The UK government’s lifting of South Africa’s travel red listing, effective from 04:00 on December 15, has been welcomed by the South African tourism and travel industry, which was severely impacted as both South Africans were put off from traveling to the UK and UK citizens were cautioned against traveling to South Africa.
The travel bans imposed on South Africa were “nothing short of devastating” for the travel industry, states the Association of Southern African Travel Agents (Asata) in a statement on December 14.
Forward bookings collapsed, with feedback from the industry suggesting that bookings until mid-February 2022 were severely impacted.
Flight Centre Travel Group South Africa MD Euan McNeil explains that the UK is one of South Africa’s largest source markets and that the “knee-jerk decision” on November 26 to place South Africa on the red list was “absolutely devastating” for outbound and inbound travel.
“It put our economy, and the millions of jobs in these sectors, at risk.”
However, he says the latest significant decision by the UK government hopefully signals an end to the ad hoc and arbitrary introductions of travel bans in the future. “It will also go a long way to help the recovery of the corporate travel sector and boost travel confidence.”
Asata CEO Otto de Vries says that, when the UK initially red listed South Africa, following the discovery of the Omicron variant, countries around the world immediately followed suit and issued travel bans on South Africa.
“Within the space of a couple of hours, South Africans were banned from travelling to dozens of countries around the world. We urge that these countries react with the same swiftness and urgency now by also lifting their travel bans and restrictions on South Africa with immediate effect,” he adds.
In lifting the restrictions on South Africa, the UK government also eased travel restrictions for travellers from 10 other Southern African countries.
UK State for Health and Social Care secretary Sajid Javid says the expensive quarantine packages would be scrapped and that travellers from South Africa could self-isolate at a location of their choice.
De Vries says that, since the latest round of restrictions were imposed, South Africa’s travel industry rallied together and lobbied for the travel bans to be lifted as a matter of urgency. “I am happy to see that our collective efforts have been successful and that we can, once again, focus on the recovery of our travel industry.”
He says Asata is hopeful part of the December/January holidays can be saved for at least some South African travellers, whether they would like to spend a well-deserved holiday or have been dreaming to spend the festive season with their loved ones overseas.
McNeil states that he is “simply delighted that reason and fact have prevailed” and that travel between South Africa and the UK is once again open. “This not only means that South Africans can reunite with their loved ones over the festive season but is welcome news for the travel and tourism industry.”
He explains that, as the information available currently stands, any travellers currently in quarantine will need to remain there and that all testing requirements remain in place, such as a Covid-19 polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test taken in the two days before travel to the UK.
Also, a Covid-19 PCR test needs to be pre-booked prior to travel and taken after arrival in the UK, while a passenger locator form needs to be completed within 48 hours of arrival there.
Travellers will be required to self-isolate until they receive their test result, and anyone in the UK for less than two days still needs to book and pay for a day two Covid-19 test. “You must quarantine until you receive a negative test result, or until you leave England, whichever is sooner,” says McNeil.
Meanwhile, he adds that New South Wales, in Australia, for example, is also opening up to South Africans from December 15, giving more travellers the opportunity to finally reconnect with their loved ones over the festive season.
A joint statement by the Tourism Business Council of South Africa and the South African Tourism Services Association reveals that data from Discovery Health points to the Omicron variant of Covid-19 being a typically mild illness, irrespective of age or level of prior immunity.
Discovery Health’s data also finds that the rates of South African hospitalisations as a result of Covid-19 remain low, despite very high Omicron infection levels – over 211 000 positive cases thus far, of which 41% had been with adults who received two doses of the Pfizer- BioNTech vaccine. About 78 000 of these positive test results were attributed to Omicron infections, over the period of November 15 to December 7.
Discovery Health also points out that two doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccination provides 70% protection against severe complications of Covid-19 requiring hospitalisation, and 33% protection against Covid-19 infection, during the current Omicron wave.
All in all, the risk of hospital admission among adults diagnosed with Covid-19 is 29% lower for the Omicron variant infection compared with D614G infection in South Africa’s first wave in mid-2020, after adjusting for vaccination status.
South African Medical Research Council president Professor Glenda Gray says the organisation is “extremely encouraged” by the results of Discovery Health’s analysis. “It is extremely important to be able to demonstrate to the public that in a real-world setting. In the presence of a highly transmissible new Covid-19 variant, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine provides good protection against severe disease and hospitalisation.”