< Back to 68k.news UK front page

Six countries added to Red List due to Covid concerns

Original source (on modern site)

Six African counties have been added to the Red List for the UK due to concerns about a new Covid-19 variant.

On Thursday night the UK Government announced flights to England - including Heathrow Airport - from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini (formerly known as Swaziland) and Zimbabwe will be suspended from midday Friday and all six countries will be added to the red list.

The new coronavirus variant, the B.1.1.529 variant, which has the potential to evade immunity built up by vaccination or prior infection.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the new variant identified in South Africa "may be more transmissible" than the Delta strain and "the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective".

A travel ban is to be imposed on six African nations due to rising concerns over a new variant of the virus which causes Covid-19 which officials have dubbed "the worst one we've seen so far".

The UK Foreign Office said: "From midday Friday 26 November, the following destinations will be added to the travel Red List Botswana Eswatini Lesotho Namibia South Africa Zimbabwe The FCDO also advises against all but essential travel to these countries with immediate effect."

While no cases have been found in Britain, officials raised concern over a rapid rise in cases in South Africa.

Anyone who has arrived from the country in the last 10 days will be invited to come forward and take a test by the UK Health Security Agency.

The Scottish Government later confirmed all arrivals from the six countries will be required to self-isolate and take two PCR tests from midday on Friday, while anyone arriving after 4am on Saturday will need to stay at a managed quarantine hotel. There are no direct flights from any of the countries into Scotland.

At the moment, between around 500 and 700 people are travelling to the UK from South Africa each day, but it is expected this figure could increase as the festive period begins.

Mr Javid said: "The early indication we have of this variant is it may be more transmissible than the Delta variant and the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective against it.

Want to stay up to date with all the latest news from one of the country's biggest airports? Then sign up to our free HeathrowLive newsletter.

Twice a week, Wednesdays and Sundays, we'll be bringing you the latest and top stories about the major airport.

From the latest travel rules and restrictions, to fascinating insights into the airport and it's history, and all the latest incidents and goings on.

Signing up is simple, simply click here to visit our newsletter preference centre, enter your email in the box at the top and select the newsletters you'd like to receive.

It only takes a minute and doesn't cost a penny for you to get the latest articles and exceptional journalism directly to your inbox.

"Now to be clear, we have not detected any of this new variant in the UK at this point in time.

"But we've always been clear that we will take action to protect the progress that we have made.

"So what we will be doing is from midday tomorrow we will be suspending all flights from six, southern African countries and we will add in those countries to the travel red list. Those countries are South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana. We will be requiring anyone that arrives from those countries from 4am on Sunday to quarantine in hotels.

"If anyone arrives before then they should self-isolate at home and take a PCR test on day two and day eight. If anyone has arrived from any of those countries over the last 10 days, we would ask them to take PCR tests."

Mr Javid added: "Our scientists are deeply concerned about this variant. I'm concerned, of course, that's one of the reasons we have taken this action today."

Asked what the situation would mean for the UK over the coming weeks, with Christmas approaching, Mr Javid said: "We've got plans in place, as people know, for the spread of this infection here in the UK and we have contingency plans - the so-called Plan B.

"But today's announcement, this is about a new variant from South Africa - it's been detected in South Africa and Botswana - and this is about being cautious and taking action and trying to protect, as best we can, our borders."

He said that more work was needed to understand how concerning the variant is, adding: "From what we do know there's a significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the Delta variant.

"That would suggest that it may well be more transmissible and the current vaccines that we have may well be less effective."

Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said: "The B.1.1.529 variant has an unprecedented number of mutations in the spike protein gene, the protein which is the target of most vaccines.

"There is therefore a concern that this variant may have a greater potential to escape prior immunity than previous variants.

"It is also concerning that this variant appears to be driving a rapid increase in case numbers in South Africa.

"The Government's move to restrict travel with South Africa is therefore prudent.

"However, we do not yet have reliable estimates of the extent to which B.1.1.529 might be either more transmissible or more resistant to vaccines, so it is too early to be able to provide an evidence-based assessment of the risk it poses."

The variant has been classed as a "variant under investigation" in the UK, with one senior UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) expert describing it as "the worst variant we have seen so far".

Only 59 confirmed cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana.

The variant has over 30 mutations - around twice as many as the Delta variant - which could potentially make it more transmissible and evade the protection given by prior infection or vaccination.

Experts from the UKHSA have been advising ministers on the issue.

A number of scientists have expressed serious concern over the variant due to the significant number of mutations in the spike protein.

One senior scientist said: "One of our major worries is this virus spike protein is so dramatically different to the virus spike that was in the original Wuhan strain, and therefore in our vaccines, that it has a great cause of concern."

Experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) are meeting with South African officials on Friday to assess the evolving situation in the country.

The variant could eventually be given the moniker "Nu" - with the most concerning variants given named after the Greek alphabet.

Of the 59 lab confirmed cases of the new variant, three were in Botswana, two were in Hong Kong among people who had travelled from South Africa, and the remaining were confirmed in South Africa.

UK officials were said to be "very worried" after they examined details on the variant on the international database - and have taken significant steps just three days after the details were uploaded.

The variant is a "dramatic change" from anything seen previously by UK scientists.

It has mutations which have been observed in other variants, but also ones that scientists have not yet seen.

As such, they think that if a new vaccine were needed to combat the variant, it could take some time.

But officials do not yet have enough evidence to call it a "variant of concern".

As of yet there is not good evidence on transmissibility or the impact on vaccine effectiveness, and there is also no evidence on whether or not it causes more severe disease.

The risk of reinfection is not known, but it is expected a picture on this will develop quickly - this would be the first signal the variant could evade the body's defences.

Experts have predicted "some reduced vaccine effect" but are not able to judge how bad it could be.

Some compared it to the Beta variant - which saw vaccine efficacy reduced by 30%-40%.

While there have been no cases seen in the UK yet, it is always possible that a case could have slipped in - but officials think that the likelihood of cases remains "low".

Health officials said that Covid-19 booster jabs have become "particularly critical" given the development.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the top stories from BerkshireLive delivered straight to your inbox

< Back to 68k.news UK front page