Pakistan on Saturday imposed a complete travel ban on six African countries and Hong Kong in the wake of the discovery of the new COVID-19 Omicron variant, first detected in South Africa. The National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) in a statement said consequent to the emergence of Omicron COVID variant in South Africa and its spread to adjoining regions, “a complete ban has been imposed on direct/indirect inbound travel" from South Africa, Hong Kong, Mozambique, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini and Botswana “with immediate effect".
NCOC is the principal body governing the policies and implementation of Pakistan’s COVID-19 effort. However, Pakistani passengers travelling from these countries “on extreme emergency" will only be allowed after obtaining exemptions, the NCOC said.
The passengers will have to follow health/testing protocols, including vaccination certificate, negative PCR report (maximum 72 hours old) before boarding and RAT (rapid antigen test) on arrival at airport. In case of a negative test result, travellers will have to home quarantine themselves for three days and undergo another rapid antigen test conducted by the civil administration on the third day. Those with positive results will have to quarantine for 10 days and undergo a polymerase chain reaction test on the 10th day, the statement said.
But to “facilitate stranded Pakistanis, travel from these countries till December 5 will be allowed without exemption(s), though the above-mentioned health and testing protocols will remain applicable", it said. The NCOC also directed the Aviation Division, airport management, and the Airport Security Force to devise a mechanism for screening passengers travelling from the seven countries via indirect flights and share its details with all relevant departments by November 29.
Meanwhile, Pakistan reported 411 new coronavirus cases in the last 24 hours, taking the total nationwide number of confirmed infections to 1,283,886, while seven people died overnight, pushing the death toll to 28,704, the health ministry said. The country has reported less than one per cent positivity rate during the last two weeks, it said.
The new potentially more contagious B.1.1.529 variant was first reported to the World Health Organisation (WHO) from South Africa on November 24, and has also been identified in Botswana, Belgium, Hong Kong, Israel and the UK. It was on Friday designated as a Variant of Concern by the WHO, which named it Omicron. A variant of concern is the WHO’s top category of worrying COVID-19 variants.
Countries around the world are currently racing to introduce travel bans and restrictions on southern African countries in an effort to contain Omicron’s spread. European countries along with the UK have banned travel to and from South Africa and neighbouring countries of Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, as well as Lesotho and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland), both of which are landlocked within South Africa.
Other countries include Bangladesh, Mauritius, Israel, Sri Lanka, the US and the Netherlands. Many other countries followed suit, most of them indicating that only their own citizens would be allowed back, subject to a quarantine period.
In New Delhi, the Indian government asked all states and union territories to conduct rigorous screening and testing of all international travellers coming from or transiting through South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana, where a new variant has been detected.