As of Friday, just over a dozen European and Asian nations had announced temporary travel restrictions affecting flights from South Africa, with some countries extending that ban to neighbouring African nations as well.
“More data is needed but we’re taking precautions now,” wrote Sajid Javid, the UK’s Health Secretary, on Twitter. “From noon tomorrow six African countries will be added to the red list, flights will be temporarily banned, and UK travellers must quarantine.”
The quick action and public comments from top UK and other European officials comes in stark contrast to the US, where the Biden administration has gone largely unresponsive over the Thanksgiving holiday week and has issued no public statements regarding the new variant.
The Independent reached out to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the White House on Friday with questions about the new variant’s spread, the effectiveness of available vaccines for preventing spread, and the possibility of new travel restrictions. Spokespersons for the two agencies did not offer an immediate response.
Some health experts have cautioned that little is known about the variant, which like the Delta variant is believed to have undergone a number of mutations from previous iterations.
Dr Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, confirmed that travel bans were a possibility but cautioned that experts would seek to learn more about the variant before making such a decision.
“If, in fact, it does evade the vaccines that we’re doing, there’s always the possibility of doing what the UK has done, namely, block travel from South Africa and related countries,” Dr Fauci told CNN.
“You’re prepared to do everything you need to do to protect the American public, but you want to make sure there’s a basis for doing that, and that’s what we’re doing right now,” he said.
Fears surrounding new variants of Covid-19 proved to be still relevant as the emergence of the Delta variant earlier this year led to new waves of infections around the US, particularly in communities where rates of vaccination are low. The CDC calls the Delta variant “highly contagious, more than 2x as contagious as previous variants” with the potential of causing more serious symptoms among infected persons.
President Joe Biden remained in Nantucket over the weekend following the passage of his two-pronged infrastructure package through the House; the larger social services spending bill now awaits final passage in the Senate in the days ahead (unless more infighting between the Democrats tanks or delays it further).
South Africa’s government released a statement on Friday urging the UK to reconsider its newly-implemented travel restrictions and calling it “rushed”.
“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 Organisation is yet to advise on the next steps,” read the government’s statement.
“Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries,” added the country’s Minister for International Affairs, Naledi Pandor.