A huge reprieve came the way of African airlines following the removal of many of the countries from the United Kingdom’s red list. Nigeria, South Africa, Eswatini, Namibia, Botswana, Mozambique, Lesotho, Malawi,  Zambia, and  Zimbabwe had found themselves on the infamous red list following the outbreak of the Omicron variant of COVID-19. But in a statement on December 14, the UK government said that all eleven countries will be removed from the red list from 4 am today. Relief for African air travel as UK scraps red list.

The red list for the African countries was introduced in late November as a precaution after the emergence of the Omicron variant. But Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the mutation of the virus first found in South Africa had spread so widely that the rules no longer had many purposes. “Now that there is community transmission of Omicron in the UK and Omicron has spread so widely across the world, the travel red list is now less effective in slowing the incursion of Omicron from abroad,” he told parliament.

Airlines laud action

The Airlines Association of Southern Africa (AASA) is relieved that sense has prevailed and the UK has decided to relax the travel restrictions that were hastily imposed on South Africa and other Southern African countries.

“It was clear from the start that restrictions, the intentions of which are debatable, were counter-productive and ineffective”, an AASA statement says. “We trust that policymakers and political leaders will take their lead from science and harmonize their adoption of measures for safe air travel that are recommended by the World Health Organisation and its UN sister body, the International Civil Aviation Organisation.”

“At the same time, governments that have imposed restrictions on air travel ought to provide financial relief to airlines, their service providers, and employees who have all been negatively affected by these restrictions,” said AASA CEO, Aaron Munetsi.

Travel experts welcome decision

Managing Director, Tour Brokers, one of the members of the National Association of Nigeria Travel Agencies (NANTA), Mrs. Uloma Egbuna said the lifting of the ban and scrapping of the red list is a welcome development which would also open the doors for people to take to air travel.

She noted that the ban while it lasted affect travel within the African continent, describing the UK’s action as ‘travel apartheid’ in most parts of the region. She further stated that the situation hampered air travel to the point that it had a great economic impact not only on the countries on the red list but on the UK’s economy.

Former President of NANTA, Bernard Bankole described the announcement as great news to the ear, adding that with this, air travel would bounce back at a period that is the season for travel. “I think common sense prevailed and they saw the need to scrap the list which is very discriminatory. Singling out African countries is very unfair, non-scientific, and discriminatory.”

He added: “We also need to be aware that Africa’s scientists discovered this Omicron variant and alerted the world to it. How can we be the victim of what we alerted the world of? You can’t begin to victimize people. Why kill an ant with a sledgehammer. Africa needs to use the power they have to speak with one voice. It is good for us and good for them. We expect travel to bounce back. The season is festive positive.”

There has been outrage from countries placed on the red list, many of which were African countries since the British government instituted the fresh restrictions. Some have likened the travel restrictions to former colonial policies which imposed race-based segregation on the basis that Africa was the ‘source’ of deadly diseases.

Last week, IATA Director-General Willie Walsh said in a media briefing that aviation isn’t to blame for the spreading of Omicron. “These variants can appear anywhere, that’s the reality. We will have more variants. But as the World Health Organization (WHO) says: don’t penalize the countries that find them. The idea that you don’t have variants when you don’t fly is just complete nonsense.”

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