How is Omicron Affecting Global Travel?
Omicron is the latest COVID variant to terrorize the world, originating in South Africa but slowly appearing in many countries. Initially, the variant was thought to be more dangerous and contagious than others, but early data is showing that it may be more contagious but less lethal.
Since there are many unknowns about Omicron, governments are playing it safe and re-implementing travel restrictions that in many cases were only recently lifted. In the US, Canada, the UK, and many other countries, new travel rules are already in effect, including a ban on visitors from South Africa.
The United States
On November 29, the Biden administration placed a blanket travel ban on visitors from South Africa, Lesotho, Eswatini, Botswana, Namibia, Malawi, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe. The move came only three weeks after travel restrictions had been lifted from about 30 countries.
Other inbound travelers – including US citizens, permanent residents, and visitors – must show a negative COVID test taken within a day before a flight. Airlines can accept both antigen and NAAT (nucleic acid amplification tests), including PCR. As of now, visitors do not have to take another COVID test when they land.
Due to the new travel restrictions, major US airlines have waived flight change fees for international and domestic flights. Certain airlines have also implemented their own policies, such as waiving fare differences for countries that have banned visitors, like Israel and Japan, or extending the credit for a canceled ticket until the end of 2022.
Canada has placed travel bans on the same African countries as the US, with the addition of Egypt and Nigeria. Canadian citizens and permanent residents who want to return to Canada from these countries must take a COVID test in a third country in order to do so.
Canada has also reinstated COVID testing upon arrival at the country’s airports for all visitors, except those from the US. All travelers ages five and up must show proof of a negative COVID test taken within three days of their departure. If the on-arrival test results are positive, travelers must quarantine for 10 days. If the results are negative, they can be released from quarantine.
The United Kingdom
In the UK, people coming into the country must show proof of a negative COVID test before they travel. They must also self-quarantine until they receive a negative PCR test on day two after landing. Anyone suspected of having Omicron must quarantine for 10 days, even those who are fully vaccinated.
Many European countries have instituted travel bans and/or restrictions, but they are constantly changing. Switzerland has been the first to ease travel rules, and other EU countries are in constant discussion about the matter.
Is the South Africa Travel Ban Effective (and Fair)?
Critics of international travel bans are saying that if Omicron is already spreading, why place a ban on South African travelers? Moreover, South Africa essentially acted as a “good citizen” and alerted the world to the new variant. Now it is being punished by travel bans. Will other countries be so quick to report variants?
There is no simple answer to these questions, except that governments are simply trying to do their best to contain a virus that seems uncontainable. As more data is collected about Omicron, countries will likely adjust their restrictions. For now, would-be travelers need to sit tight through their disappointment and hope that Omicron is less dangerous than previously thought so international skies can open up again.