Flights from South Africa stopped after 'more transmissible' Covid-19 variant found in UK

23 December 2020, 15:21 | Updated: 24 December 2020, 07:36

People who have been to South Africa in the last two weeks have been ordered to quarantine
People who have been to South Africa in the last two weeks have been ordered to quarantine. Picture: PA

By Patrick Grafton-Green

The Government has implemented a travel ban on passengers arriving in England from South Africa after two cases of another new strain of Covid-19 linked to the country were identified in the UK.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said both are "contacts of cases who have travelled from South Africa over the past few weeks".

From 9am on Christmas Eve, visitors arriving in England who have been in or transited through South Africa in the previous 10 days will not be permitted entry and direct flights will be banned, the Department for Transport said.

The ban excludes cargo and freight without passengers, and also does not include British and Irish nationals, visa holders and permanent residents, who will be able to enter but are required to self-isolate for 10 days along with their household.

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Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said: "I’ve taken the decision to temporarily stop flights and arrivals entering England from South Africa from 9am tomorrow following an outbreak of a new strain of coronavirus.

"British & Irish Nationals, visa holders and permanent residents arriving from South Africa will be able to enter but are required to self-isolate for ten days along with their household.

"Visitors from South Africa will not be permitted to enter, to stop the spread of COVID-19."

Mr Hancock told a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday: "This new variant is highly concerning because it is yet more transmissible and it appears to have mutated further than the new variant that has been discovered in the UK."

He said both cases and close contacts of the cases have been quarantined, adding that the measures would be "temporary" while the new strain is investigated at Porton Down laboratories.

The Health Secretary added: "We are incredibly grateful to the South African government for the rigour of their science and the openness and the transparency with which they have rightly acted as we did when we discovered a new variant here."

READ MORE: UK breaks daily record for cases for second consecutive day

Latest figures suggest the South African strain was behind a record number of people being hospitalised there.

Infectious diseases expert Dr Susan Hopkins told the press conference: "The new variant in the UK which we've identified is very different to the variant in South Africa, it's got different mutations.

"Both of them look like they are more transmissible. We have more evidence on the transmission for the UK variant because we've been studying that with great detail with academic partners.

"We're still learning about the South African variant and you've heard already the measures that we're introducing to ensure that we quarantine people who are coming in from South Africa.

"Therefore, we are pretty confident actually that this system we have in place will help control the spread."

It came as the Health Secretary announced many more areas of the south and east of England would be entering Tier 4 coronavirus restrictions from Boxing Day.

EXPLAINED: Which new areas will enter Tier 4 and what are the new Christmas rules?

East Sussex, Oxfordshire, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Waverly, Hampshire - with exception of the New Forest - will all go into the highest tier from 12.01am on Saturday as Covid-19 cases continue to spread.

An additional six million people will be in Tier 4, bringing the total number of people in the highest tier to 24 million or 43 per cent of the population of England.

Mr Hancock said the old tiering system is not enough to control the new strain of the virus that originated in the UK and is already widespread in London and the South East.

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He said: "We know that the three-tiered system worked to control the old variant and is working now in large parts of the country, especially in northern England.

"But we also know that Tier 3 is not enough to control the new variant. This is not our hypothesis, it is a fact and we have seen it on the ground."

He added: "This Christmas and the start of 2021 is going to be tough. The new variant makes everything much harder because it spreads so much faster.

"But we mustn't give up now, we know that we can control this virus, we know we can get through this together, we're going to get through it by suppressing the virus until a vaccine can make us safe."