Denis Farrell / AP
BRUSSELS (AP) The European Union said on Friday it plans to ban air travel from South Africa to counter the spread of a new COVID-19 variant as the 27-nation bloc struggles with a massive increase in cases.
“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” said German Health Minister Jens Spahn.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement that she “proposes, in close coordination with member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the South African region”.
A new variant of the coronavirus has been discovered in South Africa that scientists say is worrying because of the high number of mutations and the rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.
Germany said von der Leyen’s proposal could take effect as soon as Friday night. Spahn said airlines returning from South Africa will only be able to transport German citizens home and passengers will have to be quarantined for 14 days regardless of whether they are vaccinated or not.
Germany has seen a new record number of daily cases in recent days and has surpassed the figure of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday.
A fourth stroke of the coronavirus is hitting the 27-nation EU particularly hard, with governments trying to tighten restrictions in a bid to stem the spread. The proposal to ban flights came after a similar move by Britain on Thursday.
The UK announced it was banning flights from South Africa and five other South African countries, in effect at noon on Friday, and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be required to take a test for coronavirus.
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there were concerns that the new variant “could be more contagious” than the dominant delta type and “the vaccines we currently have may be less effective” against him.
The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with disturbing mutations, often simply die. Scientists are monitoring for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but resolving whether the new variants will have an impact on public health may take time.
Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong to travelers from South Africa, he said.
The World Health Organization technical working group will meet on Friday to evaluate the new variant and may decide whether to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.
The World Health Organization says coronavirus infections rose 11% in Europe over the past week, the only region in the world where COVID-19 continues to rise. WHO Director for Europe, Dr. Hans Kluge, warned that without urgent measures, the continent could see another 700,000 deaths by spring.
The EU emergency braking mechanism has been set up to deal with such emergencies.
When the epidemiological situation of a third country or region deteriorates rapidly, especially if a variant of concern or interest has been discovered, Member States should adopt an urgent, temporary restriction on all travel to the EU. This emergency restraint should not apply to EU citizens, long-term EU residents and certain categories of essential travelers, who nevertheless need to undergo proper testing and quarantine measures, even if they are fully vaccinated.
Such restrictions should be reviewed at least every two weeks.
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