The European Union (EU) said it will propose to halt air travel from southern Africa over growing concern about a new Covid-19 variant that is spreading there, as the UK said it will also temporarily ban flights from the region.
The bloc “will propose, in close coordination with Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern,” EU Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen said Friday in a tweet.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said in a tweet that starting Friday night only German citizens will be allowed to fly back from South Africa, and anyone arriving from there will have to go into quarantine for 14 days, even if they are vaccinated.
“We’re worried about the new variant and so we’re taking pro-active and early action,” Spahn said in a tweet. “The last thing we need is another new variant coming in that brings more problems.”
Italy also said it would restrict travel from the region.
The moves come one day after the EU revised its rules to facilitate and harmonise travel within and into the bloc, a recommending a 9-month time limit for the validity of Covid-19 vaccinations without a booster.
Scientists are still trying to determine whether the new variant, called B.1.1529, is more transmissible or more lethal than previous ones, but it does have the most mutations of any strain yet identified. That has raised concerns inside South Africa and internationally, with authorities fearing a wave of cases that could increase pressure on already strained health-care systems.
The UK’s travel restrictions go into effect at noon Friday and are a precautionary measure to keep the spread of the new variant in check, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said. The six African countries will be placed on the UK’s red list as of Sunday, requiring travellers to quarantine in hotels upon arrival.
The moves are the freshest blow to the airline industry, which was just starting to recover from earlier travel restrictions. European stocks sank sharply on Friday, dropping by 3% at the open, the sharpest fall this year.
Helge Braun, the chancellery minister in Germany’s outgoing government, said he expects that flights to and from southern Africa will be halted. The issue will be discussed later Friday with the country’s RKI public-health institute, Braun said in an interview with ARD television.
South Africa criticised the UK move to ban flights, saying it was taken too hastily.
“Whilst South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens, the U.K.’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the U.K. seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps,” Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said in a statement on Friday.
In South Africa, virologists have detected almost 100 cases linked to the new variant to date, according to Anne von Gottberg, a clinical microbiologist and head of respiratory diseases at the National Institute for Communicable Diseases. No cases have been identified in the UK, the health department said.