Travellers scrambling as SA criticises world's punitive reaction to new variant

Dirco says the latest round of travel bans was punishing South Africa for its ability to detect a new COVID variant.

Travellers walk near an electronic flight notice board displaying cancelled flights at OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on 27 November 2021. Picture: AFP

JOHANNESBURG - The South African government says it has begun engaging with countries that have reimposed COVID-19 travel restrictions on the country.

The Department of International Relations said the latest round of travel bans was punishing South Africa for its ability to detect a new COVID variant.

The department’s Clayson Monyela said while the other variants had been discovered in other countries – the reaction had not been the same.

Monyela said government had joined the World Health Organisation call that world leaders don’t impose travel bans in haste, adding the global community needed to work together in managing the pandemic.

SA TRAVELLERS STUCK IN TRANSIT

Dutch health authorities said on Saturday that 61 passengers aboard two KLM flights from South Africa tested positive for COVID-19 and the results were being examined for the new Omicron variant.

READ: Dutch say 61 COVID positive on flights from S.Africa

The positive cases - more than one tenth of the 600 people on the two planes - were now being quarantined in a hotel near Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, one of Europe's biggest international air travel hubs.

Passengers said they had endured miserable hours at the arrivals hall to get tested, with witnesses saying many people failed to wear face masks or keep to social distancing.

"We now know that 61 of the results were positive and 531 negative," the Dutch Health Authority (GGD) said in a statement.

"The positive test results will be examined as soon as possible to determine whether this concerns the new worrisome variant, which has since been given the name Omicron variant."

All passengers who tested positive must stay in hotel quarantine for seven days if they show symptoms and for five days if they do not, the GGD said.

Passengers who tested negative, but are remaining in the Netherlands, are expected to isolate at home. Those who do not live in the Netherlands can "continue their journey", it said.

Passenger Paula Zimmerman who documented her night via videos posted on Twitter, said she finally received a negative result after hours of waiting but must now spend five days in home quarantine.

People on the plane were "taken from the tarmac to an isolated room where we waited for four hours before being tested," Zimmerman told AFP.

"Everyone on the plane was in there" with little respect for social distancing rules, she said.

Her final video, posted around 2:50am GMT on Saturday showed a row of more passengers waiting to be tested while others were sleeping on benches and on the floor.

'DYSTOPIA CENTRAL'
New York Times global health reporter Stephanie Nolen also tweeted her ordeal at what she called "Dystopia Central Airline Hallway".

She described how passengers, including babies and toddlers, were crammed together waiting to get tested, while "still 30% of people are wearing no mask only over mouth."

"Dutch authorities not enforcing. We're just in this unventilated room at hour 12, breathing on each other," she said.

On Saturday morning, Nolen was finally free to continue her journey to Toronto in Canada.

"Tested negative. At least today. After all that time with maskless yellers in an unventilated space, we shall see what the next days will bring."

The Dutch health authority said, "We understand that people are frustrated" by the situation at Schiphol overnight.

"People have just made a long trip with the idea that they will shortly be home," it said.

"Instead just after landing, they are confronted with a situation we have never before experienced in the Netherlands, namely that people have to be tested at Schiphol and are forced to wait until they get a result."

Dutch national carrier KLM said it would continue to operate flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town "in compliance with the stricter protocol".

This meant that entry was banned to all passengers except for Dutch and EU residents, who must show a negative PCR test and self-quarantine on arrival.

"KLM is taking the situation very seriously and will continue to prioritise the safety of passengers and crew," the airline said in a statement, adding "it will therefore impose strict on-board safety requirements for passengers and crew."

A KLM flight from Johannesburg was scheduled to land at around 11am GMT, Schiphol said on its website.

SUSPENDED FLIGHTS

Elsewhere, South African Airways said it would suspend flights to Mauritius from Monday after the island nation also imposed a travel ban.

Apart from the service to Mauritius, SAA's local and regional schedule would remain unaffected.

The Flight Centre Group urged customers to regularly check for updates on the list of airlines that have stopped flights from South Africa.

RAGE FESTIVAL MONITORING INFECTIONS

Organisers of the Matric Rage festival which kicks off in Balito in KwaZulu-Natal next week said they are closely monitoring the developments around the new COVID-19 variant but believe they have all measures in place to prevent a superspreader event.

READ: With possibility of COVID fourth wave, matrics urged to reconsider Rage events

Last year the NICD declared a cluster outbreak among young people who reportedly attended this event.

This year, there are strict protocols in place for matrics who want to attend. They need to be fully vaccinated, show a negative test result prior to arrival and agree to be tested twice during their stay.

Balito Rage is expected to kick off on Tuesday the first of a series of Matric Rage festivals which include Plettenberg Bay and Jeffreys Bay.

The Health Department is concerned about an uptick in the COVID-19 infection rate largely among young people in Gauteng.

Balito rage spokesperson Darren Sandras said they pride themselves on being one of the safest matric festivals in the country.

"We're also just learning about this now, and we're obviously keeping a close eye on it and if anything does change if there is any sort of update and guidance from government and the Department of Health we will act immediately but obviously we are following all the guidelines, all the precautions and protocols that are currently placed for an event of our size.”

Balito Rage has been operating for 19 years now and has drawn large groups of 18-year-olds mostly from Gauteng and surrounding areas.

EMERGENCY MEETINGS

Amid growing concerns, President Cyril Ramaphosa is meeting with the National Coronavirus Command Council.

The meeting was initially set to take place on Monday when the council would assess developments in the COVID pandemic and the newly detected variant but it was brought forward amid a raging debate over the international community’s reaction to the discovery of the Omicron variant
The United States is the latest country to bar travel to and from several Southern African countries, which comes into effect from Monday.

According to scientists, several countries including the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and Singapore have imposed travel bans on South Africa after the discovery of the new variant.

In a statement, Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele said the outcomes of Saturday’s meeting would give direction on whether further consultation would be required at the level of the president’s coordinating council.

This comes as the already battered tourism industry braces for further losses as tighter lockdown restrictions loom.