Four more countries have been added to the red list after a new Covid-19 variant was detected in the UK for the first time.
Angola, Mozambique, Malawi and Zambia are now being added to the travel ‘red list’ from 4am on Sunday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced.
It comes after the government banned flights from South Africa, Botswana, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Namibia on Friday.
Mr Javid said: “We’ve been always very clear that we won’t hesitate to take further action if that is what is required.
“If anyone has travelled to any of these four countries, or any of the other recently red-listed countries in the last 10 days, then they must self-isolate and take PCR tests.”
The new Covid variant was found in parts of southern Africa and has now been designated a variant of concern by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The government has introduced the travel bans in a bid to minimise the risk of having to impose further domestic restrictions during the Christmas period.
It comes after Sajid Javid warned on Friday that the Omicron variant could “pose a substantial risk to public health”.
“It may also impact the effectiveness of one of our major treatments,” he said.
He added that the variant was of “huge international concern” and it was “highly likely” it had spread to other countries.
“We are concerned that this new variant may pose substantial risk to public health. The variant has an unusual large number of mutations,” he said.
Researchers say that while there are hints the variant – which carries a combination of mutations that makes it concerning – could be more transmissible, travel restrictions allow time for more data to be collected.
Dr Jeffrey Barrett, director of the Covid-19 Genomics Initiative at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “It is probably right, that it’s a case of buying time, because of past experience.
“But I also think this is a different circumstance than Delta and there might be some hope for maybe some amount of containment or at least that timeline phase to be even longer.”
He added the situation was different because South Africa had been able to quickly identify the variant and share its findings with the world.
Dr Barrett said: “I think we are certainly at an earlier point in this variant’s journey and so things we do now may well have at least a bigger effect than they did in the case of Delta.”
Sharon Peacock is director of Cog-UK and professor of public health and microbiology at University of Cambridge.
She said: “I think it’s right that we give ourselves the time to do both the laboratory experiments or find the results of the proprietary experiments out from South Africa and also start to do the real-world studies looking at vaccine efficacy, because that has big implications for how we plan if this does reach our shores.
“I do agree and that when you look at the behaviour of Alpha and Delta, once a new variant of concern emerges and it’s fitter than the previous variant, it can be difficult to actually stop it going into a country unless you have very, very stringent lockdown rules, which we see in some countries.
“Buying time is important, and it’s worthwhile, because we can find out what we need to know about that particular variant.
“This is part of important planning and preparation for something that I guess is likely to be transmitted into the UK at some point, but it buys that time.”