UK Brings Back Red List Over New COVID Variant Fears

Flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, and Eswatini to London are suspended after the UK revived its red list following the discovery of a new coronavirus variant. UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid confirmed the temporary flight ban on Thursday.

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Passengers booked on British Airways and Virgin Atlantic flights are caught by the sudden flight ban. Photo: Getty Images

The variant, known as B.1.1.529, is described as the worst seen yet and possibly resistant to current vaccinations. Its rise in southern Africa has countries on edge.

From midday on Friday (UK time), non-UK and Irish residents who have been in any of the six countries in the last ten days will be banned from entry. Sajid Javid describes it as  “being cautious and taking action and trying to protect, as best we can, our borders.”

Until 04:00 on Sunday, returning British or Irish residents are asked to isolate at home. After that time, UK authorities will have rebooted their hotel quarantine program, and returning residents from the six countries will have to do self-funded hotel quarantine.

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The UK border will temporarily close to nonresidents traveling from six countries. Photo: Heathrow Airport

Passengers returning on connecting flights also caught by the sudden change

Neither Namibia, Lesotho, Botswana, Eswatini, or Zimbabwe have direct airline routes into the UK, but travelers from those countries via a connecting hub are impacted. Qatar Airways and Ethiopian Airlines serve Gaborone in Botswana. In addition to Emirates, both airlines also offer flights into Harare.

Multiple top-tier carriers fly into South Africa’s two big airports in Cape Town and Johannesburg, including London-based British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

Virgin Atlantic put the brakes on Thursday evening’s Boeing 787-9 service between Johannesburg and Heathrow. Virgin Atlantic normally flies operates a daily London – Johannesburg – London service.

“Following today’s announcement that South Africa will be added to the UK red list, we’re sorry to advise that this flight between Johannesburg and London Heathrow on November 26  has been canceled,” Virgin Atlantic says on its website. “This is due to a temporary flight ban which has been imposed by the UK Government.”

While the advisory does not address flights beyond today’s service, Virgin Atlantic’s booking engine is not making any seats available on any services out of Johannesburg until December 10.

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Virgin Atlantic has stopped selling seats on Johannesburg flights until December 10. Photo: Getty Images

Bad luck for some British Airways passengers

It’s bad news for passengers on British Airways flights out of London on Thursday who departed before Sajid Javid made his announcement. They will find themselves sent into hotel quarantine upon their return. At the time of publication, BA43 is en route to Cape Town, and BA55 is about to land in Johannesburg.

“We are aware that the UK Government has issued a temporary ban on flights between the UK and South Africa from midday on 26 November, as a result of the new Botswana variant,” says British Airways in a statement.

“We will be working closely with the Government and staying close to any developments. If you’re due to travel between now and Monday, November 29, we will be in touch to advise and update you about any new information we have received.”

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Two British Airways flights departed for South Africa just before the announcement was made. Photo: British Airways

More than 500 people a day fly into the UK from South Africa, where there has been a sudden rise in B.1.1.529 cases.

The UK removed the final countries from its controversial red list in late October but said at the time they would not shut down the program. Instead, they would put it into hiatus in case of an outbreak like we are seeing now in southern Africa.

“We don’t want to re-set up a system from scratch if a particular concern was seen in a particular country,” said Transport Secretary Grant Shapps at the time.

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