UK taking 'safety first approach' with travel ban over new COVID variant, says Shapps

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The UK is taking "a safety first approach" in banning entry from six African countries in the face of a virulent new COVID variant, Grant Shapps has told Sky News.

Flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe will be suspended from 12pm on Friday until 4am on Sunday.

From Sunday onwards, new arrivals in the UK will be required to quarantine in hotels.

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The European Union is also planning an "emergency brake" on air travel from southern Africa in response to the new coronavirus variant.

The chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has said the new COVID-19 variant is the most "complex" and "worrying" seen.

Mr Shapps said: "It is important to make sure that you do act immediately and in doing so you get to slow things down in terms of potential entry into the country.

"That gives us a bit of time for the scientists to work on sequencing the genome, which involves growing cultures - it takes several weeks to do - so we can find out how significant a concern this particular variant is.

"It is a safety-first approach.

"We have done that before with things like the mink variant from Denmark and we were then able to relax it reasonably quickly."

He later told the BBC: "I hope that's what this is, a pause rather than going backwards, but we can't take risks when we see a variant which could well defeat the vaccine, or at least that's the concern and we need just a bit of time to check that out.

"The concern about this particular variant is that it is spreading very, very fast, its rate of growth has been very quick, we think the issue is probably (starting) from now, so we're asking people to quarantine, self-isolate when they get home."

The UKHSC has said the new B.1.1.529 variant identified in South Africa is the "worst one we've seen so far".

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The variant has 30 mutations - twice as many as the Delta variant - which could make it more transmissible and evade the protection given by prior infection or vaccination.

The UKHSC's chief medical adviser Dr Susan Hopkins told the BBC: "If you look at those mutations as mutations that increase infectivity, mutations that evades the immune response, both from vaccines and natural immunity, mutations that cause increased transmissibility, it's a highly complex mutation, there's new ones we haven't seen before, so we don't know how they're going to interact in common.

"So all of this makes it a pretty complex, challenging variant.

"It is the most worrying we've seen."

No cases of the variant have been reported so far in the UK, and anyone who has travelled from one of these countries in the past 10 days is being contacted to come forward for a test.

However, concerns it could wreak further havoc on international business and travel saw more than £65bn wiped off the UK stock market in early trading on Friday.

Meanwhile, South Africa said the UK travel ban "seems to have been rushed".

The country's foreign minister Naledi Pandor said: "Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries."

Two Welsh rugby teams are looking to repatriate their staff and players as soon as possible after South Africa was added to the travel red list.

Other countries are also now moving to impose restrictions.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said in a tweet: "The commission will propose, in close coordination with member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529."

Israel has confirmed it has detected the country's first case of the variant in a traveller returning from Malawi.

Experts from the World Health Organisation (WHO) are meeting with South African officials to assess the evolving situation in the country.

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