President Joe Biden has said the decision to delay a ban on travel to the US from countries in southern Africa, where the new Omicron variant of Covid-19 is rapidly spreading, came after consultation with his top medical advisers, including Dr Anthony Fauci.
The new travel restrictions are the first to be announced since the US earlier this month opened its borders to travellers who’ve been vaccinated against the coronavirus.
Non-citizens who are not permanent residents or family members of citizens or permanent residents, and who have been in South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia or Zimbabwe within two weeks of travel to the US, will not be permitted to enter the country as of 12.01 am on 29 November.
Speaking to reporters travelling with him during his Thanksgiving holiday vacation on Nantucket Island, the president said he was implementing the travel restrictions out of an abundance of caution after the World Health Organization declared Omicron to be a “variant of concern”.
“I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious – make sure there is no travel to and from South Africa and six other countries in that region and – except for American citizens who are able to come back. But we don’t know a lot about the variant except that it is of great concern; it seems to spread rapidly,” Mr Biden said, adding that he’d spent roughly 30 minutes that morning discussing the matter with the White House Covid-19 advisory team that is led by Dr Fauci, who leads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.
Asked why the US was not following the lead of other countries, which have implemented similar restrictions with immediate effect, Mr Biden replied: “because that was the recommendation coming from my medical team”.
The announcement of new travel restrictions comes as the UK and EU countries are reeling from a renewed wave of infections, including two Omicron cases which have emerged in the UK.
On Saturday, health secretary Sajid Javid said the two cases are “linked” and were traced to travellers from southern Africa.
“The two individuals concerned are isolating alongside their whole households, whilst further tests and sequencing is carried out,” Mr Javid said.