People arriving from southern Africa must quarantine as new variant prompts fresh restrictions

US set to join other nations and introduce travel restrictions as Omicron ‘outperforms’ Delta in South Africa

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has announced that the EU has recommended to member states that all travel to and from southern Africa to Europe should be suspended following the emergence of a new Covid-19 variant.

 

EU member states have agreed to introduce rapidly restrictions on all travel into the region from seven countries in southern Africa, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen’s spokesman has said.

Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe are the countries, Eric Mamer tweeted on Friday evening.

People arriving in Ireland from the seven countries will have to quarantine at home for 10 days after entering the State, under new restrictions confirmed tonight in wake of the detection of a new Covid-19 variant of concern.

The new rules will apply regardless of vaccine, recovery or PCR test status, and people will have to take two PCR tests during their quarantine period.

Meanwhile, the Government is to reintroduce the legislation for the mandatory hotel quarantine system (MHQ) with a view to potentially re-establishing it in the coming weeks.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Six-One news, Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly said initial indications are that the new variant is “highly transmissible” and that it has “outperformed or taken over from Delta” in South Africa. “We’re acting in a precautionary manner in line with the UK and the rest of Europe, ” he said.

Irish citizens are being advised not to travel to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, and to leave these countries if they are there.

The decision is that Ireland will align with the EU recommendation to apply the “emergency brake” in respect of the countries concerned. Visa requirements are also being updated for those countries by the Department of Justice.

People arriving from the countries concerned will also have to have a pre-flight PCR test, regardless of their vaccine status.

The Garda will have a role to play in enforcing the home-quarantine regime, but Mr Donnelly indicated his expectation that people will treat the obligation “very seriously”. He said it will be a relatively small number of people.

The chief medical officer, Dr Tony Holohan, has advised that the Government should consider the reintroduction of MHQ, but full consideration of that advice has not been given by the Government yet.

Asked about the Munster rugby squad, who are currently in South Africa, he said that the measures apply “regardless of your status”, even though there was a carve out for elite sports teams previously. He said that can be looked at again in the future.

With cases detected in Belgium, Israel and Hong Kong, he said these countries could be added to a travel restrictions list. “That might happen in time,” he said. “The EU is looking at travel advisory for those countries as well, and obviously this is something we will keep under constant review.”

Mr Donnelly said other countries will begin seeing cases of the variant, “undoubtedly”. He said any cases of Covid with a link to these seven countries will be subject to enhanced contact tracing and whole genome sequencing to see if the variant is present.

The United States is set to join other nations and introduce travel restrictions from a number of countries in southern Africa.

Senior officials suggested that the Biden administration would put in place restrictions from Monday on travellers from South Africa and seven other countries, including Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.

Omicron

On Friday evening The World Health Organisation (WHO) assigned the B.1.1.529 variant the Greek letter Omicron on Friday evening.

WHO said the new Covid-19 variant detected in South Africa with a large number of mutations is “of concern,” the fifth variant to be given the designation.

Also on Friday the European Commission said EU countries should swiftly shut down air travel to “southern Africa and other countries affected” by a concerning new Covid-19 variant to limit its spread.“All air travel to these countries should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant,” commission president Ursula von der Leyen said.

She added that those returning from the affected region should be required to strictly quarantine.

“Masks, hand hygiene and social distancing but also travel bans and border measures... helps slow down the spread of viruses. This is important because it buys us valuable time,” she said.

EU contracts with vaccine manufacturers “say that the vaccine must be adapted immediately to new variants as they emerge,” she added.

A case of the B.1.1.529 variant has already been detected in Belgium, according to authorities there. It was found in a young adult woman who was not vaccinated and who had returned from Egypt to Belgium on November 11th, who first experienced symptoms on November 22nd.

The Taoiseach spoke to Ms von der Leyen about the variant on Friday morning, and has been co-ordinating with other Ministers through the day. A statement from Government is expected this evening.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has already updated its travel guidance earlier on Friday to advise people to “avoid all non-essential travel” to South Africa.

There are no direct flights from South Africa to Ireland.

France has suspended all flights from southern Africa for 48 hours.

The B.1.1.529 variant, which is more transmissible than the dominant Delta variant, has been discovered in South Africa’s most populous province of Gauteng.

Act quickly

Earlier on Friday Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said Ireland is “going to act quickly”, as fears mounted across Europe over a new variant of Covid-19.

Mr Varadkar said governments in the UK and Ireland had been slow to act on the Delta variant last year.

“We want to make sure that we’re not slow to act on this occasion, so we’re going to act quickly, and Minister Coveney and Minster Donnelly and Minister Ryan are conferring at the moment, and we expect them to make an announcement on travel restrictions later in the day.”

The United Kingdom has suspended flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland).

From midday on Friday all UK and Irish residents will be banned from entering the UK if they have been in the six countries over the last 10 days.

Any British or Irish resident arriving from the countries after 4am on Sunday will have to quarantine in a hotel in the UK.

Northern Ireland’s chief medical officer, Michael McBride, said the emergence of the new variant was “undoubtedly a matter of concern”.

Recent arrivals to Northern Ireland from the six countries on the UK list will be contacted by the Public Health Agency and asked to self-isolate and take a PCR test, which will be prioritised for genomic sequencing.

Further assessments will be made concerning other countries with strong travel links to South Africa, the North’s Department of Health said.

Dr McBride said the introduction of travel restrictions was on a “precautionary basis, while we await further evidence on the spread of this variant in South Africa and understand more about it.”

The future of this year’s United Rugby Championship (URC) could be in jeopardy as it has four South African teams in it.

Munster are in the country to play Bulls in Pretoria on Saturday night and are due to stay on to play Lions in Johannesburg next weekend.

The official Munster rugby Twitter account stated: “We all are safe & well in Pretoria. We are working with URC on the ongoing situation relating to Covid-19 & will provide an update once we know more #MunsterInSA.”

Four Irish golfers have pulled out of this week’s Joburg Open in Johannesburg. Jonathan Caldwell, Niall Kearney, Paul Dunne and Cormac Sharvin were in the field. Mr Dunne told Morning Ireland he has managed to secure a flight out of the country.

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