The new Omicron strain of COVID-19 has prompted a wave of new travel bans © Getty Images
The new Omicron variant of COVID-19 continues to impact travel as more countries tighten restrictions or expand entry bans. As we head into another period of coronavirus uncertainty, here's what would-be travelers need to know about the latest changes.
Just days after the potentially more contagious Omicron variant was detected by researchers in South Africa, the new COVID-19 strain has been identified in countries as far away as Canada and Australia. Though scientists are still unsure of where it originated and how far it has spread, the emergence of the new variant has prompted governments to tighten travel restrictions they had begun to relax.
New Omicron travel rules
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Israel, Japan and Morocco have taken a particularly hard line against the new strain by banning all foreign visitors. The UK's reponse was to reintroduce mask mandates and PCR tests for travelers, and a temporary ban on flights from several southern African countries. The ban was lifted after Sunday, but entry is limited to UK and Irish residents returning from southern Africa who will also be required to quarantine.
The US has not yet detected the Omicron strain but it has banned entry of any foreign national who has been in South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique, Malawi or eSwatini in the previous two weeks, and has advised US citizens against traveling there. However, returning US citizens or permanent residents can enter the US under the current COVID-19 entry rules when traveling from those nations.
Passengers undergo COVID-19 tests at Sydney International Airport as screening increases over Omicron strain © Getty Images
Argentina now requires any passenger who has been in any country in Africa within the last 14 days undergoes mandatory 14-day quarantine upon arrival and present proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within the past 72 hours. Non-residents will have to take out health insurance that covers COVID-19.
Australia has introduced a measure similar to the US, and will also delay the reopening of its international borders to certain eligible visa holders for another two weeks. Borders were supposed to open on December 1 but the date will be pushed out as scientists continue to gather more information on Omicron.
Canada is banning non-resident arrivals from South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Lesotho and eSwatini. Canadians or residents who have traveled through those southern African countries in the last 14 days must take a COVID-19 test and quarantine until they receive a negative result. "Canadians and permanent residents and those with a right of entry into Canada will be tested on arrival… they will quarantine until they get the result of a negative test," said health minister Jean-Yves Duclos.
Ecuador is also placing restrictions on travelers flying from or transiting through a number of African countries. It will also now request proof of vaccination from passengers arriving into Ecuador from the rest of the world, in addition to a negative PCR test taken within the past 72 hours.
The EU has proposed putting an "emergency brake" on arrivals from seven southern African countries, and most member states, including Ireland, France, Italy, Greece, the Netherlands,and Germany have already agreed to it. Spain has also signed up to the ban but has gone a step further by tightening restrictions on UK arrivals too; banning those who don't show proof of vaccination, after several cases of Omicron were detected in the UK in recent days.
India will update its rules on December 1, requiring that all arrivals complete an online form that includes a 14-day travel history and a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of departure. Travelers arriving from "at risk" countries must take a second test upon arrival and quarantine at home or in their accommodation for at least seven days. Countries India deems "at risk" include the UK, New Zealand, Singapore, Hong Kong, Israel, Brazil, Bangladesh, China, Mauritius, South Africa and Zimbabwe.
Hong Kong has banned non-residents who have been in southern Africa, Australia, Canada, Israel, the UK and five other European countries in the past 21 days.
Singapore is restricting entry on arrivals from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe. Any foreign visitors who have been in those countries will not be permitted to enter and returning Singaporean residents will be subject to a 10-day quarantine.
Switzerland has added more countries to its mandatory quarantine list, including Canada, Portugal, Australia, the UK, Israel, South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana and several more. All passengers arriving into Switzerland from those countries must present a negative COVID-19 test and quarantine for 10 days, regardless of vaccination status.
Thailand will ban arrivals from Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe from December.
More restrictions are likely to be announced in the coming days © Getty Images
Variant of concern
The World Health Organization (WHO) has labelled Omicron as a variant of concern and has said the "overall global risk related to the new variant…is assessed as very high", but has warned governments against closing their borders now that the variant has been detected in many countries.
"Flight bans have been imposed on southern African countries, but so far only two have detected the new variant. Meanwhile countries in other regions have reported cases of Omicron," Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, highlighted earlier this week.
The variant was identified only on November 24, and there are still many unknowns. While investigations continue, the WHO is recommending that nations take "a risk-based and scientific approach and put in place measures which can limit its possible spread" and to "ensure mitigation plans are in place" to maintain essential health services.
Just 24% of South Africa's population is vaccinated so far © AFP/Getty Images
"We don't know very much about this yet," Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organisations (WHO) technical lead on COVID-19, told a media briefing on the new variant last Thursday. "What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations, and the concern is that when you have so many mutations it can have an impact on how the virus behaves."
As research continues, the WHO has praised South Africa and Botswana for quickly sharing information about the new strain so that governments could intervene early to take extra precautions to monitor and attempt to curb the spread.
“The speed and transparency of the South African and Botswana governments in informing the world of the new variant is to be commended. WHO stands with African countries which had the courage to boldly share life-saving public health information, helping protect the world against the spread of COVID-19," said Dr Moeti.
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