Cape Town: South Africa’s recovery from its deepest economic contraction in almost three decades risks being derailed by the identification of a new coronavirus variant that prompted several European nations to ban travel to and from the country right before its summer holiday season.
The restrictions deal another blow to South Africa’s battered tourism industry, which buckled under the weight of border shutdowns and stop-start domestic lockdowns over the past year and a half.
“This will be a significant setback to South Africa’s already vulnerable tourism sector, which was preparing to see an influx of offshore visitors, armed with hard currency, over the festive season,” said Siobhan Redford, an economist at FirstRand Group Ltd.’s Rand Merchant bank.
The UK, which accounts for the largest share of overseas tourists to South Africa, has already announced a temporary ban on flights to the country and five of its neighbors over concerns about the new discovery, called B.1.1.529 until a Greek letter is assigned to it by the World Health Organization.
The move drew ire from South African officials as scientists are still trying to determine whether the new variant is more transmissible or more lethal than previous ones. Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said the decision was rushed, while Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu said she plans to discuss the flight bans with officials attending the World Tourism Organization’s general assembly in Madrid next week.
“We need to see this as a global issue, pretty much like climate change itself, and that these variants are going to spread,” Public Enterprise Minister Pravin Gordhan said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Friday. “I’m certain in the next 10 days or so there will be more clarity after a bit more work” has been done on what impact the virus will have and how transmissible it is, he said.
Travel and tourism contributed 7 per cent to South Africa’s gross domestic product in pre-pandemic times, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. While that’s below the global average, it nevertheless accounted for almost 1.5 million jobs in a country with an unemployment rate of 34.4% — the highest of 82 countries tracked by Bloomberg.
South Africa is currently on the lowest level of lockdown measures, but the new variant has prompted the so-called coronavirus command council and cabinet to call a meeting for the weekend. President Cyril Ramaphosa could impose stricter domestic curbs, including a ban on the sale of alcohol, to spare health centers from the burden of drink-related accidents and violence, in the coming days.
WHO Hosts Special Meeting On Worrying New Variant
Geneva: Advisers to the World Health Organization are holding a special session Friday to flesh out information about a worrying new variant of the coronavirus that has emerged in South Africa, though a top expert says its impact on Covid-19 vaccines may not be known for weeks.
The technical advisory group on the evolution of Covid-19 was meeting virtually to discuss the so-called B.1.1.529 variant that has caused stock markets to swoon and led the European Union to recommend a pause in flights to southern Africa.
The group could decide if it’s a “variant of concern” — the most worrying type, like the well-known delta variant — or a “variant of interest”, and whether to use a Greek letter to classify it.
“We don’t know very much about this, yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations, and the concern is that when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on COVID-19, in a social-media chat Thursday.
Fewer than 100 full genome sequences of the variant are so far available, she said.
“It will take a few weeks for us to understand what impact this variant has on any potential vaccines, for example,” Van Kerkhove said.
Reached by phone, advisory group chairman Dr. Anurag Agrawal, the director of Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in New Delhi, said it was too soon to comment on the variant. He said that more data was needed before he could add to the information that was already available.
“This is one to watch. I would say we have concern, but I think you would want us to have concern,” Van Kerkhove said. “We have people who are on this.”
‘Emergency Brake’: EU Proposes Southern Africa Travel Ban Over Variant
Brussels: Germany and Italy on Friday 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.
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 coordination 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.
Germany’s new travel restrictions, starting Friday night, will affect South Africa and “probably neighbouring nations”, German Minister of Health 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 its same neighbours would be prohibited starting 1200 GMT on Friday.
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.
Nine-Month Limit On Covid Vaccine Validity For Travel To Europe In New Rules
Brussels: The European Union is recommending a 9-month time limit for the validity of Covid-19 vaccinations for travel into and within the bloc and also is proposing to prioritize vaccinated travelers.
The European Commission is proposing that member states should continue welcoming all travelers inoculated with shots approved by the bloc, according to a document seen by Bloomberg. It also called for countries to reopen as of Jan. 10 to all those who have used vaccines approved by the World Health Organization.
EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders announced on Thursday a new internal EU travel framework based more on individuals’ vaccination or recovery status than on caseloads in the countries they’re coming from. A separate announcement on the external travel rules is scheduled for later Thursday.
The proposed updates introduce the new time limit for the validity of Covid inoculations, making clear that boosters will be needed beyond the 9-month period. But the EU said it wasn’t ready to propose a validity period for certificates issued based on booster shots.
The commission is also proposing to extend its rules on the EU digital certificate beyond next summer, Reynders said.
EU governments are pushing for the bloc to smooth out differences in rules to help safeguard the ability to travel after governments have employed contrasting approaches to how long vaccinations should last and how to manage booster shots. The commission offers recommendations that could be implemented by member nations.
Shares of European airlines gained, offsetting November’s 8.2 per cent decline in the Bloomberg EMEA Airlines Index through Wednesday. Ryanair Holdings Plc, Europe’s biggest low-cost carrier, was up 1.1 per cent, while British rival EasyJet Plc, Franco-Dutch flag carrier Air France-KLM and Deutsche Lufthansa AG also traded higher.
Countries across the EU are scrambling to counter the pandemic’s fourth wave with varying degrees of restrictions, against a backdrop of uneven vaccination rates. Germany is considering compulsory shots for some vulnerable groups, Italy has imposed limits for unvaccinated people, and Denmark is considering mandating face masks in public transport. Austria has restricted leisure travel as part of a three-week lockdown.
As the case numbers continue to rise across Europe, the EU’s executive arm is planning to discontinue its white list of countries from where all travelers are allowed regardless of vaccination status, as of March 1. From that date on, vaccinated and recovered travelers with an EU digital Covid certificate, or an equivalent pass, would be able to enter the bloc.
The revised rules would also allow travel to the EU for children between 6 and 17 years old who have had a negative PCR test done before departure even if they’re not vaccinated. EU countries could require additional testing after arrival, quarantine or self-isolation. The proposals will now go to the members states for approval.
Germany To Declare South Africa Virus Variant Area As Cases Hit New Record
Berlin: Germany on Friday reported a new record of more than 76,000 COVID-19 infections in a day as its air force got ready for the first time in the pandemic to fly severely ill patients to other parts of the country to unburden struggling hospitals.
The day before, Germany had crossed the threshold of 100,000 COVID-19-related deaths amid warnings from hospitals mainly in the south and the east of the country that their intensive care units are filling to capacity.
Later on Friday, the German air force will transport severely ill COVID-19 patients from the southern town of Memmingen to Muenster near Osnabrueck in the north to relieve clinics in the south, a security source told Reuters.
It is the first time that the air force has to use its so-called “flying intensive care units”, planes fitted with up to six ICU beds, to transfer COVID-19 patients within Germany.
Berlin will also declare South Africa a virus variant area on Friday after the detection of a new COVID-19 variant there, a health ministry source said.
The decision, which will come into effect from Friday night, will mean airlines will be allowed to fly only Germans to Germany from South Africa, according to the source. Returning Germans, even those who are vaccinated, will then have to spend 14 days in quarantine.
“This newly discovered variant worries us. That is why we are acting pro-actively and early here,” Health Minister Jens Spahn said. “The last thing we need now is a new variant being introduced that causes even more problems.”
Singapore To Curb Arrivals From 7 African Nations Over New Covid Variant
Singapore: Singapore will restrict arrivals from seven African countries, health officials said Friday, after South Africa discovered a new Covid-19 variant with a large number of mutations.
All non-Singaporeans and people without permanent residency in the city-state who have recent travel history to the seven countries will be barred from entering or transiting through Singapore, the health ministry said.
The new restrictions, which will take effect from Sunday, apply to South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe, the ministry said.
Singapore citizens and foreigners holding permanent resident status in the city-state of 5.5 million arriving from those countries can still enter, but will have to undergo a 10-day quarantine.
Singapore currently has no cases of the new variant, but officials are seeking to “take the necessary precautions to reduce the risks” of it spreading to the country, the ministry said.
The city-state has had a mild outbreak of Covid-19, reporting almost 260,000 cases and 681 deaths.
New COVID-19 Variant Most Significant Yet Found: Britain
London: Britain said on Friday that a newly identified coronavirus variant spreading in South Africa was considered by scientists to be the most significant one yet found and so it needed to ascertain whether or not it made vaccines ineffective.
Defending a ban on flights from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said that the lesson of COVID was that early action was essential.
The UK Health Security Agency said that the variant – called B.1.1.529 – has a spike protein that was dramatically different to the one in the original coronavirus that COVID-19 vaccines are based on.
“As scientists have described, (this is) the most significant variant they’ve encountered to date in their research,” Shapps told Sky News.