Travel bans from South Africa introduced over mutated Covid variant | Australia stays open

A number of countries are beginning to close their borders to South Africa over fears a new mutant Covid-19 variant will spread.

Germany and Italy have joined Britain in banning most travel from South Africa as governments scramble to prevent the spread of a new Covid-19 variant with a large number of mutations.

A heavily-mutated new variant of the Covid-19 virus, currently called B.1.1.529, has so far been detected in South Africa, Botswana and Hong Kong.

The World Health Organization will meet overnight to confirm whether it will officially be deemed a “variant of concern”.

In a statement obtained by news.com.au, South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases revealed there are 22 positive cases linked to the strain, adding the percentage testing positive was “increasing quickly”.

“Although the data are limited, our experts are working overtime with all the established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be,” Prof Adrian Puren, NICD Acting Executive Director said.

“Developments are occurring at a rapid pace and the public has our assurance that we will keep them up to date.”

In a sign of the growing alarm, the European Union separately proposed prohibiting travel from southern Africa.

The EU’s executive “will propose, in close co-ordination with member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529,” EU chief Ursula Von der Leyen tweeted Friday.

It comes as Australian health officials on Friday said there were currently no plans in place to ban people flying in from the African region, but Health Minister Greg Hunt assured: “If the medical advice is that we need to change, we won’t hesitate.”

At this stage, fully vaccinated Australians are still allowed to fly home without having to quarantine.

Mr Hunt said Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Paul Kelly and head of the Scientific and Technical Advisory Group, Professor Brendan Murphy, were continuing to monitor the situation but have cleared the way to keep the border open.

“No change at this stage,” Mr Hunt said.

“If more action is needed, more will be implemented. That’s what we’ve done as a country, whether it’s been closing borders, whether it’s been ensuring that there’s quarantine.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was “advised” the situation is under investigation but “not as a variant of concern”.

“But that can change,” Mr Morrison said.

“And we monitor all of these variants and we note the responses that are made by other countries and we consider those in real time.”

Travel bans overseas grow

Germany’s new travel restrictions, starting Friday night, will affect South Africa and “probably neighbouring nations”, Acting Health Minister Jens Spahn said, with only German nationals allowed entry.

They must quarantine for 14 days upon arrival even if vaccinated.

“The last thing we need now is an introduced new variant that causes even more problems,” Spahn said, with Germany in the grip of a ferocious fourth wave of the pandemic.

In Rome, the government on Friday announced it was banning entry to those who have been in South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia or Eswatini in the past fortnight.

Health Minister Roberto Speranza said scientists were studying the new B.1.1.529 variant, “and in the meantime, we will follow the path of maximum caution”.

Britain announced that all flights from South Africa and five other African nations would be prohibited starting on Friday.

The U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said all flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini are being suspended and the countries added to the UK’s travel Red List.

South Africa sharply condemned Britain’s decision.

“Whilst South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, the UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Originally published as Travel bans from South Africa introduced over mutated Covid-19 variant, Australia stays open

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