The European Union’s executive has said it wants to stop air travel from southern Africa to counter the spread of a new Covid-19 variant.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that she “proposes, in close coordination with the member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region”.
A new coronavirus variant has been detected in South Africa that scientists say is a concern because of its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.
The UK announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries from noon on Friday, and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.
The coronavirus evolves as it spreads and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out.
Scientists monitor for possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but sorting out whether new variants will have a public health impact can take time.
Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in Hong Kong in travellers from South Africa.
The World Health Organisation’s technical working group is to meet on Friday to assess the new variant and may decide whether to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.
The organisation’s Europe director, Dr Hans Kluge, warned that without urgent measures, the continent could see another 700,000 deaths by the spring.
The EU’s emergency brake mechanism has been set up to deal with such emergencies.
Where the epidemiological situation of a third country or region worsens quickly, in particular if a variant of concern or of interest has been detected, member states should adopt an urgent, temporary restriction on all travel into the EU.
This emergency brake should not apply to EU citizens, long-term EU residents and certain categories of essential travellers, who should nevertheless be subject to appropriate testing and quarantine measures, even if fully vaccinated.
Such restrictions should be reviewed at least every two weeks.