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South Africa’s vaccine passport: Have jab, can travel, except to the UK and US

Anger as United Kingdom keeps South Africa on red status despite government lobbying.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

Britain’s decision to leave South Africa on its Covid-19 red list of countries from which citizens may not enter the UK – while removing eight other countries from the list – has caused outrage.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced on Friday night that his government was removing Turkey, Pakistan, the Maldives, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Oman, Bangladesh and Kenya from the list and simplifying procedures for foreigners to enter. But SA stayed on the list despite furious campaigning by Pretoria and business to get it off.

David Frost, CEO of Satsa, who has been leading the campaign, told DM168 on Friday that Shapps’ decision was “scandalous and completely unacceptable”. Frost said the decision was based on obsolete Covid-19 infection data and bad interpretation of the science.

He said Shapps seemed to have based his decision on his well-known insistence that the Beta variant largely emanates from South Africa, which was anachronistic information dating from last December.

“We would want to know how Kenya was taken off the list. We know their genomic sequencing is just about nonexistent compared to ours. We do the good science,” Frost said, adding that he believed South Africa was unfairly paying the price for that science.

Elsewhere Covid-19 vaccinations are becoming health passports for South African tourists to other holiday destinations such as France, Germany, Switzerland and Greece. But the UK – the biggest source of inbound tourists – and the US remain shut to South African tourists and their own returning nationals. Britons who travel to SA have to endure 10 days of quarantine on their return, which has effectively killed the market, and is costing SA about R26-million a day, the tourist industry says.

The loss of British tourism has already cost SA R2.4-billion in lost revenue since it was put on the list in May, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council. The UK has traditionally been SA’s biggest source market for tourists. More than 430,000 British travellers arrived in SA in 2019.  During the complete shutdown of international travel from April to December 2020, UK arrivals dropped by 97%.

International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor joined in the campaign to persuade Britain to take SA off the red list. This week she raised the issue again with the new British Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss at a closed online meeting of Commonwealth foreign ministers, said Pandor’s spokesperson, Lunga Ngqengelele.

“She raises it at every opportunity,” he said. The minister did this on behalf of SA and the many other African countries on the red list.

Pandor told Radio 702 this week: “South Africa has made good progress through the third wave and its health system has shown that it is able to cope with the challenge. We are relaying this to our counterparts in the UK and we hope that very soon sense will prevail.

“South Africa is a major destination for tourists from the UK and for tourists from South Africa to the UK. I think there is a lot of protest arriving at the table of the Prime Minister as well as the Secretary of State,” Pandor added.

Frost told DM168 that SA is being punished in part because its good Covid-19 scientists made discoveries that are not being properly interpreted to the world. He is furious about reports that SA could become a Covid-19 “mutation factory”. The reports arise from the work of bioinformatics professor Tulio de Oliveira, who runs gene-sequencing programmes at two South African universities.

He told an immunology conference on 30 August that South Africa’s 8.2 million HIV-positive people were immune-compromised and therefore able to harbour the coronavirus for longer, allowing it to mutate as it reproduced.

“You have this massive virus evolution, really the virus accumulating over 30 mutations,” De Oliveira was quoted as saying. Frost said this message was amplified in the UK and elsewhere and was being taken up by British “hawks” trying to keep SA on the red list. He believes that many uncontextualised interpretations of the scientific position in SA are being used against the country.

The evidence clearly points to South Africa being removed from the red list. If the UK government wants to retain the integrity of its traffic light system, it must reward countries which empirically demonstrate they are safe by granting them amber status.

He noted that the UK imposed its outright ban on SA in December after SA had detected the Beta variant of Covid-19, as though that was about to take over the world. Since then, the Delta variant has completely overtaken the Beta variant and is also dominant in the UK.

Frost pointed out that SA’s average number of daily new Covid-19 infections had halved over the past two weeks. Its infection rate is less than a quarter of the UK’s and lower than most EU countries on the UK’s amber list (which allows entry to tourists but with quarantines).

Frost said calls were mounting in the UK for South Africa to be removed from the list. For example, in the Independent, in a joint statement on behalf of the South African tourism industry, Ben Bradshaw MP, Lord Oates and Baroness Chalker said: “The evidence clearly points to South Africa being removed from the red list. If the UK government wants to retain the integrity of its traffic light system, it must reward countries which empirically demonstrate they are safe by granting them amber status.”

Frost noted that aggressive lobbying, in a big  government campaign, got India off the list. The South African government, in tandem with business organisations like his and Business Leadership South Africa, had gone in to bat for SA, but much more was needed.

The UK and US increasingly look out of step as other tourist destinations rapidly open up to vaccinated South Africans. France, Germany, Ireland, Switzerland, Spain and Greece are among European countries that recently dropped quarantine requirements and opened their doors to South African tourists who have been vaccinated. Others are expected to follow soon.

Yet China, Russia, India, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Turkey and others are allowing entry to South African tourists only if they endure long and often expensive quarantine periods.

A South African woman who holds a British passport and had to return to the UK to visit her elderly mother described the costs, inconvenience and confusion of navigating the UK’s Covid-19 regulations and restrictions.

She had to book a package in advance that included  10 nights in a quarantine hotel, with three meals a day, and two PCR tests, for a total of about R35,000. The price was fixed and she had no choice of hotel. When she arrived at Heathrow Airport she and the other travellers from SA were directed to Terminal 5, which was dedicated to processing arrivals from red list countries. From there the travellers were entirely in the hands of officials who transported them to their hotels and kept them under effective guard there.

Their meals were brought to their rooms, which they could not leave, apart from short periods of exercise in the hotel parking lot. If they needed to leave their rooms for any other reason, they could only do so with permission – and under guard.

The United States is also still barring entry of South African tourists, though other categories of traveller may be permitted if the US deems this to be “in the national interest”. South Africa is on a list of 33 forbidden source countries, which includes all those in Europe’s Schengen area, as well as the UK, Ireland, Brazil, China, India and Iran.

Numbers of tourists moving between South Africa and those European countries opening up to vaccinated South Africans have slowly started to pick up, according to a Johannesburg-based travel agent.

And some South African tourists visiting those countries are using them as a back door to other European members of the Schengen visa regime that are not yet open to South Africans, like the Netherlands and Italy, diplomatic sources told DM168. This is because no immigration restrictions apply between Schengen countries.

The Johannesburg travel agent said that Schengen-area immigration officials were starting to get wise to this and demanding proof of the departure country of travellers across Schengen borders.

A diplomatic source said that South Africans travelling to France should also take care to register for the Passe Sanitaire, which certifies their vaccination status and is required for entry to restaurants, planes and regional trains, as well as all venues accommodating 50 people or more. This pass is an App with a QR code.

Other European countries have equivalents.

The agent also pointed out the hazards that shifting red list restrictions presented to travellers to destinations such as the UK. Some travellers are choosing to do their quarantines in other countries, such as in Ireland, before entering the UK. The Johannesburg travel agent told DM168 that, because of the uncertainties and variations of travel to Europe, many South Africans are instead choosing to holiday in Africa. Egypt requires only a recent negative Covid-19 PCR test, as do most countries closer to home, such as Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Eswatini, Mozambique and Ethiopia.

This week the Seychelles took South Africa off its restricted list, meaning South Africans may visit the archipelago with only a recent negative PCR test certificate. Mauritius will take South Africa off its restricted list on 1 October. Vaccinated travellers will be allowed to roam freely across the island immediately. Those without vaccinations will still have to undergo quarantine in an official quarantine hotel for 14 days. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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