Israel to ban entry of all foreign visitors in response to Omicron variant

Britain, Germany and Italy detect cases of new Covid strain

Passengers  queue for PCR   at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. Photograph:  Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty

Passengers queue for PCR at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg. Photograph: Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty

 

Israel on Saturday said it would ban the entry of all foreign visitors into the country, making it the first country to shut its borders completely in response to the coronavirus variant, and said it would use counter-terrorism phone-tracking technology in order to contain the spread of the Omicron variant.

Prime minister Naftali Bennett said in a statement that the ban, pending government approval, would last 14 days. Officials hope that within that period there will be more information on how effective Covid-19 vaccines are against Omicron.

Meanwhile, Britain, Germany and Italy detected cases of the new Omicron coronavirus variant on Saturday and British prime minister Boris Johnson announced new steps to contain the virus, while more nations imposed restrictions on travel from southern Africa.

The two linked cases of the new variant detected in Britain were connected to travel to southern Africa, British health minister Sajid Javid said. Speaking later, Johnson laid out measures that included stricter testing rules for people arriving in the country but that stopped short of curbs on social activity other than requiring mask wearing in some settings.

“We will require anyone who enters the UK to take a PCR test by the end of the second day after their arrival and to self-isolate until they have a negative result,” Johnson told a news conference. People who had come into contact with people testing positive for a suspected case of Omicron would have to self-isolate for 10 days and the government would tighten up the rules on wearing face coverings, Johnson said, adding the steps would be reviewed in three weeks.

Europe

The health ministry in the German state of Bavaria also announced two confirmed cases of the variant. The two people entered Germany at Munich airport on November 24th, before Germany designated South Africa as a virus-variant area, and were now isolating, said the ministry, indicating without stating explicitly that the people had travelled from South Africa.

In Italy, the National Health Institute said a case of the new variant had been detected in Milan in a person coming from Mozambique.

Czech health authorities also said they were examining a suspected case of the variant in a person who spent time in Namibia.

Omicron, dubbed a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organisation, is potentially more contagious than previous variants of the disease, although experts do not know yet if it will cause more or less severe Covid-19 compared with other strains.

The variant was first discovered in South Africa and had also since been detected in Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.

Dutch health authorities have said 61 people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa on Friday tested positive for Covid-19, and tests for the Omicron variant among the people infected were being conducted.

About 600 passengers arrived at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport on the two KLM flights on Friday and then faced hours of delays and testing due to concerns over the new virus variant.

Meanwhile, a number of pharmaceutical firms have said they are working to adapt their vaccines in light of the emergence of Omicron.

Experts at the WHO said there is early evidence to suggest Omicron has an “increased risk of reinfection” and its rapid spread in South Africa suggests it has a “growth advantage”.

Travel curbs

Although epidemiologists say travel curbs may be too late to stop Omicron from circulating globally, many countries around the world – including the United States, Brazil, Canada and European Union nations – announced travel bans or restrictions on southern Africa on Friday.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and State Department added on Saturday to Washington’s previously announced travel restrictions, advising against travel to eight southern African countries.

Also on Saturday, Australia said it would ban non-citizens who have been in nine southern African countries from entering and will require supervised 14-day quarantines for Australian citizens returning from there.

Japan said it would extend its tightened border controls to three more African countries after imposing curbs on travel from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Lesotho on Friday.

Britain also said it was expanding its “red list” to put travel curbs on more southern Africa countries, while South Korea, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Oman, Kuwait and Hungary announced travel restrictions on southern African nations.

South Africa is worried that the curbs will hurt tourism and other sectors of its economy, the foreign ministry said on Saturday, adding the government is engaging with countries that have imposed travel bans to persuade them to reconsider. – Reuters