Brussels, 26 November 2021 (dpa/HINA/MIA) — EU member states have agreed to suspend passenger flights from seven southern African countries to contain a new, potentially more dangerous coronavirus variant, dpa learned from diplomatic sources on Friday.
The European Commission proposed activating the so-called “emergency brake” to the bloc’s shared coronavirus travel rules earlier Friday. The move was signed off by the member states within hours.
The countries concerned are Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, the sources said.
Travelers from these countries should also be subject to strict quarantine and testing requirements, according to the agreement, which was confirmed on Twitter by the EU Slovenian presidency.
It remains up to the member states to actually implement the changes in practice, though many have already announced similar moves or plans for them in the past 24 hours.
But the new variant could already be circulating in Europe after Belgium confirmed on Friday that the new B.1.1.529 coronavirus variant had been detected within its territory.
The World Health Organization (WHO) stated on Friday that while measures based on scientific data and risk assessments were recommended, travel restrictions were not advised at this time.
“At this point, implementing travel measures is being cautioned against,” said WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier in Geneva.
He outlined close monitoring of infection patterns and genetic analysis of emerging coronavirus cases as ways governments can contain the spread of new variants without travel restrictions.
“At this stage, there are reservations about travel restrictions,” Lindmeier said. He said known remedies such as masks, hand hygiene, fresh air and avoiding crowds were also effective against B.1.1.529.
Later on Friday, the WHO is due to consider whether the variant should be classified as “of concern.”
The new variant has been detected in southern Africa, with coronavirus cases with the variant confirmed in Botswana, South Africa and Hong Kong, Britain’s PA news agency reported.
On Thursday, Israel and Britain announced new travel restrictions on several African countries due to concerns about a new coronavirus variant.
For the European Union, the commission has been issuing travel recommendations for member states to implement since the pandemic hit Europe in the early months of last year.
Many of these were eased in recent months. But the bloc is currently grappling with a fresh wave of infections despite high vaccination rates in most member states.
Later on Friday, the governments in several European countries announced new restrictions.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said the country would restrict flights from South Africa. From late on Friday, only flights carrying German citizens or persons with a residence permit to Germany will be permitted to fly.
Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza said entry would be banned from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia, Eswatini.
The Austrian Ministry of Social Affairs and Health announced similar restrictions for non-Austrians coming from the same countries, with travel “fundamentally prohibited,” according to a press release.
France also banned flights from South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini, in a measure effective immediately for at least 48 hours, Prime Minister Jean Castex said.
Anyone reaching France after traveling in those countries in the last 14 days should report to the health authorities and take a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test as soon as possible.
A similar ban was imposed by the Dutch government, effective from noon (1100 GMT) on Friday. Officials also designated South Africa and other affected countries in the region as high-risk areas.
“This is a precautionary measure to slow down the introduction of a new variant that may be more contagious,” said Health Minister Hugo de Junge, according to ANP news agency.
Czech officials also banned non-EU citizens from entering the country from Namibia, Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia and four other African countries, on similar concerns, in a measure effective as of Saturday.
Croatia’s covid crisis management team also decided to impose a 14-day quarantine and mandatory testing for Croats returning from South Africa, Botswana, Lesoto, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Congo, and to ban arrivals of foreigners from those countries, Interior Minister Davor Božinović said on Friday.