Worst Covid variant so far lands South Africa back on UK red travel list

The UK has placed South Africa and five other countries on its red list as a new Covid variant described as the "worst we've seen so far" rages on across the world.

Health Minister Sajid Javid has confirmed from noon tomorrow, flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be temporarily banned and UK travellers must quarantine.

UK scientists have raised the alarm on Thursday night over the new B.1.1.529 variant, which they described as the "worst we've seen so far". This variant has the ability to evade immunity built up by vaccination or prior infection.

While no cases have been discovered in Britain so far, officials raised concern over a rapid rise in cases in South Africa, which could soon spread all over the world.

.Mr Javid said: "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, he continued: "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."

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At the moment 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.

The variant has not yet been given the title "variant of concern" in the UK, but one senior UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) expert said: "This is 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.

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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.

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It comes as Israel also announced it was barring its citizens from travelling to southern Africa and banning the entry of foreigners from the region, due to the new variant.

The same six countries, plus Mozambique, have been added to Isreal's "red", or highest-risk, travel list that reflects coronavirus infection rates overseas.

Israelis are banned from travelling to countries on the "red" list unless they receive special permission from Israel's health ministry.

In a statement announcing the measures, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's office said citizens of the seven southern African nations would not be eligible to enter Israel.

Israelis returning home from those countries would be required to spend between 7-14 days in a quarantined hotel after arrival.

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