Umrah pilgrimages for Malaysians temporarily suspended from Jan 8 due to Omicron concerns

Mr Khairy Jamaluddin said ticket sales for new umrah pilgrimages would be suspended starting on Saturday. PHOTO: THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

PETALING JAYA (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Umrah pilgrimages for Malaysians will be temporarily suspended from Jan 8 while returning pilgrims will be subject to mandatory quarantine at designated centres from next Monday (Jan 3), said Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin.

He said the decision was made due to concerns over the Covid-19 Omicron variant especially among returnees from Saudi Arabia. Many were also found to have broken home quarantine rules and had problems complying with health protocols.

Mr Khairy said ticket sales for new umrah pilgrimages would be suspended, starting Saturday.

"There will be no travel for umrah purposes allowed after Jan 7 until a new date is announced in the future. Bookings for new umrah flight tickets are also suspended, with effect from today.

"Umrah pilgrims returning to Malaysia will have to observe mandatory quarantine at quarantine stations or hotels identified by the National Disaster Management Agency (Nadma) from Monday," he said at a press conference on Saturday.

Pilgrims departing for Saudi Arabia between Saturday and next Friday (Jan 1 and 7) will be allowed to proceed but will have to undergo quarantine at designated stations or hotels upon return to Malaysia.

"No Muslim minister would want to do this. It is not the intention of the government or the Health Ministry to stop umrah pilgrimages, but when the data that we receive is deeply concerning and there is a very worrying rise in cases, we have no choice but to temporarily suspend umrah travels.

"I'm very sorry to those who have planned to go," said Mr Khairy, adding that the temporary halt to umrah activities is expected to help reduce the risk of Omicron transmission in the country and slow the increase of Covid-19 cases in the country.

Associations representing travel agencies - the Association of Bumiputera Tourism Operators of Malaysia (Bumitra), the Umrah and Hajj Travel Agencies’ Association, and the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents - said that the postponement of umrah travel would lead to large financial losses to pilgrims, reported Sinar Harian daily on Saturday (Jan 1).

Bumitra secretary-general Ab Rahman Mohd Ali was quoted as saying the decision was made too hastily and creates a big impact on the umrah pilgrims and relevant tourist sectors including a huge loss of money due to cancellations.

As at Friday, there were a total of 64 confirmed Omicron cases, of which a total of 32 cases, or 50 per cent, were detected among umrah pilgrims, said Mr Khairy, adding that there were also nine clusters involving pilgrims as at Thursday.

The Institute for Medical Research (IMR) has also conducted PCR Genotyping Assay on 1,077 positive Covid-19 cases among returning travellers from Dec 21 to Dec 29, of which 966 samples were classified as possible (presumptive) Omicron cases, said Mr Khairy.

Of the 966 samples, 750 or 77.6 per cent involved travellers arriving from Saudi Arabia and the Health Ministry is still awaiting results for their whole genome sequencing (WGS) to confirm if they are Omicron cases.

Mr Khairy said large-scale gatherings involving travellers from various countries while in Saudi Arabia exposed umrah pilgrims to a high risk of getting Covid-19 infections including the Omicron variant.

This makes it difficult for pilgrims to comply with the umrah health protocols set by the Malaysian government.

"The large number of Malaysian umrah arrivals of about 800 to 1,000 a day (using four special flights) further increases the risk of importing Covid-19 cases and the Omicron variant into the country.

"Most of the pilgrims who return from performing umrah have applied to undergo quarantine at home or a residence for a period of seven days. However, when there is non-compliance to SOPs, Covid-19 cases among umrah pilgrims lead to the spread of infection among family members.

"Non-compliance with quarantine procedures at home has also exposed housemates or neighbours and relatives who come to visit to Covid-19 infections," said Mr Khairy.

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