In a repeat of the events of last winter, the UK government has responded to an alert about a new variant of concern by putting a flights ban on South Africa – and adding the country, and five neighbours, to the “red list”.
British and Irish citizens or residents arriving from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe after 4am on Sunday 29 November will be required to book and pay for a UK government-approved hotel quarantine facility for 10 days.
Anyone else who has been in those six countries in the past 10 days will be denied entry.
These are the key questions and answers.
What’s the concern?
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has designated the B.1.1.529 variant as a new “variant under investigation”.
The variant was first spotted in Botswana on 11 November, where three cases have been recorded. In South Africa, the first case was identified on 14 November. According to the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, 22 cases have now been recorded.
An additional case has been identified in Hong Kong, involving a 36-year-old traveller who had stayed in South Africa from 23 October to 11 November.
Medical experts fear the new variant is highly transmissible and effective at evading the body’s immune response.
The UKHSA chief executive, Dr Jenny Harries, says: “This is the most significant variant we have encountered to date and urgent research is underway to learn more about its transmissibility, severity and vaccine-susceptibility.”
Should we all be worried?
The DHSC says: ”No cases have been identified in the UK.
“We are taking these precautionary measures to protect public health and the progress we’ve made so far through our successful vaccination programme.”
What happens to immediate arrivals from southern Africa?
People arriving at London Heathrow on Friday morning are the lucky ones.
Virgin Atlantic flight VS450 from Johannesburg is first in at 6.47am. It will be followed by British Airways flights BA56 from Johannesburg (due in at 7.34am) and BA44 from Cape Town (due 10 minutes later, at 7.44am). As South Africa will not be on the red list by then, the passengers face no restrictions.
Flights due to arrive on Saturday morning have been cancelled. Anyone desperate to return from South Africa and avoid hotel quarantine could try to find space on Ethiopian Airlines via Addis Ababa or Kenya Airways via Nairobi on Friday.
On arrival they will need to go into home self-isolation for 10 days and take multiple tests, but compared with the alternative it is not so bad.
Scheduled and private passenger planes travelling from any of the six countries will be banned from arriving in the UK from 12 noon on Friday until 4am Sunday.
In practice, this simply means Friday’s flights from South Africa to London Heathrow have all been grounded on UK government orders. Cargo flights can continue.
Why the flight ban?
Earlier this year the UK government stopped banning flights from specific countries, because it was clear that prohibiting direct arrivals actually increased risk and made it more difficult to identify travellers from red list countries.
But the DHSC now says it wants “to reduce the risk of importing this new variant under investigation while hotel quarantine is stood up”.
UK and Irish travellers booked on British Airways and Virgin Atlantic flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to London Heathrow on Friday will find their flights cancelled. They will be able to fly from Saturday evening onwards, because those aircraft are due to arrive after the flight ban ends at 4am on Sunday.
But arrivals must go straight into hotel quarantine, at a cost of £2,285 for a solo traveller. The price includes meals and two PCR tests during the stay.
Non-UK and Irish residents who have been in any of the red list countries in the previous 10 days will be refused entry into England.
What are the options for British travellers in South Africa or its neighbours?
1. They can fly to the UK either directly or, if flights are cancelled because of the red listing, via a third country. As things stand, they will need to go into hotel quarantine if they have been in any of the red listed nations in the past 10 days.
2. To avoid hotel quarantine they can “launder” their status for 10 full days in any other country and then travel to the UK with no restrictions.
3. They can wait, in the hope that concerns about the new variant prove unfounded and that the six countries are soon removed from the red list.
What about my Christmas holiday in southern Africa?
At present airlines and holiday companies are trying to assess the situation and decide how to respond. In the absence of further information, the assumption will be that December trips to the six countries will go ahead as planned.
If your departure is cancelled – as some are likely to be – you are entitled to a full cash refund.
But if you have booked separate elements of the trip (for example car rental, accommodation or a safari) then the supplier is not obliged to offer you your money back. They can take the view: the product you booked is available, and the fact that you can’t get here isn’t our problem.
The flight is still going ahead but I don’t want to go …
There is no automatic right to get a full cash refund, but both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic have generous alternatives – allowing you to cancel without penalty in exchange for a voucher for future travel.
Tour operators – who put together flights and other elements of a holiday – should be flexible.
If I go to South Africa, will my insurance be valid?
That depends. Late on Thursday night, the Foreign Office changed its travel advice to say: “The FCDO advises against all but essential travel to South Africa based on the current assessment of Covid-19 risks.”
Standard travel insurance policies are likely to be invalidated if you travel against Foreign Office advice.
What does the travel industry think?
The sudden return of these six southern African nations to the red list caused immediate despondency in an industry already traumatised by the coronavirus pandemic.
Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of the Advantage Travel Partnership, said: “We all accept the government must make decisions in the interest of public health.
“However, some 20 months into the crisis and six weeks after taking South Africa and its neighbours off the red list, it just feels like a game of déjà vu.
“For travellers and the travel industry it just demonstrates the importance of booking with an expert human travel agent, ensuring flexiblilty and financial protection as part and parcel of a booking.”
Are more countries likely to join the red list?
Possibly, if the World Health Organisation decides that the variant is dangerous. But conversely the concerns may quickly dissipate, as they did a year ago when there were worries about a so-called Danish variant being spread between mink and humans.
The flight ban and onerous quarantine requirements were withdrawn a few days later.