Probably before travelers in the U.S. could even unpack their Thanksgiving holiday suitcases, news hit that a panel from the World Health Organization (WHO) named a new variant "Omicron" and classified it as a highly transmissible variant of concern, like the Delta variant. Omicron, a COVID-19 variant (aka B.1.1.529) with around 50 mutations, was detected in many countries after spreading in southern Africa. While South Africa's president, Cyril Ramaphosa, condemned travel bans, Omicron has now been detected in a number of countries around the world, including the UK, Italy, Germany, Australia, Israel, Hong Kong, Canada, Belgium and the Netherlands. While we do not know much yet about this variant, early evidence suggests it has a higher re-infection risk and due to this, many national reactions were swift, changing the travel landscape quickly.
Let's look around and consider how this new variant along with some previous COVID-19 infection surges and corresponding government responses are apt to impact global mobility within your program. Many countries have taken, or are in the process of taking, action to tighten their borders and restrict travel (each link below will take you to information on that specific country):
- Israel: One of the first to ban travel, Israel has deployed a 14-day blanket travel ban that started Monday, Nov. 29. In addition to the entry ban for non-Israelis, a three-day mandatory quarantine would be required for all vaccinated Israeli nationals, and a seven-day quarantine for those who have not been vaccinated. Israel placed 50 African nations on their "red" list. All Israeli nationals returning from those countries must quarantine in the government-approved hotels and undergo COVID-19 tests.
- Morocco: The Foreign Ministry announced that it is banning all air travel to the country for two weeks beginning on Monday, Nov. 29. The government said it would evaluate the move on a regular basis and will make “adjustments if necessary.”
- Japan: The country has announced a ban on all foreign travelers starting Tuesday, Nov. 30, joining Israel and Morocco. This reverses a move earlier in November to reopen its borders to short-term business travelers and international students. Travelers who are permitted to enter Japan will be required to quarantine at home, a private residence, or in a hotel for 14 days subject to approval by the Government of Japan. Prior plans to reduce the quarantine period to three or 10 days have been suspended.
- Indonesia: Officials decided to bar travel with Hong Kong (where two cases of the new variant were discovered) as well as the southern African region. Like others, Indonesia also banned travel from eight African countries and extended quarantine times for all arrivals due to concern of the new variant spreading.
- Australia: Australia has delayed its plan to reopen its borders to international students, skilled migrants and travelers from Japan and South Korea. The country was due to allow vaccinated skilled migrants and international students entry starting Dec. 1. This two-week delay is intended to allow them to consider issues like "the efficacy of the vaccine" and the impact of the variant. Australians will be allowed in but must quarantine for 14 days.
- United Kingdom: There are five cases of Omicron in England and six in Scotland with more expected, UK health officials report. Face coverings will become mandatory again in shops and on public transport. Also, as of Tuesday, Nov. 30, PCR tests will be required within 48 hours of arrival for everyone entering the UK and all contacts of new variant cases will have to self-isolate, even if fully jabbed. The PCR test must be booked before you travel, and bought privately from a government-approved list of providers. Have questions about passenger locator forms, COVID-19 testing and proof of vaccination? Then please review this for additional rules for traveling to the UK.
- United States: The U.S. issued a travel ban on Monday, Nov. 29 for travelers from eight African countries (Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe) although it does not apply to U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents. Per our friends at Newland Chase, the U.S. also announced that starting Jan. 22, 2022, it will require foreign national travelers engaged in essential travel to be fully vaccinated when crossing U.S. land borders or ferry terminals. U.S. citizens and permanent residents may still enter the United States regardless of their vaccination status but are subject to additional testing requirements. President Joe Biden has suggested that lockdowns are off the table and further travel restrictions are not currently being considered. The U.S. is though reportedly preparing to significantly narrow the testing window for travelers flying back to the United States, regardless of vaccination status, the Washington Post reported. The current policy, which has been in place since January, has been three days before departure.
- Austria: The country has entered its fourth nationwide attempt to break the current wave of COVID-19 infections. Austria is one of several European governments that are toughening their measures, and per the New York Times, "Most stores, restaurants, sporting venues and cultural institutions shut, leaving the streets cold and quiet in the weeks before Christmas." The lockdown only allows people to leave home to go to work or to procure groceries or medicines, and will last at least 10 days and as many as 20. As of Feb. 1, 2022, vaccines will be mandated. In response, nearly 40,000 people protested in Vienna. As of now, approximately 66% of Austrians have been vaccinated. For the most up-to-date information for traveling to Austria, try this.
- Singapore: Some countries proceeded with their plans to reopen on Monday, Nov. 29, like Singapore and Malaysia, which opened their land border. Per Voon Lee, managing partner at Voon & Associates, despite the current setback on the Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) arrangement with Denmark, Singapore continues its push in opening the border to countries of similar or lower COVID-19 incidence rates. Also starting Nov. 29, India and Indonesia will be added to the VTL scheme, followed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and UAE on Dec. 6. Additionally, Singapore and Malaysia are expected to reach an agreement in a few weeks time to extend the current flight-only VTL arrangement between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to include the land border crossing. By Dec. 6, Singapore would have implemented VTL arrangements with 21 countries — six in Asia, three in the Middle East, 10 in Europe and two in the Americas. Singapore has banned travelers from seven African countries from entering or transiting. Returning Singapore citizens and permanent residents will have to serve a 10-day stay-home notice (SHN) at dedicated facilities.
- Spain: Per Reuters, British tourists will only be admitted to Spain next month if they can show proof of a COVID-19 vaccination, according to a Spanish government bulletin published on Nov. 27, as the country tightened travel restrictions amid concern about the new Omicron variant. Also, visitors from "high-risk" areas will need to provide a negative COVID-19 test in addition to proof of vaccination.
- France: Per our friends at BAL, the French government has increased its testing requirements for unvaccinated travelers from 16 EU countries. Tests will not be required for trips by residents of cross-border areas (border within a 30 km radius of their residence and for a duration of less than 24 hours), minors under 12 years of age and fully vaccinated travelers. Additionally, starting Dec. 15, those over 65 must have had a booster jab to travel or visit restaurants and museums. It is not clear whether this will apply to UK visitors.
Just last week, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) called on governments to adopt simple, predictable and practical measures to safely and efficiently facilitate the ramping-up of international travel as borders re-open. With the emergence of Omicron complicating the situation, this could prove to be even more challenging.
I had also seen that vaccinated people could go hang out with hundreds of thousands of folks to celebrate on New Year's Eve in NYC to watch the ball drop! According to Mayor Bill de Blasio, "Join the crowd, join the joy, join a historic moment as New York City provides further evidence to the world that we are 100 percent back.” Just when things were looking up, many may be reconsidering that activity. But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves and continue to gather more information on Omicron over the next few weeks.
As temperatures drop and coronavirus infections spike across Europe, some countries are introducing increasingly targeted restrictions against the unvaccinated who are driving another wave of contagion and putting economic recoveries, public health and an eventual return to prepandemic freedoms at risk.