Britain has added 10 African countries to its travel red list, and beefed up its testing requirements for overseas arrivals, a tactic copied by most EU countries and the likes of the US, Canada, India and Brazil.
But other nations have reacted even more anxiously to the emergence of the omicron variant, with some closing their borders entirely.
Considering the growing evidence that omicron is no more dangerous than previous variants, and that the existing vaccines should still provide protection, one can only assume – or, at the very least, hope – that these restrictions will be temporary.
Indeed, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has called for countries to end their travel bans. Dr Catherine Smallwood, Senior Emergency Officer at WHO’s Regional Office for Europe, said: “These types of interventions are not sustainable. Those types of extreme measures are not our recommendations.”
South Africa’s health minister Joe Phaahla suggested that GPs in the country have told him the majority of omicron infections have resulted in “mild” illness. He added: “Our clinicians have not witnessed severe illness”, although he admitted that “part of it may be because the majority of those who are positive are young people.”
On Saturday Israel became the first country to shut its borders completely in response to omicron, and it said it would use counter-terrorism mobile phone-tracking technology to try to contain the variant’s spread. It comes just four weeks after Israel reopened its borders to foreign tourists after a long Covid closure.
“The entry of foreign nationals into Israel is banned except for cases approved by a special committee,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s office said in a statement. The ban will last for at least 14 days. Returning Israeli citizens will be required to present a negative PCR test and quarantine themselves for three days if they have been vaccinated against the coronavirus, or seven days if they have not.
Bennett's government has also re-activated a controversial programme initiated under his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu early in the pandemic that allows the powerful Shin Bet internal security agency to track mobile phones as a viral containment measure. The programme faced legal challenges from civil liberties groups after its introduction last year, before it was halted.
Despite the border closure, four omicron cases have already been uncovered in Israel.
Hot on Israel’s heels, Japan said on Monday that it would also shut its borders to all foreigners.
Japanese returnees will have to quarantine in designated facilities, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida confirmed. “These are temporary, exceptional measures that we are taking for safety’s sake until there is clearer information about the omicron variant,” he said.
Even before the border closure, visits to Japan were highly restricted. Recent weeks have seen it ease the rules for business travellers, cutting their quarantine period from 10 days to three, but ordinary tourists were still barred.
Domestic and foreign business groups in Japan have lobbied the country’s government to ease border restrictions in line with other countries, so far to no avail.
The North African nation has also reacted extremely cautiously, banning all international flights.
Its Foreign Ministry said the decision was to “preserve the achievements realised by Morocco in the fight against the pandemic, and to protect the health of citizens.”
The UK’s Foreign Office advice reads: “The Moroccan government has announced the suspension of all flights to Morocco with effect from 11.59pm on 29 November for two weeks.”
On Friday, Switzerland banned direct flights from South Africa and the surrounding region, while also imposing quarantine restrictions on travellers from other countries where omicron cases have been identified.
As of November 30, this list consists of the following: Belgium, Botswana, Eswatini, Hong Kong, Israel, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Czech Republic, Egypt, Malawi, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Angola, Australia, Denmark, Zambia.
All arrivals from these countries must be fully vaccinated, show a negative Covid-19 test result (PCR or antigen), and self-quarantine for 10 days.
On November 28, The Philippines added seven European countries to a blanket travel ban that initially covered seven African nations.
Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary, The Netherlands, Switzerland, Belgium and Italy will remain on its red list until at least December 15, barring the entry of all travellers from these countries.
The ban initially covered arrivals from South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Eswatini, and Mozambique.
While the UK has targeted 10 African countries for travel restrictions, Argentina has said that all arrivals from the entire continent – from Morocco to Madagascar – must quarantine for 14 days. The rule also applies to anyone who has visited Africa in the previous fortnight. In addition, these arrivals must take a PCR test no more than 72 hours prior to departure, another at their entry point, and take a third upon completion of the isolation period.
Only vaccinated and recently tested arrivals from a limited number of countries (Australia, Brunei, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, India, Indonesia, Italy, Malaysia, the Netherlands, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States) can visit Singapore, and the emergence of omicron has prompted the city state to postpone the addition of Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia to its green list.
The UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia are connecting hubs for long-haul flights to Asia and were due to be added on December 5. They are also common transit points for countries in southern Africa, where the new variant was first detected. Singapore has yet to report an omicron case.
No stranger to border closures, having kept its doors firmly closed for the duration of the pandemic, Australia has responded to omicron by delaying its long-awaited reopening.
The tentative first step would have seen international vaccinated skilled migrants and international students from Japan and South Korea permitted to return from December 1, but that has now been pushed back by a fortnight.
The Australian government has said it is “working towards welcoming tourists back to our shores”, but no timetable has been issued.