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New COVID Variant Spurs Cascade of International Travel Bans

By Michelle Baran

Nov 29, 2021

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Japan has closed its borders to foreign arrivals in light of the new Omicron variant.

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Japan has closed its borders to foreign arrivals in light of the new Omicron variant.

The U.S., Israel, Japan, Poland, and Spain are among the countries that have swiftly introduced new travel bans or restrictions in light of the newly discovered Omicron variant. Here’s what we know thus far.

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Right after the world heard about a new “variant of concern,” as the World Health Organization (WHO) has deemed the Omicron variant that was recently discovered in southern Africa, borders started closing at breakneck speed, including in the United States.

“The profile of [the Omicron variant] includes multiple mutations across the SARS-CoV-2 genome, some of which are concerning,” President Joe Biden stated in a November 26 proclamation that implements an effective ban on travel from several southern Africa countries. “According to the WHO, preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other variants of concern. Further, the WHO reports that the number of cases of this variant appears to be increasing in almost all provinces in the Republic of South Africa.” 

Infections of the new variant have been reported in a number of countries over the past few days, and new cases in Portugal and Scotland have raised fears that local transmission may already be under way.

Several countries are hoping to contain the spread of Omicron with new travel bans and restrictions, even against the advice of the WHO, which has noted that border closings often have limited effect.

But some have argued that such restrictions could provide valuable time to analyze the new variant. President Biden’s chief medical advisor, Dr. Anthony Fauci, said on Monday that “it will take approximately two more weeks to have more definitive information on the transmissibility, severity, and other characteristics of the variant.” Both Biden and Fauci are encouraging Americans to get vaccinated and to get their booster shots as soon as they are eligible to enhance their protection against COVID.

Biden also acknowledged that the emergence of the Omicron variant highlights the larger issue of global vaccine inequity. “The news about this new variant should make clearer than ever why this pandemic will not end until we have global vaccinations,” the president stated.

United States’ ban on travel from southern Africa

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Starting on November 29, foreign nationals who have been in Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, or Zimbabwe within the previous 14 days will not be allowed to enter the United States. U.S. citizens and residents are exempt.

The ban takes effect less than one month after the United States lifted a ban on international leisure travel for foreign nationals arriving from the 26-nation European Schengen area, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Brazil, China, Iran—and South Africa. Now travel from South Africa (in addition to the seven African countries listed above) is barred once again.

When asked about his actions regarding the Omicron variant during a November 26 press briefing, President Biden stated that the travel bans were enacted because “I’ve decided that we’re going to be cautious.”

The United States isn’t the only country that’s being extra cautious. Here are some of the other travel bans, restrictions, and actions that have recently gone into effect in response to Omicron concerns.

Australia delays border reopening

Australia announced on November 29 that it will postpone its plans to begin reopening to foreign visa holders, including students and skilled migrants, for two weeks—until December 15—after detecting its first cases of the Omicron variant, Reuters reported.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that the temporary pause will give Australia more time to “gather the information we need to better understand the Omicron variant.”

European Union asks members to suspend air travel to southern Africa

On November 26, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, urged European Union member countries to “act very swiftly, decisively and united” in light of the new Omicron variant.

“The European Commission has today proposed to member states to activate the ‘emergency brake’ on travel from countries in southern African and other countries affected to limit the spread of the new variant,” von der Leyen stated.

European Union leaders have agreed on an “emergency brake mechanism” that takes into account the possible risks posed by new variants and allows new restrictions to be imposed quickly if need be.

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Von der Leyen advised that all air travel to southern African countries be suspended “until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant,” and that travelers returning from the region will be subject to strict quarantine measures.

Israel closes its borders after recently reopening to vaccinated travelers

After opening is borders to fully vaccinated travelers at the start of November following an 18-month closure, Israel is once again barring entry for all foreigners for a period of at least 14 days starting on November 29.

All vaccinated Israeli nationals arriving will be subject to a mandatory three-day quarantine and those who have not been vaccinated will be subject to a seven-day quarantine, the BBC reported.

Japan bars entry of all foreign travelers

On November 28, Japan announced that it will suspend entry for all foreign visitors. The move comes even as Japan has yet to detect any Omicron cases and reinstates border controls that had just started to ease in early November for some business travelers and foreign students.

“We are taking the step as an emergency precaution to prevent a worst-case scenario in Japan,” Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said. The new measure goes into effect on November 29.

Morocco puts a temporary halt on international inbound flights

Morocco has banned all incoming flights for at least two weeks from November 29, including for Moroccan citizens and residents.

Poland bans flights from southern Africa

Poland on Monday moved to ban flights to and from seven African countries: Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe. The new measure will go into effect on December 1 and will be in place until at least December 17, Reuters reported.

Additionally, unvaccinated travelers arriving in Poland from outside the European Union’s Schengen area have been subject to a 10-day quarantine—that quarantine period has now been extended to 14 days, with the possibility of shortening the period to 8 days after taking a COVID-19 test that reveals a negative result. 

Spain imposes stricter requirements for travelers arriving from southern Africa

The Spanish government is asking that travelers from “high-risk” countries—which now include Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe—present proof of a negative COVID-19 test result in addition to either being fully vaccinated or having recovered from COVID-19, Spanish newspaper El Pais reports. Travelers arriving from the seven African countries listed above will also be required to quarantine for 10 days.

The Associated Press contributed reporting.

>> Next: Should I Get a COVID-19 Booster Before I Travel?

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