London, United Kingdom – In an attempt to prevent a breakout of new infections as the Omicron variant of coronavirus spreads, the UK slapped travel restrictions on Southern African states, including Nigeria, late last month.
But the countries concerned and their citizens have criticised the travel bans for their apparently selective nature. The restrictions were announced with little notice, and many have been forced to decide whether to cancel their Christmas plans.
Clarissa Bloom, a dating and relationship expert, had been saving for months for her trip to Cape Town, planned for December.
But she has now chosen against visiting her family members, who she has not seen since 2018.
“I feel devastated,” she told Al Jazeera. “Not being able to see my family this year is hard, as it will be the second year in a row I’ll be on my own at Christmas. I have friends who I can meet, but it’s not the same as spending it with your family.”
Under the new travel rules, Bloom, who works in the travel industry, would have to isolate in a hotel when she returns.
She said that she cannot afford the quarantine, which would also leave her dog without care for an undue number of days.
Now, she has an added worry – on whether she will be refunded the money she has spent so far.
“I was holding off [travelling] until the vaccines all came out, as I didn’t want my trip to be cancelled, but then I thought this was far enough away that it should be fine; I didn’t expect everything to change, so rapidly,” she said, adding she felt so reassured earlier this year when she booked that she did not buy travel insurance.
When the UK relaxed travel rules earlier this year, a traffic light system was introduced.
Each colour indicated a different threat level – travel to countries in the green list meant that people would not have to isolate when they returned.
Red-list countries would result in hotel quarantine measures.
The system was abandoned in October, but due to the discovery of the Omicron variant, the red list was revived.
It currently includes South Africa, Nigeria, Malawi, Botswana, Nambia, Angola, Eswatini, Lesotho, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.
Travellers from those countries now have to enter hotel quarantine at their own expense – a sum of 2,285 UK pounds ($3,018) for 10 days.
Critics say the cost is too high, especially as many travellers could isolate in their own homes.
Moreover, only UK or Irish nationals, or UK residents, are allowed to fly in from red list countries.
Those without UK residency would have to stay in a second country for 10 days to enter the UK.
Meanwhile, little is known about the transmissibility or severity of the Omicron variant, which was first reported in South Africa, but later found to have been detected in the Netherlands at an earlier date.
Other countries have also taken a precautionary stance against foreign travellers, particularly those from Southern African states, prompting backlash from some government officials and global bodies.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has referred to the bans as “travel apartheid”, saying they “are not only deeply unfair and punitive, they are ineffective.”
Sarafa Tunji Isola, Nigeria’s high commissioner to the UK, told the BBC media network “the travel ban is apartheid in the sense that we are not dealing with an endemic. We are dealing with a pandemic. Whenever we have a challenge, there must be collaboration.”
For those planning to see family in Nigeria this winter season, the news came as a shock.
Sarah told Al Jazeera that her mother, who is returning to the UK from Lagos, Nigeria, will have to quarantine in a hotel.
“It was so last minute,” Sarah said. “My mother’s flight is this week, so it has completely derailed everything. It’s frustrating because the decision lacks logic.
“This variant isn’t just present in Africa, it’s present in the UK and spreading within communities.”
This week, the Nigerian Centre for Disease Control reported a few more cases of the Omicron variant discovered in travellers from South Africa.
The UK Department of Health has said that 21 cases in England have been connected to travellers from Nigeria. So far, there have been more than 400 new cases of the Omicron variant in the country.
“Nobody is speaking about British Nigerians,” Sarah said. “Or British South Africans, people who have dual identities, because it’s not about wanting to go on holiday, it’s about wanting to go home.
“People I know are trying to find alternative routes to the UK, but why do we have to go through this when people would be very happy to isolate themselves in their houses?”
UK officials review the travel list every three weeks, and more countries could yet be added to the red list as the government seeks measures to avoid a lockdown in the coming Christmas period
About 146,000 people have died within 28 days of testing positive for COVID-19 in the UK since the pandemic began, one of the world’s worst tolls.