Germany to ban travel from South Africa over new Covid variant

Germany will ban most travel from South Africa to halt the spread of a new Covid-19 variant with a large number of mutations, acting Health Minister Jens Spahn said on Friday.

Simon's Town in South Africa
The bay of Simon's Town, South Africa. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Christian Selz

The new rules, starting Friday night, will affect travellers from South Africa and “probably neighbouring nations”, Spahn said.

After this date, only German nationals and people with residence rights will be allowed entry to Germany after visiting South Africa.

They must quarantine 14 days upon arrival back in Germany even if vaccinated.

“The last thing we need now is an introduced new variant that causes even more problems,” Spahn said.

The news comes after researchers announced the discovery of a worrying new Covid variant in the country that is believed to have around ten mutations. 

Not much is known about the new variant – which is still called B.1.1.529 as it hasn’t yet been given a Greek title by the World Health Organisation.

However, experts say that the extraordinarily high number of mutations suggest that it is highly infectious and particularly taxing on human immune systems. 

For comparison, the highly contagious Delta variant had two mutations, while Beta had three. 

South African Health Minister Joe Phaahla described the variant as “seriously worrying” and likely behind an “exponential” increase in reported cases in South Africa in previous days.

He said it had been striking how sharply the infection figures had risen in recent days – after months with very few positive tests.

There are also concerns that B.1.1.529 could be resistant to the Covid vaccines that have been developed so far, though scientists haven’t been able to determine this yet. 

“This newly discovered variant worries us, so we are taking proactive and early action here,” said Spahn. 

Tough restrictions

In a sign of the growing alarm around the new ‘supervariant’, the European Union separately called on states to prohibit travel from countries in southern Africa.

The EU’s executive “will propose, in close coordination with member states, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529,” EU chief Ursula Von der Leyen tweeted Friday.

When South Africa is bumped onto the ‘virus list’ this weekend, it will mark the second travel ban Germany has imposed on the country within a year.

South Africa was initially placed on the Robert Koch Institute’s virus variant list on January 30th over the discovery of the Beta variant, effectively banning all travel to and from the country for non-German citizens.

The move prompted a heartfelt campaign by a South African group comprised of workers, students and cross-border couples, who argued that their lives had come to a standstill during the course of the six-month block on travel.

It was kept in place for months despite the growing prevalence of Delta and diminishing traces of Beta in the country, but was eventually lifted in August. 

READ ALSO: Germany lifts ban on travel from South Africa, offering relief to students and cross-border couples

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Germany to charge €3 for rapid Covid tests

Germany is set to end free rapid Covid tests for all from July. In future they will cost €3.

Germany to charge €3 for rapid Covid tests

Vulnerable groups, however, will still be able to get the tests, known as Bürgertests, free of charge under the plans.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said: “I will make no secret of the fact that I would have liked to have continued the free citizenship tests for all.”

However, Lauterbach said the taxpayer-funded testing strategy is costing an average of a billion euros per month.

“The truth is – unfortunately, we can’t afford that in the tight budget situation that awaits us in autumn,” he said. 

€3 contribution from July

The new testing regulations are to apply from the start of July.

The concept foresees expenditures of €2.7 billion by the end of the year. If the government had continued to offer free tests for all, the costs would have been around €5 billion.

The federal government also plans to reduce the amount that is given to the test centres per test – from the current €11.50 to €9.50.

In future, free rapid tests will continue to be available for vulnerable groups, including children up to five years of age, women at the beginning of pregnancy, and visitors to clinics and nursing homes.

The states will have the option of taking over the co-payment of €3 for other groups as well.

Lauterbach had previously spoken out in favour of continuing to provide free Covid tests for people with symptoms who suspect they have Covid, as well as before large events. 

READ ALSO: Germany to scrap free Covid tests for all 

Bürgertests should in future continue to be used specifically where they bring the greatest benefit,” said Lauterbach after the health ministers’ conference.

Lauterbach said he negotiated with Federal Finance Minister Christian Lindner to come up with the new testing system. 

“The use of taxpayers’ money will become more effective, as not everything can be paid by the federal government in the long run, because our possibilities have reached their limits,” said Lindner. 

Autumn Covid wave

Lauterbach also warned of a severe Covid wave in autumn.

“A very difficult time lies ahead,” the Health Minister said. He said the health ministers across Germany would take a joint approach to tackling the pandemic.

READ ALSO: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan