a new variant is reported has not yielded a meaningful outcome," it said.

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