London: Amid warnings over a new coronavirus variant, a number of countries, including the UK, Israel, Italy and Singapore have moved to restrict travel from South Africa and other countries in the region.
In the past, governments have taken days, weeks or months to issue travel restrictions in response to new variants, The New York Times reported on Friday.
This time, restrictions came within hours after the South African authorities identified a concerning new coronavirus variant with mutations — and hours before health officials from the country were scheduled to discuss the variant with the World Health Organisation (WHO), it added.
The UK and Israel announced bans on flights from South Africa and several neighbouring countries on Thursday, citing the threat of the new variant.
The UK’s flight ban applies to six countries — South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Namibia and Zimbabwe — and begins on Friday.
“More data is needed but we are taking precautions now,” UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said on Twitter.
The governments of Italy, Malta and Singapore announced on Friday that they would impose similar restrictions, the report said.
“Our scientists are at work to study the new B.1.1.529 variant,” Italy’s Health Minister, Roberto Speranza, said in a statement, using the variant’s scientific name.
European Union’s executive arm President Ursula von der Leyen also said in a Twitter post on Friday that it would propose restricting air travel to European countries from southern Africa because of concerns about the variant.
In the past two days, scientists detected the variant after observing an increase in infections in South Africa’s economic hub surrounding Johannesburg. So far only a few dozen cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong, Israel, and Botswana.
In a statement posted on Friday on a government website, South Africa said it would urge the UK to reconsider its travel restrictions.
“The UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK seems to have been rushed, as even the World Health Organisation is yet to advise on the next steps,” the statement reads.
In December last year, South Africa was the first nation to report the appearance of the Beta variant, which has now spread to nearly 70 countries.