Coronavirus: EU wants to halt flights from southern Africa over variant

BRUSSELS – The European Union said on Friday it plans to halt flights from southern Africa to counter the proliferation of a new COVID-19 variant as the bloc with 27 nations is fighting a massive increase in cases.

“The last thing we need is to bring in a new variant that will cause even more problems,” said German Health Minister 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 South African region.”

A new variant of coronavirus has been discovered in South Africa, as scientists say, is a concern 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 early as Friday night. Spahn said airlines returning from South Africa will only be able to transport German nationals home, and travelers will have to be quarantined for 14 days, whether they are vaccinated or not.

Germany has seen new record daily case numbers in recent days and on Thursday passed the mark with 100,000 deaths as a result of COVID-19.

A fourth rise in coronavirus is hitting the 27 EU countries particularly hard, with governments struggling to tighten restrictions in an effort to curb the spread. The no-fly motion came in the wake of similar action from Britain on Thursday.

The United Kingdom announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other South African countries with effect at noon on Friday, and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.

British Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there was concern 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 evolves as it spreads, and many new variants, including those with worrying mutations, often just die out. Researchers are monitoring for possible changes that may be more transmissible or fatal, but it may take time to find out if new variants will have an impact on public health.

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 is meeting 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 rise. WHO Europe Director, Dr. Hans Kluge, warned that the continent without emergency measures could see another 700,000 deaths by spring.

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, especially if a variant of concern or interest has been detected, 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 and certain categories of significant travelers, who should nevertheless be subject to appropriate test and quarantine measures, even if they are fully vaccinated.

Such restrictions should be reviewed at least every two weeks.

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Lorne Cook in Brussels and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.

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