Countries around the world bring in travel bans in race to contain Omicron Covid variant

27 November 2021, 00:25 | Updated: 27 November 2021, 10:44

  • Pharmaceutical firms race to modify vaccines against new Omicron Covid variant
  • 85 new Covid cases entered Netherlands from South Africa yesterday
  • Countries across Europe have closed their borders to nations in southern Africa
  • Boris Johnson reportedly preparing to implement fresh travel bans
  • Britain halts flights to South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe 
The first case of the new strain in Europe was identified in Belgium
The first case of the new strain in Europe was identified in Belgium. Picture: Alamy

By Elizabeth Haigh

The UK, US and European countries have brought in travel bans as part of measures to contain a new more contagious variant of Covid-19.

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Travellers from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini will not be able to enter the UK unless they are UK or Irish nationals or UK residents.

Flights from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi will be blocked, from the US from Monday, mirroring steps taken by EU countries.

Canada has also followed Britain's move to impose travel restrictions on visitors from southern Africa ahead of the WHO adding the strain, also known as B.1.1.529, to its highest category for concerning variants.

Work is also under way to tweak vaccines against the new Omicron strain.

A number of pharmaceutical firms have said they are working to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of the new variant, which is more transmissible than the Delta variant.

The strain has been designated a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

It was first identified in Europe yesterday, reaching Belgium after being discovered in South Africa.

European nations closed borders to countries in southern Africa yesterday as a measure against the variant, but cases have already been detected in Israel and Belgium.

Sixty one people on two KLM flights to Amsterdam tested positive for Covid-19 and have been quarantined at a hotel near the airport while they have further tests, Dutch officials said.

Boris Johnson is reportedly preparing to introduce travel bans on more countries to avoid the new variant forcing fresh coronavirus restrictions.

The WHO warned that preliminary evidence suggests the variant has an increased risk of reinfection and may spread more rapidly than other strains.

27 EU nations acted within hours on the advice of the EU executive, which said all needed to be extra cautious in dealing with the variant until it became clear how bad a threat it would be, the EU presidency said in a statement.

The EU presidency, currently held by Slovenia, also called on all member states "to test and quarantine all incoming passengers".

Virologist Marc van Ranst tweeted on Friday that two virus samples were being investigated after scientists identified that they were not the Delta variant.

According to Mr Ranst, the traveller returned from Egypt on November 11, but did not show any symptoms until November 22.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said it is "highly likely" the variant had spread to other countries. Mr Javid said yesterday there were no UK cases of the new coronavirus variant so far.

Read more: Flights from six African countries banned amid 'deeply concerning' new Covid variant

The variant has been found in South Africa, Botswana, Hong Kong, Israel and now Belgium.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has announced the EU should suspend travel from countries affected by the variant, which originated in South Africa. This includes countries considered at risk in southern Africa.

Passengers arriving in the Netherlands from high risk countries were prevented from disembarking earlier today until a separate area from other arrivals was ready to receive them.

One passenger filmed the scene aboard her plane from South Africa, showing a view into the cockpit and the cabin.

Mr Javid said the Government is concerned it could "pose a substantial risk to public health".

It is feared the Omicron variant could be more resistant to the coronavirus vaccine. The strain has 32 mutations in its spike protein, the part of the virus that affects its ability to spread. This is double the number of mutations as the previous delta variant.

Read more: Health Sec: New Covid variant of 'huge international concern'

Scientists have described it as the "most complex" strain so far. Professor Adam Finn of the JCVI said: "If we're lucky, it won't be a serious one, but it could be very serious."

Belgium has seen a large growth in coronavirus infections in recent weeks, recording 20.836 new cases on November 25.