UK temporary ban on ‘instinctive’ red list throws South African travelers, tourism industry and airlines into confusion

The UK’s decision to implement a flight ban that was announced ahead of the World Health Organization meeting on Friday is holding South African travelers in suspense. Meanwhile, President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to convene the National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) on Sunday to assess developments in Covid-19.

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Britain announced Thursday it will temporarily halt flights from South Africa and some neighboring countries due to the threat of the new variant of Covid-19 B.1.1.529, leaving travelers in disarray.

Travel agencies and industry associations have criticized the country’s decision to put South Africa back on its Covid-19 red list as a “knee-jerk” reaction with a “domino effect”, as other countries follow suit.

While South Africa has raised concerns On the UK government’s decision, a National Coronavirus Command Council (NCCC) meeting scheduled for Sunday, may provide some clarity.

Read in Daily Maverick: Pretoria to call on UK to reverse ‘rushed’ move to put South Africa back on Red Travel List

Travel restrictions went into effect at noon on Friday November 26 when South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia were added to the Red List, the UK government said Thursday.

All flights from these countries were temporarily suspended until 4 am on Sunday November 28 “to reduce the risk of importing this new variant under investigation”.

“From noon on Friday, non-UK and Irish residents who have stayed in these countries in the previous 10 days will be refused entry to England,” he said. This did not apply to those who had only transited through one of the six countries when changing flights.

In addition, UK and Irish residents arriving between Friday noon and Sunday 4 a.m. from those countries will be required to self-quarantine for 10 days.

It comes as the new variant of SARS-CoV-2, currently known as B.1.1.529, which has also been identified in Botswana and Hong Kong, has been declared a variant under investigation by the UK Agency for health security.

On Thursday, a team of scientists in South Africa identified B.1.1.529 as the possible driver of a spike in coronavirus cases in Gauteng.

Read in Daily Maverick: Disturbing variant of the coronavirus, with many unknown mutations, leading to resurgence of infections in Gauteng

Within hours, the United Kingdom, Israel and Singapore had restricted travel from South Africa and some of its neighboring countries, due to concerns over the variant.

On Friday morning, Germany and Italy followed suit, as the European Union announced it would propose to ban travel from southern Africa.

President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to convene the NCCC on Sunday to assess developments in Covid-19, including scientific updates around B.1.1.529, according to the presidency.

“The results of the NCCC discussions and further consultations will be communicated in the coming days,” he said.

In a statement, UK High Commissioner to South Africa Antony Phillipson said “there is a need to add South Africa to the UK travel red list.” The variant was “detected thanks to the genomic sequencing capabilities of South Africa, a world leader.

“This appears to be the most important variant that scientists have encountered to date. It has a large number of mutations and urgent research – including in collaboration with South African experts – is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and response to vaccines, ”he said.

Phillipson added that the UK government was aware the move would be “a shock and a disappointment” to the many who were planning to travel between the UK and South Africa during the Christmas season. “We don’t want travel restrictions in place any longer than necessary. Like all countries in the world, the UK has had to make tough decisions to protect public health, ”Phillipson concluded.

Business associations, including the Association of Travel Agents of Southern Africa (ASATA), the Southern African Tourism Services Association (SATSA) and the Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa (Fedhasa) have all criticized the decision of the United Kingdom to put South Africa back on its red list.

“The fact that the British government has put South Africa on the red list again following the discovery of a new variant of Covid, is a setback of enormous proportions for the South African travel industry,” said ASATA CEO Otto de Vries said on Friday.

“The new ban is a knee-jerk reaction from the UK government which puts airlines, hotels, travel agencies and travelers in a very difficult situation,” he added.

Echoing De Vries’ remarks, SATSA said the “knee jerk reaction to institute a temporary red list ban in six countries … is overblown and punishes South Africa with advanced genome sequencing capability to find new variants “.

The ban came as South Africa’s tourism and hospitality industry hoped for a different December holiday season than 2020, when the Beta variant effectively pounded the area, It said.

“The UK is our main source market, and the announcement is devastating for the tourism industry, not only because of the impact on UK travelers to South Africa during our peak season as their plans journeys are summarily disrupted, but also because of the message it sends to the rest of the world, ”said David Frost, CEO of SATSA.

SATSA was “extremely disappointed” with the UK’s decision and hoped the temporary ban would be lifted soon.

While criticizing the ban, Fedhasa National President Rosemary Anderson on Friday called on South Africans to “get an emergency vaccine.”

“We depend on tourism for jobs and livelihoods… We just can’t repeat the month of December 2020, when restaurants and hospitality businesses suffered the brunt of Covid-19 regulations, which made unattractive and difficult travel and restaurant patronage, ”Anderson said.

The flight bans by various countries is a blow to the airline industry, who was starting to recover from previous travel restrictions and blockages. The new measures come just as the holiday season begins, and in the wake of the many sales of Black Friday flights.

“This is the worst anticipated Christmas present the airline industry can think of,” said Nick Cunningham, analyst at Agency Partners in London. Bloomberg. “To quote Yogi Berra, this is once again déjà vu.”

On Twitter Thursday, British Airlines tweeted: “We are aware of government news regarding the ban on British flights to South Africa. We will contact relevant customers and colleagues in South Africa and update our website with the latest information.

In response to a comment on Twitter, the airline said it had started canceling flights to and from South Africa.

The Flight Center Travel Group announced on Friday that it would cancel its Black Friday sale to prioritize assistance to customers affected by the flight bans.

“Waking up to this news and being in this position again is just devastating. We anticipate that there will be a domino effect with other countries following suit, as we have seen before, ”said group chief executive Andrew Stark.

“We cannot stress enough how important it is for our country to achieve a vaccination rate of over 80%, in order to be able to proactively end these situations,” he added. DM

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