Biden announces end to COVID-related southern Africa travel bans

The White House had already said it would end the restrictions but US President Joe Biden's proclamation makes the decision effective at 12:01 am in Washington on Friday (0501 GMT).

US President Joe Biden speaks during an event in the East Room of the White House on 23 August 2021 in Washington, DC. Picture: Drew Angerer/AFP

WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden formally announced Tuesday he will lift a ban this week on travel from South Africa and other countries in the region, imposed due to fear of the Omicron COVID-19 variant.

"The travel restrictions... are no longer necessary to protect the public health" and will end on Friday, Biden said in a proclamation.

The White House had already said it would end the restrictions but Biden's proclamation makes the decision effective at 12:01 am in Washington on Friday (0501 GMT).

Biden said that he was lifting the bans on the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noting that US researchers, "in collaboration with the South African scientists who originally reported the variant, have made substantial progress in understanding the Omicron variant."

While the COVID strain has now spread to more than 100 countries including the United States, the threat level is considered lower than initially feared because "scientific experts have determined that people who are vaccinated against COVID-19 are protected against severe disease," Biden said.

Countries around the world blocked travel from southern Africa after the variant was detected in South Africa, which reported Omicron to the World Health Organization (WHO) on 24 November.

WHO and the United Nations spoke out against the travel bans, while officials in South Africa said they were being punished for identifying the strain and being transparent.

The ban applied to South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi.