How the omicron variant of coronavirus affects your travel plans

(CNN) — The discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus has left governments around the world in a bind. And that has led to a steady stream of increased travel restrictions since the World Health Organization (WHO) designated B.1.1.529 as a “variant of concern” on November 26.

Little is known about the new variant, called omicron, including how it will affect infected people or the levels of effectiveness provided by vaccines against it.

But officials in many countries are taking no chances. Major travel destinations have taken action to block flights from several southern African countries after the discovery of the omicron variant, while others are restricting travel from affected areas to citizens only.

For those who hoped the worst of the pandemic was in the rearview mirror and could finally make belated jaunts abroad, the news is a shock and raises multiple questions.

Here are some of the biggest ones that might be on the minds of travelers right now.

How are countries reacting to the new variant?

European countries suspend flights from South Africa for new variant 2:23

Would-be travelers could be forgiven for feeling a bit of deja vu right now. The race to introduce new entry restrictions and cancel flights bears strong similarities to the global travel freeze that crushed the international tourism community when Covid-19 began to spread in early 2020.

Cases of omicron have been found on several continents; countries including Germany, Canada, Italy, Israel and Hong Kong reported cases Monday morning. But most of the new restrictions focus on southern African countries.

For example, New Zealand now bans travel from nine southern African countries due to concerns about the new omicron variant: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Seychelles, Malawi and Mozambique.

Only New Zealand citizens can travel from these countries.

Some countries are canceling flights from various southern African countries entirely, while others are imposing new quarantine restrictions on travelers arriving via certain destinations.

Japan has taken a stricter approach. From November 30, it will be closed to non-nationals, including international students or people visiting relatives.

I do not travel to Africa. Are my projects in danger?

Travelers are advised to take out insurance to cover covid related issues. Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images

The situation is incredibly fluid right now. As noted above, cases are already emerging in other countries, from Canada to Australia, which means more restrictions could be imminent.

With few exceptions, the governments of most countries allow citizens and permanent residents of Southern African countries to return home.

As we have seen in 2020, the situation can change quickly, so travelers are advised to keep up to date with the latest news.

It’s also wise to take the extra step of signing up for your government’s online whistleblowing program. For U.S. citizens and nationals, the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service that allows those traveling and living abroad to register their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate. close.

STEP sends important information to the Embassy about security conditions in specific destinations and enables Embassy officials to contact you in case of an emergency.

How long will these restrictions last?

It is too early to tell.

The United States is restricting travel from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi starting Monday, administration officials told CNN.

President Joe Biden told reporters he “decided we were going to be careful” about the variant. “We don’t know much about the variant except that it’s a big concern and it seems to be spreading quickly,” he said.

This appears to be the case in other countries, in an effort to slow the spread of infections as they work to determine the severity of this supposedly more infectious new variant and whether vaccines provide protection.

The world is in a “race against time” with the Omicron variant of the coronavirus, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Sunday.

And in terms of travel safety?

There is still a lot that scientists still don’t know about the novel coronavirus variant. But the best thing you can do right now is get vaccinated, according to Dr. William Schaffner, professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Getting vaccinated is essential for two reasons, he said.

The first is the delta variant. “It’s the virus that’s here, right now, in every community, spreading,” Schaffner said. “But #2, and it has to do with omicron, our vaccines are likely to provide at least partial protection. And partial protection is always better than no protection.”

The other essential security measure remains the wearing of a mask in public.

Schaffner’s advice on travel is largely the same as before the discovery of the new variant.

Make sure you’re vaccinated, wear a mask, social distance as much as possible while traveling, and think carefully about what you’re going to do once you get there, which likely puts you at higher risk than the trip itself. -same.

“If everyone is going to hug and kiss and take their masks off, that’s fine. But you have to have a rule, you have to discuss it with your family or your friends,” Schaffner said. “That means everyone needs to be vaccinated, and you can do what our family did before Thanksgiving: We all got tested. And not only were we vaccinated and backed up, but we came back negative. Now, if you start taking control that way, then you can do your travels and meetings and social events with very low risk.

Are there health reasons right now for canceling plans, like a trip to New York, for example?

“I don’t think so, but remember, I’m a very careful traveler,” Schaffner said.

“I’m vaccinated and boosted. I wouldn’t want to go to New York for a meeting unless I’ve had a conversation with everyone and told them ‘I’m not going to show up in New York unless everyone everyone at this meeting is vaccinated.” Therefore, you have the right to set rules for yourself and for the people you are going to be in contact with.

A trip that involves a lot of shopping and going to the theater, eating in crowded restaurants and going to your favorite bar in New York is another story.

“If you want to do all of that, yes, you’re taking more risk, but it really has nothing to do with omicron. It has to do with delta right now,” Schaffner said.

I have already booked international travel plans. Should I cancel?

For those who have booked international travel for the upcoming winter holiday season, the timing is truly unfortunate.

At this time, it is too early to tell whether the new variant will lead to more restrictions on international travel.

Experts say those who have weighed the risks and decided to book would do well to ensure they have a comprehensive covid-19 insurance plan in place to offset all odds, and ensure their airline/ hotel has a flexible cancellation policy.

“The most important thing is to pay attention to flexible booking policies,” Rory Boland, editor of the British consumer magazine, told CNN.or which one?

“A lot of holiday companies and airlines have them, but there’s a big difference between what they do and what they don’t cover. “Some will cover almost every eventuality if restrictions are introduced even in the country you are traveling to. They will rebook you for free. Others cover very little, while promoting flexible bookings.”

“So book with a vacation company or airline with a truly flexible policy and get comprehensive travel insurance covered against almost any change. Peace of mind is what travelers want, and that’s as well as you get it.”

Will these travel bans and restrictions really work?

Travelers are advised to take out insurance to cover covid related issues. Phill Magakoe/AFP/Getty Images

As mentioned, governments are trying to buy time while calculating the potential impact of omicron.

But some officials criticize the restrictions as unfair and ineffective. The WHO Regional Office for Africa said on Sunday it stood with African nations and called for borders to remain open as more countries around the world impose flight bans .

The bureau said countries should adopt a science-based, risk-based approach and implement measures that can limit its possible spread.

“The implementation of travel bans targeting Africa undermines global solidarity,” said WHO Regional Director for Africa Matshidiso Moeti.

“Covid-19 constantly exploits our divisions. We will only get the most out of the virus if we work together to find solutions.” Travel restrictions may play a role in slightly reducing the spread of Covid-19, but “they place a heavy burden on lives and livelihoods”.

Meanwhile, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has warned against travel bans, stressing that such restrictions are “not a long-term solution” when it comes to dealing with variants of the coronavirus.

“Governments are responding to the risks of the novel coronavirus variant in emergency mode causing fear among travellers. We need to build on the experience of the past two years as soon as possible to move to a coordinated and data-driven approach who finds alternatives.” border closures and quarantine,” IATA Director General Willie Walsh said in a statement.

Includes reporting from CNN’s Marnie Hunter, Laura Smith-Spark, Ivana Kottasová, Caitlin McGee, Martin Goillandeau, Sharon Braithwaite and Julia Buckley.

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