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South Africa criticises Covid travel restrictions

2021-11-27 HKT 01:57
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  • A departure board at London's Heathrow Airport shows a flight to Johannesburg cancelled. Photo: AP
    A departure board at London's Heathrow Airport shows a flight to Johannesburg cancelled. Photo: AP
South Africa said on Friday that imposing travel restrictions on it because of a newly identified Covid-19 variant was unjustified, after a British ban on flights from southern African countries that others have followed.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla told a media briefing that South Africa was acting with transparency and travel bans were against the norms and standards of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which held an emergency meeting over the variant.

Scientists have so far only detected the B.1.1.529 variant in relatively small numbers, mainly in South Africa but also in Botswana, in a quarantine hotel in Hong Kong and in Israel, but they are concerned by its high number of mutations which could make it vaccine-resistant and more transmissible.

The foreign ministry said South Africa would speak to Britain to try to get it to reconsider its ban, and President Cyril Ramaphosa will convene an advisory council on Sunday to consider evidence on the variant.

"Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries," Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement.

The rand currency slumped as much as 2 percent against the US dollar and South African hospitality stocks plummeted, as investors were unnerved.

Britain said the variant was the most significant found yet after banning flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia. European Union states have also agreed to suspend travel to southern Africa after the detection of a new Covid-19 variant, the presidency of the EU said on Friday.

However, Salim Abdool Karim, one of South Africa's top epidemiologists, said of the new variant that it was "important to deal with it globally," pointing out that the Delta variant had spread to 53 countries within three weeks of it being identified.

"So it doesn't really help to close borders... We've got to find solutions to this variant together. And part of that is not to overreact," he told Reuters in an interview, characterising the British travel ban as a "panic reaction" that was understandable.

Hong Kong had already included South Africa on its red list, but added seven more southern African states as of midnight on Friday. (Reuters/RTHK)