BRUSSELS – The European Union said on Friday it plans to halt air travel from southern Africa to counter the spread of a new variant of COVID-19, as the 27-nation bloc is battling 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 member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region.”
A new variant of the coronavirus has been detected in South Africa, which scientists say is concerning due to its high number of mutations and its rapid spread among young people in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.
Germany said von der Leyen’s proposal could be enacted as early as Friday night. Spahn said airlines returning from South Africa will only be able to transport German nationals home, and travelers will need to be quarantined for 14 days, whether vaccinated or not.
Germany has seen a new record for daily case numbers in recent days and surpassed the 100,000 death mark from COVID-19 on Thursday.
A fourth coronavirus spike is hitting the 27-nation EU especially, with governments scrambling to tighten restrictions in a bid to contain the spread. The proposed flight ban came in the wake of similar action by Britain on Thursday.
The UK announced that it was banning flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries as of noon on Friday, and that anyone who had recently arrived from those countries would be asked to take a coronavirus test.
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there were concerns that the new variant “might 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 worrisome mutations, often simply disappear. Scientists monitor possible changes that could be more transmissible or deadly, but determining whether the new variants will have an impact on public health can take time.
Currently identified as B.1.1.529, the new variant has also been found in Botswana and Hong Kong in travelers from South Africa, he said.
The World Health Organization technical working group will meet on Friday to evaluate the new variant and can decide whether to give it a name from the Greek alphabet.
The World Health Organization says coronavirus infections rose 11% in Europe last week, the only region in the world where COVID-19 continues to rise. WHO director for Europe, Dr. Hans Kluge, warned that without urgent action, the continent could see another 700,000 deaths before spring.
The EU emergency braking mechanism has been created to deal with such emergencies.
When the epidemiological situation in a third country or region deteriorates rapidly, in particular if a variant of concern or interest has been detected, Member States should adopt a temporary and urgent restriction on all travel to the EU. This emergency brake should not apply to EU citizens, long-term EU residents and certain categories of essential travelers, who, however, should be subject to appropriate testing and quarantine measures, even if are fully vaccinated.
These restrictions should be reviewed at least every two weeks.
Lorne Cook in Brussels and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.