Flights from six African countries banned amid 'deeply concerning' new Covid variant

25 November 2021, 21:09 | Updated: 26 November 2021, 10:24

The flight ban is a response to a new variant which is described as possibly the 'worst ever'.
The flight ban is a response to a new variant which is described as possibly the 'worst ever'. Picture: Alamy

By James Morris

Flights have been banned from six African countries amid concerns over a new, potentially vaccine-evading, Covid variant.

Health secretary Sajid Javid said tonight that "early indications" suggest the B.1.1.529 variant "may be more transmissible than the Delta variant, and the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective against it".

The new variant has not been detected in the UK, Mr Javid confirmed, while adding "our scientists are deeply concerned" about it.

Mr Javid is expected to make a statement to the Commons at around 11am on Friday.

The travel ban applies to South Africa – where the variant was identified – as well as Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana. They will be added to England's travel "red list".

The flight ban will begin at noon tomorrow, with anyone who arrives from those countries from 4am on Sunday being required to quarantine in hotels.

The government is also attempting to trace recent arrivals from Southern Africa and offer testing to avoid introduction of the new strain to the UK.

What is the new B.1.1.529 variant?

The B.1.1.529 variant could be the "worst one we've seen so far" according to experts.

The strain has 32 mutations in its spike protein, the part of the virus that affects its ability to spread. This is double the number of mutations as the previous delta variant.

South Africa has confirmed 100 cases of the variant, but cases have also been confirmed in Botswana. It is most concentrated in the South African province of Gauteng, but there are concerns it may already be present in other provinces too.

One case of the variant has been found in Hong Kong in someone who had travelled from South Africa.

Concerns have been raised over the variant as it has the highest concentration of mutations in any variant discovered so far.

This does not automatically result in a drop in vaccine efficacy - but there is concern its mutations could help it evade the body's immune response.

The WHO is expected to assign a letter of the Greek alphabet to the strain on Friday.

How will the new variant affect the UK?

It is unclear whether the new strain will impact restrictions in the UK, or how it will affect the festive season.

But with making up as many as 90% of new cases in Gauteng, South Africa, the strain is causing concern.

Scientists have described it as the "most complex" strain so far. Professor Adam Finn of the JCVI said: "If we're lucky, it won't be a serious one, but it could be very serious."

Mr Javid refused to be drawn on how the development could affect the Christmas holidays, only saying the government has its contingency "Plan B" – which would involve measures such as telling people to work from home where possible – for dealing with the virus over winter.

He insisted the flight ban was "about being cautious and taking action and trying to protect, as best we can, our borders".

Mr Javid added the new variant has a "significant number of mutations, perhaps double the number of mutations that we have seen in the Delta variant.

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

Delta is the highly transmissible variant of the virus which caused the UK's ongoing third wave of infections, though vaccines have meant deaths have remained relatively low compared to the first and second waves.

It has been estimated between 500 and 700 people had been travelling to the UK from South Africa each day.

Experts from the World Health Organization (WHO) are meeting with South African officials tomorrow to assess the evolving situation in the country, which has seen a rapid rise in cases.