SINGAPORE - New restrictions have been placed on travellers from several African countries by the Ministry of Health (MOH) amid reports of a potentially more contagious variant of the Covid-19 virus circulating in that region.
MOH said on Friday (Nov 26) that all travellers with recent travel history to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe will from 11.59pm on Saturday no longer be allowed to enter into or transit through Singapore.
This also applies to those who have obtained prior approval for entry into Singapore, as long as they have been in those countries in the past 14 days.
Returning Singapore citizens and permanent residents will have to serve a 10-day stay-home notice (SHN) at dedicated facilities.
The new variant, called B.1.1.529, was first detected in South Africa and is speculated to have caused a sharp rise in Covid-19 cases there.
Cases of infection with the variant have already been detected in Hong Kong, and scientists have suggested that it could reduce vaccine effectiveness because of the large number of mutations in its spike protein – 32, double the number of those associated with the Delta variant.
MOH said there are currently no cases of the variant here but that it is acting pre-emptively as the virus may be circulating in these seven countries.
“While the variant has been suggested to be more transmissible, there is currently insufficient evidence to determine if this variant is associated with any change in disease severity, antibody response or vaccine efficacy,” the ministry said.
“These aspects are being investigated. The Ministry of Health will evaluate the data as it emerges and review our border measures accordingly.”
The latest moves are a change from current rules, where anyone who has been to Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, and Zimbabwe are required to serve a 10-day stay-home notice at dedicated facilities.
Travellers from South Africa, previously a Category II country, used to be subjected upon arrival to a seven-day stay-home notice at their declared place of accommodation. It will now be placed under Category IV, similar to the other six countries.
MOH said these additional border restrictions will be in place for four weeks. The restrictions will be reviewed after this period if necessary.
Transport Minister S. Iswaran on Friday said that Singapore has airlinks with only one of the seven countries. There is one flight from South Africa to Changi Airport every day, with most passengers on board in transit.
“The volumes are very low...and I am informed that it’s under 10 a day. But I think this is an important precautionary measure and is part of our larger strategy and approach to the opening of our borders,” he said.
“We have to wait for further information to establish the detailed characteristics. We must be prepared that as part of our careful, calibrated opening, there may be instances where we have to recalibrate and tighten our safeguards even as we seek to ease the safeguards in other contexts.”
Measures being taken elsewhere
Countries reacted with alarm yesterday to a new Covid-19 variant spreading in southern Africa, with numerous nations announcing stricter border controls.
Malaysians are banned from visiting South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe from today.
All non-citizens and people without permanent residency who have a recent travel history to the seven countries will be barred from entering. Citizens and permanent residents will be allowed to return, but will have to undergo a 14-day quarantine.
India issued an advisory to all states to rigorously test and screen international travellers from South Africa and other "at risk" countries.
Germany will declare South Africa a virus variant area, Health Minister Jens Spahn said. Airlines will transport only German residents back to Germany, with a 14-day quarantine applying to all returning, including those who are vaccinated.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG