New Covid Omicron variant comes at terrible time

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While US operators were taking a well-deserved rest after the busiest Thanksgiving ever at the end of last week, South African operators were dealing with devastating new travel restrictions.

On Tuesday (November 23rd), South African researchers identified a worrying new Covid-19 variant initially termed B11.529 and now called Omicron. Scientists say that the variant is the most mutated version of the virus they have seen to date. It may also be causing a sudden rise in cases.

Just three days later, the UK government said that travellers from South Africa and five other countries arriving after noon on Friday (November 26th) would need to quarantine for two weeks in a hotel.

“It is an absolute nightmare. It feels like it has come from almost nowhere and will ruin our peak Christmas season. This is the time when we fill our hangars, our FBOs and charter flights,” said one large operator. “It won’t just stop people flying out of South Africa but also those who want to come in.”

Israel, Singapore, Japan and the European Union, the UK and other many other nations have all announced similar restrictions. This isn’t just a blow to South Africa, but also to Antarctic flights which leave from Cape Town. The US has said it is reviewing the situation but is not likely to act as fast.

South Africa has fantastic gene sequencing facilities so it is no surprise it has found the variant. Cases of  Omicron have now been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong, Botswana, Israel, and Belgium, the UK and other places. The Hong Kong case was detected from someone who was in the city’s mandatory three-week quarantine.

The new restrictions come at a terrible time for South Africa. The peak tourist season runs from the start of November to February. South Africa says that tourism accounted for 3% of the country’s economy in 2019 and 4.5% of all jobs.

South Africa’s economy was hit hard by some of the world’s strictest lockdowns and international travel restrictions in 2019 and 2020. It has 34.4% unemployment. The UK – which is the country’s biggest tourist market – only removed the country from its red list (which forces two weeks quarantine for visitors) on October 11th.

Scientists say that they are still learning about Omicron and it will be several weeks before they can judge how serious the mutation is. Governments can quickly remove restrictions if it is found to be less serious.

South Africa has a very mature business jet market and some very good companies will get through this. But this is the last thing they deserve.

Frosty outlook: The discovery of the new Covid-19 Omicrom variant comes at a terrible time for South African operators and Antarctic travel.

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