COVID-19 flight restrictions deny many S Africans opportunity to reunite with family for Christmas

Fakir Hassen
·3-min read

Johannesburg, Dec 25 (PTI) Hundreds of South Africans have been left disappointed at not being able to celebrate Christmas with family or friends abroad after the UK and other favourite holiday destinations announced travel bans following the discovery of a new variant of coronavirus that is spreading fast in Britain.

The ban on South Africans' travelling started on Wednesday after UK Secretary for Health Matt Hancock said that a new variant of the COVID-19 virus discovered in South Africa was transmitting even faster than another strain which had been blamed for rapid increase in infections in Britain.

South African health minister Zweli Mkhize dismissed the announcement by Hancock, while conceding that his country was in a serious second wave of infections that was increasing more rapidly than the first.

In the past two days, there have been a record number of over 14,000 infections daily, as South Africa soars rapidly towards a million infections mark, with 26,000 deaths already.

Mkhize said the UK's decision to ban travel from South Africa was as 'unfortunate' as Hancock attributing the South African variant to the second wave of infection in the UK.

'There is evidence that the UK variant developed earlier than the South African variant. On December 14, the UK reported to the WHO that a variant had been identified and traced back to September 20, 2020 in Kent, south east England – approximately a month before the South African variant appears to have developed,' Mkhize said at a media conference.

'In addition, the UK variant has already been identified outside of the UK as reported by professor Neil Ferguson, a top British scientist who told the UK's science and technology committee on December 23 that evidence from Denmark, a country with a relatively low infection rate, suggests that 'almost certainly' the new variant identified in the UK is already in the 'great majority if not all' European countries,' Mkhize said.

The minister said a decision on a travel ban would require more scientific investigation of the variant virus than was currently available.

But over 40 other countries, mainly across Europe and the Middle East, as well as India, quickly banned travel from the UK, with many of them also banning South African travellers.

Among those left disappointed was Charmaine Bishop and her family of five from Cape Town, who had made extensive plans for a family reunion with her 80-year-old mother Mildred Smythe in Birmingham.

'Plans started last year already for nearly 200 family members to travel from about nine countries for the reunion but were gradually reduced as COVID since last Christmas, until only about 40 would have gathered for the reunion due to the restrictions,' Bishop said.

'But despite the obvious setback and disappointment, we are grateful that our Mum is still well and has not been affected by COVID-19, so we have convinced our children and grandchildren that the cancellation might well be a blessing in disguise and will be sending, and hopefully receiving, all our Xmas presents when couriers are allowed to resume flights next year now,' Bishop said.

Ani Ramcharan, his wife Aarti and two of their childhood friends from Durban were due to join the recently-married children of the two couples, who were already in Paris since last month, for a two-week tour of several European countries.

'But now we can’t get there nor can our children get back home now, and we can’t really blame anyone except the pandemic,' Ramcharan said.

Many others have complained to local media about travel agents and airlines refusing to give them refunds and insisting on vouchers for travel at a later date, which some said, would not be convenient for them. PTI FH MRJ MRJ