Travel doors slam shut as new COVID variant triggers alarm

The UK was among the first to impose new restrictions against the new virus variant. Leon Neal/Getty Images

The European Union and other major destinations have moved to block flights from African countries following the discovery of an aggressive mutation of the COVID-19 virus, echoing previous emergency responses that triggered a global freeze on travel.

Italy, Austria, France, Germany, Japan and the UK are among those imposing restrictions on flights and travelers from six African nations after the new strain, known as B.1.1.529 variant, was detected in South Africa, Botswana, and in two travelers quarantining in Hong Kong. A case has also been reported in Belgium.

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While only dozens of cases have been identified so far, news of the variant, which has around double the amount of mutations as the Delta variant, is already sparking fears around the world.

The cascade of closures began late Thursday as the UK announced it would be temporarily suspending flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini, with Health Secretary Sajid Javid describing the variant as the "worst ever" strain of COVID-19.

Tourism fears

The move prompted the South African government to issue a statement describing the UK's decision as "rushed," and expressed concern about the damage it would cause to "both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries."

In the hours since, Japan has tightened border controls for travelers from the same six countries, bringing in a 10-day quarantine beginning 12 a.m. on November 27.

Meanwhile, Germany plans to declare South Africa a "virus variant area" from Friday night, which will mean that airlines may only enter from the country to repatriate German citizens.

Fellow EU nations Austria, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Malta have all announced imminent entry bans to all travelers who've entered South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini in the past two weeks.

French Health Minister Olivier Véran said the "rapid" circulation of the variant in South Africa "means that it's probably contagious or very contagious," justifying France's precautionary stance.

After Belgium reported that one person recently arrived from Egypt had tested positive for B.1.1.529, France said it was "reinforcing" control at its border with Belgium.

Singapore has opted to ban all non-residents from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe from entering, while nationals and permanent residents returning from any of these countries will be required to serve a 10-day stay home notice (SHN). Malaysia and the Philippines have taken similar steps.

No travel restrictions have been announced by US officials yet, but US airlines said they were closely monitoring the situation.

Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to the US president, told CNN: "As soon as we find more information, we'll make a decision as quickly as we possibly can."

The developments have led to speculation that some of the strict curbs on travel brought in at the start of the pandemic could be on their way back.

Return to restrictions?

"There's definitely a sense at the moment that restrictions are returning," Rory Boland, travel editor at consumer magazine Which? tells CNN.

"Not just southern Africa, Portugal has reintroduced tests for double vaccinated arrivals, and other countries are increasing restriction.

"When you're in the country too, lots of countries are requiring tests on top of vaccination. There are increasing restrictions on boosters.

"There's a sense that travel is becoming more difficult again -- and that's against a background of lots of people not feeling confident traveling already."

World Health Organisation experts have said, while it's still too early to gauge what kind of impact the mutation will have, people should start taking precautions right now to reduce the chances of their exposure to it.

"It is something to watch," Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO's COVID-19 technical lead, said in a video posted on Twitter.

She said it would take researchers a few weeks to understand what it [the new variant] means, but action was needed in the meantime.

"Everybody that's out there needs to understand that the more this virus circulates, the more opportunities the virus has to change, the mutations we will see," she said.

"Every single one of you watching has a role to play in driving transmission down, as well as protecting yourself against severe disease and death.

"So get vaccinated when you can, make sure you receive the full course of your doses, and make sure you take steps to reduce your exposure and prevent yourself from passing that virus to someone else."

Financial impact

While it may be too early to gauge the impact of the virus, news of its emergence and the flight bans was enough to spook stock markets. European markets opening significantly lower on Friday -- the UK's FTSE 100 dropped by over 3%, while Dow futures were sharply down. Travel stocks, including airlines EasyJet, Lufthansa and Air France were hit.

The fresh anxiety comes as another blow for the travel industry, which has struggled to rebound after being brought to a near standstill during the first waves of the pandemic.

There are now fears that some travel companies may not survive if the situation with the new variant worsens.

"I think unfortunately so -- I'm not saying they might go bust in the next couple weeks but the financial situation many are in is very, very challenging," said Boland.

"It's not just that bookings are down but they're having to continually issue refunds. They're having difficulty getting financing from banks. There are a number of market conditions working against them.

"The UK had very little sector specific support from government so there's a real risk of further holiday chaos and airlines going bust."

He went on to stress that consumers should always check restrictions in any destinations they are planning to travel before booking and make sure they have appropriate coverage just in case.

"It's really important to have cover for your holiday company or airline going bust. Otherwise you could end up losing hundreds or thousands of pounds."

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