South Africa accuses UK and others of ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to new variant

South Africa has angrily condemned travel restrictions imposed by countries including Britain as “knee-jerk and draconian” as it scrambled to assess the potential for the new Covid-19 variant to unleash a deadly fourth wave.

In a heated press conference on Friday, the health minister, Joe Phaahla, said his country had acted transparently by alerting the world to the B.1.1.529 variant, which was detected by its scientists earlier this week.

But others had responded by imposing restrictions on flights to and from the southern African region that were completely unjustified, he said. The UK had announced its decision to impose a temporary ban without consulting the South African authorities, he added.

“The reaction of countries to impose travel bans are completely against the norms and standards as guided by the World Health Organization,” said Phaahla. “The same countries that are enacting this kind of knee-jerk, draconian reaction are battling their own waves.”

Scientists at South Africa’s National Institute For Communicable Diseases identified the new variant among a spike in cases in Gauteng province, which includes the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria.

Within hours of being briefed, the South African government learned that countries including Britain were imposing temporary travel restrictions. Botswana, where the earliest sample showing the variant was collected on 11 November, was also affected, along with Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

Since then anger has been growing in South Africa, which was hoping for a much needed holiday season reprieve from a Covid-induced tourism slump. The country was on the UK’s red list for much of 2021, despite having lower infection numbers for much of this period, and was only removed in October.

“The UK has been very short-sighted. It’s just absolutely ridiculous,” said Bryan West, sales manager of the Abelana game reserve in the north-east of the country. Only that morning, he had had two groups of guests leave early in a rush to catch flights back to Britain and Germany.

“I think the UK overreacted,” he added. “South Africa’s very safe to be in at the moment.” At Abelana, staff were all wearing masks and sticking closely to Covid protocol, he said: “We limit the number of guests on the [safari] vehicle, so there’s more space.”

Echoing his irritation, Otto de Vries, the CEO of the Association of Southern African Travel Agents, called it a “a knee-jerk reaction” that put airlines, hotels, travel businesses and travellers in a difficult situation.

The economic impact was instantaneous. The Johannesburg stock exchange had fallen almost 2% by midday on Friday, and the rand was trading at its weakest in more than a year.

“The world should provide support to South Africa and Africa and not discriminate or isolate it,” tweeted Prof Tulio de Oliveira, the director of the centre for epidemic response and innovation.

“We have been very transparent with scientific information. We identified, made data public, and raised the alarm as the infections are just increasing. We did this to protect our country and the world in spite of potentially suffering massive discrimination.”

Phaahla’s reprimand came as President Cyril Ramaphosa prepared to discuss reimposing lockdown restrictions at a meeting of the national coronavirus command council on Sunday. The country is currently on alert level 1 – the lowest of five, indicating “a low Covid-19 spread with a high health system readiness”.

But the vaccination programme is flagging, with daily jabs at their lowest point since June 2021. And the country is about to enter its holiday period, a time when schools and businesses close for the long summer break, people travel widely and enjoy large festive gatherings.

On Friday the government appealed to all South Africans aged 12 and over to get jabbed as soon as possible.

The country’s top scientists were “in intensive engagement with all established surveillance systems to understand the new variant and what the potential implications could be,” a statement said.

“While this work continues, South Africans must take all measures to protect themselves against coronavirus infection, beginning with vaccination against Covid-19,” it added. Only about 35% of adults in the country are fully vaccinated.

Should the new variant prove to be highly transmissible, there are fears that a fourth wave could materialise – and in a more dangerous form than had been anticipated.

However, Dr Angelique Coetzee, chair of the South African Medical Association and a practising GP based in Pretoria, said it was “premature” to make predictions of a health crisis.

“It’s all speculation at this stage. It may be it’s highly transmissible, but so far the cases we are seeing are extremely mild,” she said. “Maybe two weeks from now I will have a different opinion, but this is what we are seeing. So are we seriously worried? No. We are concerned and we watch what’s happening. But for now we’re saying, ‘OK: there’s a whole hype out there. [We’re] not sure why.’”

Coetzee said she would like to see the government embark on a push to get more people vaccinated, but added: “Unfortunately, it’s not only the responsibility of the government; it’s the responsibility of the public as well … You can only ask people so many times to go and get vaccinated, and if you don’t listen, then there’s consequences, and then you have to take the consequences.”

South Africa’s vaccination programme was bedevilled by protracted teething problems, most notably the government’s controversial decision in February to suspend the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine due to concerns – now dispelled – over its efficacy.

However, the programme has since sped up, and for the past several months supply has far outstripped demand.

In a tweet directed at the department of health on Friday, Shabir Madhi, professor of vaccinology at University of the Witwatersrand, said: “SOS … there is no time to hold back” on boosting key sections of the population such as over-65s and the immunocompromised. “And do so without creating obstacles. Much more sensible than keeping 17 million doses in the depot.”

Comments are closed.