BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union said on Friday that it plans to halt flights from southern Africa to counter the proliferation of a new COVID-19 variant as the bloc of 27 nations 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,” says Germany’s Minister of Health Jens Spahn.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement that she “proposes, in close coordination with the Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop flights from the southern African region.”
A new variant of coronavirus has been discovered in South Africa which researchers say is a problem due to its high number of mutations and rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.
Germany said von der Leyen’s proposal could be adopted as soon as Friday night. Spahn said that airlines returning from South Africa will only be able to transport German citizens home, and travelers will need to be quarantined for 14 days whether they are vaccinated or not.
Germany has seen new record daily cases in recent days and passed the mark of 100,000 deaths from COVID-19 on Thursday.
A fourth peak of the coronavirus is affecting the EU of 27 countries particularly hard, with governments trying to tighten restrictions in an effort to curb the spread. The flight ban proposal came in the wake of similar measures from the UK on Thursday.
The UK announced that it would ban flights from South Africa and five other South African countries from lunchtime on Friday, and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.
Britain’s Health Minister Sajid Javid said there were concerns that the new variant “may be more transmissible” than the dominant Delta strain, and “the vaccines we currently have may be less effective” against it.
The coronavirus develops as it spreads and many new variants, including those with disturbing mutations, often just die out. Researchers are monitoring possible changes that may be more transmissible or fatal, but finding out if 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 among travelers from South Africa, he said.
The World Health Organization’s technical working group will meet on Friday to assess the new variant and can decide whether to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.
The World Health Organization says coronavirus infections increased by 11% in Europe in the past week, the only region in the world where covid-19 continues to increase. The WHO’s European Director, Dr Hans Kluge, warned that the continent could see another 700,000 deaths this spring without urgent action.
The EU Emergency Braking Mechanism has been set up to deal with such emergencies.
If the epidemiological situation in a third country or region deteriorates rapidly, in particular if a variant of concern or interest has been identified, Member States should adopt an urgent, temporary restriction on all travel to the EU. This emergency brake should not apply to EU citizens, long-term residents of the EU and certain categories of important travelers, who should still be subject to appropriate tests and quarantine measures, even if they are fully vaccinated.
Such restrictions should be reviewed at least every two weeks.
Lorne Cook in Brussels and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed