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Europe Considers Lifting Hasty Travel Bans and Could Be About to Reopen to South Africa

Europe Considers Lifting Hasty Travel Bans and Could Be About to Reopen to South Africa

Health ministers from across the European Union are expected to meet on Tuesday to discuss lifting a travel ban on South Africa and several other southern African countries amidst the Omicron outbreak. If approved, travel between Europe and South Africa could be fully restarted in around a weeks time.

Late last month, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called on EU Member States to stop all travel from variant hotspots, starting with South Africa and Botswana because the two countries had just alerted the world to the threat of the Omicron variant.

The travel ban advice was taken up by most of Europe despite criticism from the World Health Organization (WHO) who say travel restrictions do little to stop the spread of new variants but do stigmatise and punish countries that ring the alarm on newly identified Coronavirus variants.

One EU diplomat cited by Bloomberg suggested the EU was hoping to replace a blanket travel ban with a requirement for all travellers from the region to present a negative pre-departure PCR test.

The pre-departure test requirement would apply equally to unvaccinated and fully-vaccinated travellers. Member States are free to ignore official EU advice and could add extra hoops to jump through such as quarantine rules.

Von der Leyen previously said that she wanted Europe to van travel from all Omicron hotspots no matter where they were detected despite the fact that the variant had already been found in several EU countries.

It now appears Omicron had been present in Europe for at least a couple of weeks before South African scientists identified the variant. If Omicron follows the same trajectory as in South Africa, the variant will soon become the dominant strain across Europe leaving travel restrictions effectively worthless.

The decision to lift a blanket travel ban could, however, be made before scientists know the true threat that Omicron presents. The variant appears to be more transmissible than any previous variant and could have a higher vaccine escape than the dominant Delta strain.

In fully vaccinated individuals, though, Omicron appears to present as a mild infection that doesn’t require hospitalization. The variant still appears to be incredibly dangerous for unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people.

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