Dutch test for new variant after 61 Covid-19 cases from South Africa

Around 600 passengers faced hours of delays and testing due to concerns over the new virus variant. PHOTO: REUTERS

AMSTERDAM (REUTERS) - Dutch health authorities said that 61 people who arrived in Amsterdam on two flights from South Africa on Friday tested positive for Covid-19, and they are conducting further testing on Saturday to see if people are infected with the recently discovered Omicron coronavirus variant.

Around 600 passengers arrived at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport on the two KLM flights on Friday and then faced hours of delays and testing due to concerns over the new virus variant.

The Dutch Health Ministry said on Saturday that 61 tests had come back positive.

"Travellers with a positive test result will be placed in isolation at a hotel at or near Schiphol," health authorities said in a statement.

"Of the positive test results, we are researching as quickly as possible whether they are the new variant of concern, now named Omicron."

The Dutch government banned all air travel from southern Africa early on Friday. Health Minister Hugo de Jonge said that passengers already en route to the Netherlands would have to undergo testing and quarantine upon arrival.

Dutch health authorities said on Saturday they would also seek to contact travellers who had arrived from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe since Monday and urge them to take a test as soon as possible.

The passengers from Friday's flights were kept separated from other travellers and those who tested positive are being kept in isolation at a hotel near the airport.

A spokesman for the health ministry said it would not be known until later on Saturday whether any of passengers are infected with the new variant.

A spokesperson for KLM, the Dutch arm of Air France, said the airline was trying to determine what rules were in place as of Friday morning to prevent people with Covid-19 infections from boarding the flights, which departed from Cape Town and Johannesburg.

Rules on the company's website said passengers had to present a negative Covid-19 rapid antigen test result taken 24 hours before departure but were not required to show proof of vaccination.

Passengers on the two KLM flights, from Cape Town and Johannesburg, said they were kept waiting on the tarmac for hours.

"Vigorous applause because there is a BUS that has come to take us... somewhere," tweeted New York Times journalist Stephanie Nolen, a passenger on the flight from Johannesburg.

"Bus to a hall to a huge queue. I can see Covid-19 testers in bright blue PPE (personal protective equipment) far on the distance. Still no snacks for the sad babies," she added in a second tweet.

Ms Paula Zimmerman, a Dutch photographer who returned from a family visit in South Africa on Friday morning, said the situation for the passengers on the planes was chaotic, as they were kept waiting on the tarmac and in the terminal for hours.

Ms Zimmerman was told she had tested negative at 4am, almost 18 hours after landing in Amsterdam, but said she then found out she was standing right next to a man who knew he had tested positive for an infection.

"It was really weird. There was no coordination. There were too few people and there really wasn't anybody who took control."

Having spent hours on a flight that likely had many infected passengers made Ms Zimmerman anxious for the days to come, she said.

"I've been told that they expect that a lot more people will test positive after five days. It's a little scary the idea that you've been in a plane with a lot of people who tested positive."

A spokesman for the health authorities in Kennemerland, the Dutch region that oversees Schiphol, said the positive cases were being analysed by a Dutch academic medical hospital to determine whether they are the new strain.

The Dutch flight ban does not mean that all flights from southern Africa to the Netherlands are halted, as Dutch citizens are allowed to return home, while EU citizens are allowed entry in transit to their home countries.

Medical staff, airline crews and people with pressing needs are also still allowed to travel. KLM will continue flights to the region, but travellers need to stay in quarantine for at least five days upon arrival in the Netherlands.

The new variant has been detected just as many European countries are grappling with a surge in coronavirus cases.

The Dutch government separately on Friday announced the nighttime closure of bars, restaurants and most stores as it grapples with a record-breaking wave of Covid-19 cases that is swamping its healthcare system.

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