By Bassey Udo
Nigeria and 10 other countries included last week in UK’s red list of those perceived to be possible destinations with high prevalence of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 have been removed.
Following the review of the latest risk assessment from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), the UK Embassy in Lagos said Nigeria and the other 10 countries and territories on the red list have been removed from 4am on Wednesday December 15 as Omicron becomes the dominant strain around the world.
Consequently, passengers arriving from Nigeria, Angola, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe will not have to stay in a managed quarantine hotel on arrival in England from this date.
The UK Embassy in Nigeria which announced the decision of its government said pre-departure tests and PCR testing measures on or before day 2 after arrival remain in place, with a review of all travel measures in the New Year.
The decision to include Nigeria in the list by the UK goverment last week kicked up a major diplomatic row between the two countries, as Nigeria threatened retaliatory actions to force a reversal.
As Omicron cases rise in the UK and in countries around the world, the travel red list is less effective in slowing the incursion of the variant from abroad, hence the decision to review the temporary measures now considered no longer proportionate.
The UK authorities however insist the red list decision has successfully served its purpose in delaying the spread of Omicron into the UK to buy time for scientists to learn more about this variant of COVID-19.
With the latest developments, the UK authorities said all vaccinated passengers arriving in the UK must continue to take a pre-departure test two days or less before they depart for the UK and must take a PCR test on or before day 2 and self-isolate until they receive a negative result.
These testing measures, it said, were vital in helping to prevent any additional cases of Omicron from entering the UK and stopping people from passing it on to others.
“This is a critical phase in tackling the Omicron and the Government’s focus remains on slowing the spread of the variant in the UK – through maintaining testing requirements at the border, through the introduction of Plan B measures, and by turbocharging the booster rollout,” the Embassy said in its statement.
British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, said:
“On Tuesday 14th December, UK Ministers made the decision – based on scientific and public health data – to remove Nigeria from the UK’s travel red list.
“The emergence of the Omicron variant is a reminder that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and like all countries around the world, the UK has had to take difficult decisions to protect public health.
Laing said the UK government took the precautionary action, which it considered necessary to give time for it to understand the challenge it and others faced, and to slow down the spread of Omicron.
She said the decision was also to give scientists the opportunity to urgently assess what impact the variant had on vaccines, treatments and transmissibility.
The Ambassador noted that when the announcement about the inclusion of Nigeria and other countries in the red list was made, the heightened restrictions by the relevant UK authorities made it clear that they would be removed as soon as we could.
“I know this will be welcome news for students, tourists, businesses and families in the UK and Nigeria, although I recognise the impact that these temporary health measures have had,” Laing said.
The Health and Social Care Secretary, Sajid Javid said the red list bought UK scientists time to learn more about Omicron and to slow the seeding of the variant from abroad into the UK.
He said now that there are high levels of community transmission, the UK authorities have now found that it was the right time to remove the red list and focus on its national effort to tackle Omicron.
“With cases doubling every two to three days, we’ve turbocharged our booster programme, we’re asking arrivals to keep testing to limit the spread of new cases, and we are introducing Plan B measures to protect the country from the threat of this new variant,” he said.
While all countries have now been removed from the red list, he said the managed quarantine hotel policy remains in place to act as a crucial line of defence against the importation of variants of concern.
He warned that restrictions would be re-imposed should there be a need to do so to protect public health.
“Airlines will continue to check all passengers for pre-departure tests, alongside their completed Passenger Locator Form, and passengers will not be allowed to board a flight without providing evidence of a negative test result.
“The government will take further action if necessary to contain the virus and the new variant, as has been the case throughout the pandemic,” he said.
The official said the UKHSA would continue to monitor the situation closely, in partnership with scientific and public health organisations across the world, while the government was working collaboratively with the World Health Organisation and countries around the world to better understand the new variant.