The UK’s Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, has added six African countries—South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini—to the UK’s travel red list after the emergence of a new COVID-19 strain called B.1.1.529. 

From today, British travellers arriving from the six flagged African countries must quarantine when returning to the UK. Any residents from the aforementioned countries will be barred from entry into the UK. As it stands, the UK government will ban direct flights from the banned countries until proper quarantine facilities are put in place.

“Whilst South Africa respects the right of all countries to take the necessary precautionary measures to protect their citizens,” said Naledi Pandor, South Africa’s Foreign Minister. “The UK’s decision to temporarily ban South Africans from entering the UK seems to have been rushed as even the World Health Organization is yet to advise on the next steps. Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries.”

Currently, there are 59 known cases of the new B.1.1.529 COVID-19 variant in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana. The sheer density of mutations has raised fears that it may actually be more uncontrollable than previous iterations of the virus. Experts worry the variant may affect the strength of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19.

“The UK was the first country to identify the potential threat of this new variant and to alert international partners,” the Health Secretary told MPs. “Further cases have been identified in South Africa and in Botswana, and it is highly likely that it is now spread to other countries. We are concerned that this new variant may pose a substantial risk to public health.”

He added: “The variant has an unusually large number of mutations. Yesterday, the UK Health Security Agency classified B1.1.529 as a new variant under investigation, and the Variant Technical Group has designated it as a variant under investigation with very high priority. It’s the only variant with this designation, making it higher priority than Beta. It shares many of the features of Alpha, Beta and Delta variants. Early indications show this variant may be more transmissible than the Delta variant, and current vaccines may be less effective against it.”

The first B1.1.529 case in Europe has arisen in Belgium, despite the protective travel measures in place. Today, the World Health Organization’s technical team is expected to meet with South African officials to assess the situation.