The restrictions have sent shockwaves through South Africa's tourist industry, which has been looking to visitors from the wealthier northern hemisphere to bring in desperately-needed income.

A slew of nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday in reaction to news of a new, potentially more transmissible Covid-19 variant that has been detected in South Africa.
A slew of nations moved to stop air travel from southern Africa on Friday in reaction to news of a new, potentially more transmissible Covid-19 variant that has been detected in South Africa. (Jerome Delay / AP)

South Africa's health ministry attacked a global rush to impose travel bans to slow the spread of a new Covid variant as "draconian," unscientific and contrary to WHO advice.

The new strain, named Omicron, has been blamed for a surge in cases in South Africa, but has already been found in Hong Kong, Belgium, Israel and Botswana.

"We believe that some of the reactions have been unjustified," Health Minister Joe Phaahla told a news conference on Friday, accusing some leaders whom he did not name of seeking a "scapegoat."

The UK was the first to slap a flight ban from countries in southern Africa, just hours after South Africa revealed it had detected the variant which has multiple mutations.

Austria, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and the US are among others on Friday who joined the UK in restricting flights from the region.

The European Commission, the executive arm of the 27-nation European Union, also proposed a complete suspension of flights to and from southern Africa until there was a "clear understanding about the danger" posed by the new variant.

WHO cautious on travel bans

However, the UN's World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday urged against travel curbs at this stage.

The agency cautioned that it could take several weeks to find out whether the newly-discovered mutations made the virus more virulent or transmissible.

Phaala said that bans were "a wrong approach -- it's misdirected and goes against the norms and advice by the WHO".

"We feel some of the leadership of countries are finding scapegoats to deal with what is a worldwide problem," he said.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke to South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa in a call earlier Friday, his office said.

"They discussed the challenges posed globally by the new Covid-19 variant, and ways to work together to deal with it and reopen international travel," a Downing Street spokesperson said in a statement.

'Not scientific'

Comparing daily infections in South Africa and some European countries, minister Phaahla said the ban "really doesn't look scientific".

He said it was ironic that "some of the countries now reacting in this draconian manner" had infection rates of upwards of 50,000 new cases per day.

That compares to South Africa which reported nearly 3,000 daily cases on Friday, up from around 300 daily cases two weeks ago.

"That kind of reaction is knee-jerk and panic," he said.

Such responses could prompt countries to shy away from reporting new findings, he warned.

The restrictions have sent shockwaves through South Africa's tourist industry, which has been looking to visitors from the wealthier northern hemisphere to bring in desperately-needed income.

Source: AFP