The UK government announced on Thursday, November 25, that South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe will move onto the red list at 12pm midday on Friday, November 26.
There will be a temporary ban on all direct commercial and private flights from these countries from midday on Friday November 26 to 4am Sunday November 28 while the UK government reassesses the situation.
Anyone arriving in the UK from South Africa before 4am on Sunday November 28, needs to quarantine at home or at an alternative accommodation. After 4am on Sunday, South Africans will once again need to quarantine in a managed hotel. They will need to book a quarantine hotel package, including 2 COVID-19 tests, before they arrive in England.
South African tourism, along with the rest of the country, is shellshocked.
“The British Government’s knee-jerk reaction to institute a temporary red list ban on six countries, including South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini and Namibia is exaggerated and punishes countries like South Africa with advanced genome sequencing capability for finding new variants,” says SATSA (The Voice of Inbound Tourism).
“It is far too early to tell what the impact of this new variant will be. By imposing a blanked red list ban on several Southern African countries as a “precautionary” measure the UK sends a signal to the world that they don’t believe that their vaccination programme will effectively deal with the variant when we have seen that COVID-19 vaccines have performed their role to reduce the severity of hospitalisation and death from the virus,” says David Frost, CEO SATSA.
Meanwhile, FEDHASA (Federated Hospitality Association of Southern Africa) has been left with nothing but hope.
“FEDHASA is hopeful that the UK’s precautionary measure to add South Africa and several neighbouring countries to its red list will be lifted swiftly as scientists unpack the extent to which the COVID-19 vaccines will be effective against the new variant, B1.1.529.”
A setback of massive proportions for the South African travel industry:
“The UK being our largest inbound international market, last night’s news by the British Government has caused widespread disbelief and disappointment amongst our hospitality industry as we enter our peak festive season period,” says Rosemary Anderson, FEDHASA National Chairperson.
ASATA is calling the ban “groundhog day for South Africa’s tourism industry.”
“The new ban is a knee-jerk reaction of the UK government that puts airlines, hotels, travel businesses and travellers in a very difficult situation,” says Otto de Vries, CEO ASATA.
The United Kingdom is a key source market, not only because of the impact to British travellers headed to South Africa during our peak season as their travel plans are summarily disrupted, but also because of the message it sends to the rest of the world.
“South Africa cannot consistently be punished for its advanced genomic sequencing abilities,” says Frost from SATSA.
“We are extremely disappointed at the British government’s decision and trust that science will prevail and that this temporary ban will be lifted swiftly,” Frost adds.
“The world will unfortunately need to learn to live with COVID variants for the foreseeable future. While we await more clarity, there is currently no scientific evidence that the new variant is more resistant to the vaccine,” de Vries adds (CEO ASATA).
Anderson from FEDHASA also notes says that “new variants are discovered all the time, often without making any major impact.”
Did the UK jump the gun?
Infectious disease expert Professor Marc Mendelson says there is nothing to indicate at this stage that the protection COVID-19 vaccines offer will change in the face of the latest variant.
“COVID-19 vaccines have proven themselves extremely robust against all SARS-CoV-2 variants to date,” he states.
Professor Shabir A. Madhi, Dean: Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, adds that the world needs to accept that breakthrough infections will continue to occur.
“The sooner we come to accept this, the sooner we can recalibrate how to move forward.”
In addition, according to Madhi, breakthrough infections are less infectious. For example, it is reportedly 60% less likely to transmit Delta when vaccinated. The risk of developing long COVID is also greatly reduced.
The knock-on effect:
FEDHASA highlights how unsustainable this situation is for South Africa and for its tourism and hospitality sector which generates 1.5 million direct and indirect jobs and is the country’s second-largest export.
“We simply cannot have a repeat of December 2020 where restaurants and hospitality businesses bore the brunt of COVID regulations making travel and restaurant patronage unappealing and difficult.
“Our industry has had to endure being thrust from wave to wave for the past 20 months and it simply isn’t sustainable to keep businesses open and livelihoods intact. It is up to every South African to do their part and help us keep our doors open by complying with the protocols and getting their #jab4tourism,” Anderson concludes.