Travelers entering England from several South African countries have to put themselves under quarantine in the face of warnings of a new coronavirus variant.
UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said six countries would be added to the red list on Friday at 12:00 PM GMT, with flights being temporarily banned.
One expert described the variant known as B.1.1.529 as “the worst we’ve seen so far,” and there are concerns that it could bypass immunity.
No cases have been confirmed in the UK.
So far, only 59 confirmed cases have been identified in South Africa, Hong Kong and Botswana.
What do we know about this new variant?
What are the latest changes to UK travel rules?
All flights from South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini are suspended.
Mr Javid said the scientists were “deeply concerned” about the new variant, but more needs to be learned about it.
But he said the variant had a significant number of mutations, “maybe twice as many mutations as the delta variant”.
He added, “And that would suggest that it may be more transmissible and the current vaccines we have may be less effective.”
Adding the six countries to the Red List is about “being careful and taking action and trying to protect our borders as well as possible”.
As of Friday 12:00 noon, non-UK and Irish residents will be banned from entering England if they have been in the six countries in the last 10 days.
Any UK or Irish resident arriving from the countries after 4:00 a.m. on Sunday will be required to quarantine themselves in a hotel, with those who return before being asked to isolate themselves at home.
Those who have returned in the past 10 days will be asked by the UK Health Authority (UKHSA) to take a PCR test.
The flight ban will remain in effect until the hotel’s quarantine system is operational.
One scientist told me that this is the worst variant they have ever seen – if you look at it on paper, it’s not hard to see why.
It is the most heavily mutated variant to date and is now radically different from the form created in Wuhan, China.
That means vaccines designed with the original may not be as effective.
And some of its mutations are known to increase the ability of coronavirus to spread.
But there were many variants that looked bad on paper but didn’t decrease.
There are early signs that this virus is spreading in South Africa and may already be present in every province of the country.
But the big questions – how much does it avoid vaccines, is it more serious, does it spread faster than Delta – are unanswerable for now.
BBC Africa correspondent Andrew Harding said scientists in South Africa were trying to understand the mutations in the new variant, but all they knew was that it was far more transmissible.
He said it was unhappy with other countries’ new red list, and scientists said the country needed more support and more reward for spotting the new variant.
World Health Organization (WHO) experts will meet with South African officials on Friday to assess the developing situation in the country.
The new variant, which has been classified as a new variant by the UKHSA, is heavily mutated and the confirmed cases are mainly concentrated in one province in South Africa.
Scientists say the variant has 50 total mutations and more than 30 on the spike protein, which is the target of most vaccines and the key the virus uses to open the door to our body cells.
Experts in South Africa said the variant was “very different” from others that have been around, with concerns that it may be more transmissible but is also able to bypass parts of the immune system.
Prof. Ravi Gupta of the University of Cambridge said the new variant has the potential to evade immunity and increase infectivity.
Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London said it was about the new variant “causing a rapid increase in the number of cases in South Africa” and said the travel restriction was “prudent”.
However, he said it was not clear whether the variant was more transmissible or more resistant to vaccines, and therefore it was too early to assess the risk it posed.
Currently, around 500 to 700 people from South Africa travel to the UK every day, but this number is likely to have increased with the start of the festive season.
British Airways said it will be contacting affected customers and Virgin Atlantic said it will be reviewing its flight schedule to South Africa for the coming week, with flights from Johannesburg to Heathrow being canceled between 12:00 noon Friday and 4:00 a.m. on Sunday.
All countries that were still on the UK’s red travel list were removed in October.
Each UK nation sets its own guidelines, but they have generally followed the same rules for prior announcements.
Scotland is following the decision by the UK government that anyone traveling from the six countries will have to self-isolate and perform two PCR tests while hotel quarantine will apply from 04:00 GMT on Saturday.
Currently, fully vaccinated people traveling to the UK do not need to take a Covid test prior to departure, but rather complete a lateral flow test and a passenger search form two days after arrival.
Those who are not fully vaccinated and have reached the age of 18 must self-isolate at home for 10 days and take a Covid test in the three days before the trip and on the second and eighth days of their return.