Governments worldwide have begun to restrict travel from the region as part of an effort to mitigate the spread of the Omicron variant, which they view as a potential threat to the progress of recent months in combatting the virus.
The variant, which was first detected last week, was declared a ‘variant of concern’ by the World Health Organization (WHO) on 26 November, however it has said that more research is needed to confirm the nature of the new variant.
In an update released on Monday 30 November, WHO said: “It is not yet clear whether Omicron is more transmissible compared to other variants, including Delta. The number of people testing positive has risen in areas of South Africa affected by this variant, but epidemiologic studies are underway to understand if it is because of Omicron or other factors.
“Preliminary data suggests that there are increasing rates of hospitalisation in South Africa, but this may be due to increasing overall numbers of people becoming infected, rather than a result of specific infection with Omicron.”
Despite this uncertainty, many governments worldwide have chosen to place travel restrictions on southern African countries in an attempt to pre-empt any potential new waves of coronavirus.
The UK restricts travel to southern Africa
The UK government announced on Friday 26 November that it would restrict travel to South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia, would be added to the UK government’s travel list. Flights from these countries were briefly suspended until Sunday 28 November to enable the reinstatement of the quarantine system.
The government subsequently announced that it would also add the African countries of Angola, Malawi, Mozambique and Zambia to the red list on Saturday 27 November.
Following the implementation of the new restrictions, travel to the UK is restricted except for UK and Irish nationals and UK residents. Travellers arriving in the UK from red list countries must undergo a 10-day hotel quarantine at an expense of £2,285 per adult per room, or potentially face fines of up to £10,000 for violating quarantine rules.
The changes may invalidate many travel insurance policies those who do choose to travel to the new red list countries. However, following the announcement, insurance provider battleface has confirmed that it will continue to validate and cover its full range of products for all travellers visiting the countries affected by the restrictions.
“There will still be travellers, who for family or other reasons still need to travel to the Southern African region. battleface travel insurance still provides valid travel insurance to protect them,” said Katie Crowe, Director of Communications at battleface. “Our products protect travellers regardless of traffic light colour and FCDO advisories and are available and accessible for all. In addition, travellers currently in the region can purchase a policy on the move.
Mandatory PCR tests in England
The government has also announced that it will make PCR tests mandatory for all travellers returning to England – a move which has drawn criticism from trade association Abta, which represents tour operators and travel agents in the UK, which said that the added cost of testing for new arrivals would impact customer demand for holidays in the country.
“While Abta understands that this is a rapidly evolving situation and public health must come first, the decision to require all arrivals to take a PCR test and self-isolate until a negative result is returned is a huge blow for travel businesses, many of whom were only just starting to get back on their feet after 20 months of severe restrictions,” an Abta spokesperson said.
Additionally, consumer choice advocate Which? has levelled criticism at the government’s choice to increase testing for inbound travellers, expressing concern about testing firms’ ability to cope with the increased demand, which it says could affect traveller confidence.
Rory Boland, Which? Travel Editor, said: “As Which? research has consistently shown, the private testing market isn’t fit for purpose – with serious implications not just for travellers but public health more generally. Testing firms have struggled to provide tests on time over the past year, so it is hard to have confidence they will be able to cope with this spike in demand at short notice.”
“Now that the government has taken the decision to make PCR tests mandatory, it must take steps to properly regulate the marketplace and implement the CMA’s recommendations so that consumers can have confidence they are booking with a provider they can rely on.”
The US decides to be cautious
The US has chosen to restrict international travel for non-citizens from eight countries from 29 November, including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.
The new restrictions come around three weeks after travel restrictions were eased for more than 30 countries, including South Africa, in favour of vaccine requirements. Malawi, Mozambique and Namibia were also some of the 51 countries the US considered exempt from vaccine requirements due to low availability in those countries.
US President Joe Biden stated: “I’ve decided we’re going to be cautious. We don’t know a lot about the new variant except it is a great concern, seems to spread rapidly.”
President Joe Biden did not rule out the possibility of further travel restrictions to combat or delay the spread of the omicron variant of Covid-19 and stated on Monday 30 November that he would consider further travel bans outside of the region if the variant was detected on a wide scale in other countries.
“The degree of the spread impacts on whether or not there’s a need for any travel restriction. But that’s not, I don’t anticipate that at this point. And we’ll see, we’ll see where that works,” he said.
New travel restrictions for the region have been implemented worldwide
Australia has also suspended all flights to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, and Zimbabwe for at least 14 days, and has banned non-citizens or residents who have visited these countries within the previous two weeks from entering.
Ireland has also imposed mandatory quarantines for anyone arriving from Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe - however Irish residents arriving from affected countries can isolate at home.
Italy has also restricted the arrival of travellers who have visited South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini within two weeks of arrival.
Travellers arriving in Spain from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe will also have to quarantine for up to 10 days, with a possibility of leaving after a week following a negative virus test. The restrictions are provisionally expected to run for two weeks, but may be extended following a government assessment of the situation.
Russia will also close its borders to non-nationals who have travelled to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Madagascar, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe from 28 November. Travellers from these countries will be required to take a PCR test upon arrival and must self-isolate until they have a confirmed negative result.
Pakistan also announced on Saturday that it would be closing its borders to arrivals from South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, Lesotho and Botswana – as well as Hong Kong. Pakistani citizens returning from these countries will be permitted entry if they are vaccinated and produce negative results taken before and after travel.