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The fact that the UK government has once again red-listed South Africa following the discovery of a new COVID variant is a setback of massive proportions for the South African travel industry.

The UK government announced on Thursday, 25 November, that South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe will move onto the red list at 12.00 midday Friday 26 November. There will be a temporary ban on all direct commercial and private flights from these countries from 12.00 midday Friday 26 November to 04h00 Sunday 28 November while the UK government reassesses the situation.

Anyone arriving in the UK from South Africa before 4am on Sunday 28 November, needs to quarantine at home or at alternative accommodation. After 4am Sunday 28 November, South Africans will once again need to quarantine in a managed hotel. They will need to book a quarantine hotel package, including 2 COVID-19 tests, before they arrive in England.

“It’s Groundhog Day for the South African travel industry. The new ban is a knee-jerk reaction of the UK government that puts airlines, hotels, travel businesses and travellers in a very difficult situation,” says Otto de Vries, CEO ASATA.

“The world will, unfortunately, need to learn to live with COVID variants for the foreseeable future. While we await more clarity, there is currently no scientific evidence that the new variant is more resistant to the vaccine. COVID vaccines are in fact the most effective way to protect yourself against the virus, as they significantly reduce the risk of serious illness, long COVID and COVID transmissibility.”

Infectious disease expert Professor Marc Mendelson agrees and says there is nothing to indicate at this stage that the protection COVID-19 vaccines offer will change in the face of the latest variant. “COVID-19 vaccines have proven themselves extremely robust against all SARS-CoV-2 variants to date.”

Professor Shabir A. Madhi, Dean: Faculty of Health Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand, adds the world needs to accept that breakthrough infections will continue to occur. “The sooner we come to accept this, the sooner we can recalibrate how to move forward.”

Important to keep in mind, according to Madhi is that breakthrough infections are less infectious. For example, it is 60% less likely to transmit Delta when vaccinated. The risk of developing long COVID is also greatly reduced.

Says Madhi: “Vaccines are primarily about preventing severe disease. In the case of the new B1.1.529, we should learn from what transpired with the Beta variant, which also showed resistance to vaccine-induced antibodies. Nevertheless, the vaccine still conferred high protection against severe COVID.”