Britain is gradually easing COVID-19 travel restrictions among African countries on its so-called red list at highest risk of spreading coronavirus. However, South Africa remains on the list, despite a decline in infections. The status is taking a toll on South African tourism and people wanting to visit their families in Britain.
Lynne Philip hasn’t seen her son and two grandchildren, who live in England, in four years.
The 70-year-old Johannesburg resident had a flight booked to visit them last year when the pandemic struck, canceling all travel.
Now, she’s fully vaccinated with two Pfizer shots and desperate to go.
But Philip says Britain’s “red list” designation for South Africa is making it impossible.
“I can't afford to go into quarantine there. Timewise it's going to be a problem. It cuts too much into your travel, into your visiting time. We do speak on Zoom, but it's not the same. I just would like to be able to see my family,” she said.
Philip is not alone. Over 29,000 people have signed a Change.org petition calling on British lawmakers to ease travel restrictions for South Africans — with many describing anguish over family separation.
The UK Embassy in South Africa reiterated the decision this week, saying it remains concerned about the presence of the beta variant and “its potential ability to circumvent vaccines.”
But Dr. Michelle Groome, with South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases, says that rationale is at odds with the science.
“This doesn't make any sense at all, because delta is now making up, I think it's in excess of 96% of our sequences at the moment, and so beta is really not a concern at all. I don't see that there's any difference between us and say, Kenya or India or anyone else that has now been taken off the ‘red list.’”
Africa’s Centres for Disease Control is also calling on the United Kingdom to review its position.
The center says immunized Africans, who are receiving the same vaccines as people in Europe, should be recognized equally.
While the United States has restricted entry for South Africans, the White House announced earlier this week that it will lift that rule for those who are fully vaccinated beginning in November.
Several European countries have already made that shift.
Ina Gouws, a political scientist at the University of the Free State, says it’s hard not to read Britain’s restrictions as political.
“There is reason to think that the region is being treated differently. When there are no clear answers based in fact, speculations start to happen, and that can be dangerous and certainly not good for diplomatic relations. The messaging is one, then, of prejudice. And it is not upon our diplomatic channels to ascertain why this is,” Gouws said.
Dr. Groome says barring vaccinated travelers also sends the wrong message to the public about the effectiveness of vaccines.
“We are trying very hard to promote vaccines in our country, and as with many countries are, you know, struggling a little bit with that faction who are hesitant to receive the vaccines. And in this case, you know, then it makes people question as to as to why, perhaps with the vaccines that we're giving are not as good as those being used elsewhere, which is obviously not correct,” Groom said.
The economic toll of the “red list” has also been crippling because the UK is the biggest source of tourists for South Africa.
David Frost, chief executive of South Africa’s inbound tourism association, says the disappearance of British travelers is costing the country $1.7 million a day.
“We've got a precious conservation base, which is one of the world's best that is under total threat, because there's no income, there's no money for anti-poaching activities. One in seven South Africans is putting food on the table because of tourism. And when tourism suffers, that means the people don't eat,” Frost said.
South Africa’s international relations minister, Naledi Pandoor, has echoed those concerns and is appealing to British officials to have the decision reversed.
Frost says he hopes the added political push will pay off when the UK reviews its “red list” in coming weeks.