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‘I should have been more forceful’- SA fights to get off UK’s red list

South African scientists, the ministerial advisory committee and members of the health department will meet UK scientists tomorrow to seek an explanation for why SA is still on Britain’s Covid red list.

The meeting comes amid outrage across Africa, Latin America and South Asia at the UK’s refusal to recognise vaccines administered in many parts of the world.

Under new rules, travellers fully vaccinated with Oxford/AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna or Janssen shots in the US, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea or an EU country will be considered “fully vaccinated” and exempt from quarantine in Britain when they arrive from a country not on the red list.

But people who have been fully vaccinated with the same vaccines in Latin America, parts of Africa, including SA, and other countries, including India, will be considered “not fully vaccinated” and forced to quarantine.

The seven-person South African delegation, led by health department acting director-general Nicholas Crisp, will meet virtually with UK counterparts in an effort to allay concerns that the Beta variant of Covid is still circulating in SA.

“We are just taking a small delegation of people who understand exactly how the science in our system and laboratories is working and will be talking to the people who provide the advice to their government,” Crisp told the Sunday Times. “They will ask us questions and we will hopefully be able to provide the answers that they need.”

The meeting was brokered by the UK high commission, said Crisp, adding that it was “very amicable”.

“It’s really about trying to understand one another’s concerns.”

British citizens are not banned from travelling to and from countries on its red list. But on return they need to quarantine, at their own expense, for 10 nights in a designated hotel at a cost of £2,285 (about R46,500) a person.

Britain removed Kenya, Egypt, Turkey, Pakistan, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Oman from its red list this week.

International relations & co-operation minister Naledi Pandor told the Sunday Times she had been surprised by the decision [not to include SA]. “I had spoken to the foreign secretary and indicated to him the progress that South Africa has made with respect to the third wave,” she said.

“They say the Beta variant is still prevalent in South Africa and that the numbers are not declining in the manner that our government says. I’m surprised.

“They appear to have inadequate information. If they’d asked for information, obviously we would have made sure that they did have the facts.”

They appear to have inadequate information

International relations & co-operation minister Naledi Pandor

Pandor said the department had been trying for weeks to talk to the UK government, but did not get detailed responses.

“I should have been more forceful. But I did not imagine that the UK was not following the very transparent reports that South Africa provides. Their decision is not founded in the reality of South Africa’s data.”

Pandor told CNN: “We regard … keeping us on the red list as a political punishment of some kind. We do not understand it.”

Yesterday, Pandor was flying to SA from New York and could not be contacted to explain what she meant by “political punishment”.

The UK is SA’s biggest overseas tourist source market. In 2019, 436,559 British visitors came to SA, spending R181m a week. It is also SA’s biggest outbound market.

In an interview with the African Travel & Tourism Association, UK high commissioner to Kenya Jane Marriott said her country had been able to demonstrate that the Delta variant, which is dominant in the UK, accounted for “nearly 100%” of Kenya’s infections.

SA, with its better scientific capability, had been able to prove that it was free of Beta and yet remained on the red list, David Frost, CEO of the Southern Africa Tourism Services Association (Satsa), told the Sunday Times.

“[Marriott] says her team was able to provide the information that Kenya was Beta-free to the UK authorities,” he said.

“This is exactly what we did to the UK South African high commission. Yet with a far less robust scientific community and capacity, the Kenyan case is heard and removed and the South African one is not. It’s a shocking admission.

He estimated that SA had lost R6bn – or R26m a day – in tourism revenue since January as a result of being on the list.

Satsa deputy chair Oupa Pilane said that “by continuing with this red list [the UK] is saying that the suffering of the poorest South Africans must continue”.

The UK had not red-listed countries that were “doing worse than us”, said Pilane.

Marc Mendelson, professor of infectious diseases at the University of Cape Town, said that in the first three weeks of September, “not one Beta variant was sequenced”.

SA had carried out about 6,800 genomic sequences in which variants are analysed, he said.

“Beta is not circulating in SA.”

Mendelson cautioned, however, that UK scientists could be interpreting the available data differently.

“They may be using data we have not seen and we need to understand where the differences lie,” he said.

The British high commissioner’s office in SA said though SA’s falling caseload and the increasing number of vaccinations were positive developments, the Beta variant was still a worry.

“While [involving] a small number of cases, the continued presence of the Beta variant in the community remains a concern, given its potential ability to circumvent vaccines,” said Isabel Potgieter, the high commissioner’s spokesperson.

“We do not want the current travel restrictions between South Africa and the UK to be in place any longer than necessary,” she said.

“We hope current positive trends will continue and will allow red-listing to be removed as soon as conditions allow.”

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