UK lifts its Omicron travel ban on South Africa and 10 other southern African nations

UK lifts its Omicron travel ban on South Africa and 10 other southern African nations
A woman tries to get assistance following the cancellation of her flight to London at OR Tambo International Airport, Gauteng, on 26 November 2021. (Photo: Shiraaz Mohamed)

The United Kingdom has lifted the travel ban it imposed on southern Africa after the emergence of the Omicron variant. Will others, including Pretoria’s friends, like Russia and China, follow suit?

Britain will lift its controversial Omicron travel ban on South Africa and 10 other southern African countries from 4am on Wednesday, 15 December.

UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced this on Tuesday afternoon.

Antony Phillipson, British High Commissioner to South Africa, confirmed that the country had been removed from the UK’s red list.

“This means that from 4am on 15 December, travellers from South Africa will be able to enter England without having to enter hotel quarantine – instead, they will only have to comply with requirements applying to everyone entering the UK,” he said.

Defending the decision to impose travel restrictions on SA and its neighbours, Phillipson said: “We took this necessary precautionary action to give us time to understand the challenge we and others faced, and to slow down the spread of Omicron while scientists urgently assessed what impact the variant has on vaccines, treatments and transmissibility. That included important work between our scientists, and we thank those here in South Africa for their expertise and transparency. 

“When we announced the heightened restrictions we made clear that we would remove them as soon as we could, and that is what we have done today. This will be welcome news for tourists, businesses and families in the UK and South Africa, although I recognise that many have had their plans disrupted.”  

Ironically, the UK’s decision left some of South Africa’s supposedly close international allies, like Russia and China, with more restrictive travel measures on South Africa than Britain.  

While President Cyril Ramaphosa and his government have been berating Western countries for imposing an “apartheid travel ban” on South Africa because of the Omicron Covid-19 variant identified here, they have said nothing about similar Omicron travel bans from their allies.

However, Pretoria expects a domino effect after the UK decision. “We expect all others to follow,” Clayson Monyela, spokesperson for the Department of International Relations and Cooperation, told Daily Maverick

“The UK triggered this mass hysteria. They were the first to ban us.”

British officials had privately suggested that the ban, which the UK had imposed on 26 November on South Africans entering Britain and the strict quarantine measures that it had then placed on returning Britons because of Omicron, had become pointless as the highly transmissible variant was already spreading widely within the British community. 

The horse had already bolted so there was no need to shut the stable, one official agreed. 

Yet it is unclear how much of the British tourism South Africa relies on so heavily in summer can still be salvaged by the lifting of the ban just 11 days before Christmas. 

David Frost, CEO of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association, representing in-bound tourism businesses in South Africa, who had campaigned vigorously against the UK travel bans, welcomed London’s decision to remove SA from the red list again.

“But red-listing Southern Africa for just three weeks caused incalculable damage to jobs and livelihoods in the region, with little discernible benefit to health outcomes in the UK,” he added.  

“The UK government must now consign this blunt instrument to history and recognise the devastating impact red lists have to confidence amongst the travelling public.”

Cape Town, however, is delighted. James Vos, Mayoral Committee Member for Economic Growth, said the city was extremely happy at the UK decision, which it had lobbied hard for, and was “destination-ready and can’t wait to welcome back our visitors.

“We have made sure to keep Cape Town top of mind for UK travellers, with our destination marketing campaign up and running in and around London.

“Britain is a key source market for Cape Town in terms of both travel and trade. It is now time for other governments across the globe to follow Britain’s lead and stop these ineffective travel bans. We need global solidarity to beat this virus. South Africa has played its part and the rest of the world should reward and not punish us for doing so.”

Earlier on Tuesday, International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor said that her government’s diplomatic efforts to get the Omicron travel bans lifted were bearing fruit and some countries had indicated their intentions to lift the bans. 

Pandor complained at a media briefing that the Omicron variant had long been present in many of the countries that had banned South Africa.

These countries had ignored scientific advice and warnings from the World Health Organization and the United Nations that travel bans were not helping to contain Omicron.

“And they have thus imposed a terrible ban, an apartheid travel ban, on South Africa and southern African countries,” said Pandor.

Her remarks echoed Ramaphosa’s stern rebuke of Western countries in Dakar, Senegal, last week when he said these countries “have always said to us, ‘base your decisions on science’, but when the moment comes for them to be more scientific they are not. They resort to their own self-interests.” 

Pandor was asked about the stringent Covid-19 travel restrictions of China, one of South Africa’s valued allies in the BRICS bloc, which also includes Brazil, Russia and India.

Though technically still allowing travel from South Africa, Beijing has imposed such onerous conditions – including two weeks of government quarantine and one week of private isolation – that very few tourists have travelled either way for almost two years.

Pandor said China’s restrictions were general and not targeted at any country. But she added that SA would like to see more open travel as tourism was so important to SA, and significant numbers of Chinese companies had invested in SA and elsewhere in Africa. 

She said she had raised the issue with her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, “and I hope that the situation of travel will be eased”. She noted that China had been extremely careful in managing the Covid pandemic and had reacted strongly when cases were detected.

But she said she hoped that as more South Africans got vaccinated and Chinese vaccination approached the society immunity level, tourism, as well as people-to-people travel, would open up. 

Meanwhile, another valuable BRICS ally, Russia, has quietly imposed the same sort of Omicron travel ban as the UK and other Western countries, according to the website of the Russian embassy in Pretoria.

It says: “Due to the detection of the new SARS-CoV-2 (B.1.1.529) variant, (better known as Omicron) the Emergency Response Centre for preventing the import and spread of the novel coronavirus in Russia has decided to impose temporary restrictions, starting from Nov 28, 2021, on the entry to the Russian Federation of all categories of foreign nationals residing in the Republic of South Africa and the Kingdom of Lesotho, including valid visa holders and visa-free travelers.

“According to the said decision, the Consular Office of the Embassy of Russia in Pretoria and the Consulate General of Russia in Cape Town temporarily suspend the issuance of visas of all categories.

“The aforementioned restrictions have no expiry date and are dependent on further epidemiological situations in Russia and the world.”

On Tuesday, Pandor welcomed the arrival of a team of Russian scientists in South Africa, as part of an initiative of the BRICS countries to collaborate on research, including sharing of data and information on Covid-19 with a particular focus on Omicron. DM

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