UPDATE 22.16 : Health secretary Savid Javid said from 12:00 GMT on Friday six countries would be added to the red list with flights being temporarily banned over new covid variant
Flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini are being suspended.
Anyone arriving from the countries after 04.00 on Sunday will have to quarantine in a hotel, with those arriving before then being asked to isolate at home. Anyone who has returned in the last ten days is being asked to take a PCR test.
Breaking news story, more updates as we have them.
New Covid variant needs ‘Code Red’ travel restrictions say scientists
Leading scientists have called for immediate harsh travel restrictions in a ‘code red’ response to a new Covid variant that is driving up case numbers across Southern Africa. The variant was identified on Tuesday 23 November and sparked concern due to its “extremely high number” of mutations that could make it easier to evade immunity.
More data has been presented by South African scientists that suggest the variant also appears to be more transmissible and is already present in provinces throughout the country.
Ewan Birney, the deputy director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and a member of Spi-M, which advises the UK government, called for urgent “code red” – or “red list-type” – travel restrictions to be placed on southern Africa while the new Covid variant’s transmissibility is investigated, saying it posed a risk of the pandemic regaining momentum.
He said: “What we’ve learnt from the other situations like this – some have turned out OK and some haven’t – is that whilst we’re [investigating] you have to be reasonably paranoid.”
The new Covid variant, strain B.1.1.529, was identified after a surge in cases in an urban area that contains Pretoria and Johannesburg. The beginning of the detection was centred on a university and the high numbers were thought to be due to an increase in socialising. This week’s data, however, pointed to the variant being the cause instead.
The variant has already been detected in Hong Kong in a sample collected from a man in quarantine after a trip to South Africa. The variant has been found to be responsible for around 90% of cases through PCR test reviews. Nationally, South Africa’s daily number of infections hit 1,200 up from just 106 earlier in the month.
Prof Christina Pagel, of University College London, said: “In my opinion, the UK should get ahead of this right now. As far as we know, it’s not here yet. Adding South Africa and close neighbours to the red list seems sensible because of UK status as international travel hub, very few restrictions in UK and the worrying signs from South Africa, we must act now or risk it being too late.”
A No 10 spokesperson said: “We have one of the largest genomic sequencing programmes here in the UK that allows us to spot and track variants as they emerge and, as we have done throughout the pandemic, we will continue to keep an eye and keep this particular variant under investigation.”
Asked whether travel restrictions would be needed before Christmas as a result of the variant, the spokesperson said: “We will continue to keep the latest situation, the latest scientific evidence and data, under review, as we have done throughout the pandemic. We have said before if we believe we need to take action we will, but we will continue to monitor this variant and other variants in the same way that we have done throughout the pandemic.”
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