JOHANNESBURG/THE HAGUE • Anxious travellers thronged Johannesburg international airport and stood in long queues on Friday, desperate to squeeze onto the last flights to countries that had just shut their doors to South Africa.
Many cut short their holidays, rushing back from safaris and vineyards when Britain announced late on Thursday night that all flights from South Africa and its neighbours would be banned the following day.
A number of nations – including the United States, Canada and several European countries – have followed suit, concerned about the discovery of a new coronavirus variant, renamed Omicron, with a large number of mutations fuelling an infection resurgence in South Africa.
British citizen Toby Reid, a 24-year-old trader in London, was camping on Cape Town’s Table Mountain with his girlfriend when the ban was announced.
“At about 5.30am, we got up to see if we could catch the sunrise, and at six in the morning, we found out that there was still a possibility to get back,” he told Agence France-Presse, standing in line for check-in at the Johannesburg airport just hours later.
The couple managed to grab the last two seats on an evening flight to Frankfurt.
Others who were not so lucky discussed options at ticket counters, eyes widening at proposed prices and convoluted itineraries.
“There should have been more notice,” muttered Mr Christian Good, 50, returning to Devon in south-west England via Frankfurt after a beach holiday.
The variant has also been detected in Belgium, Botswana, Israel and Hong Kong.
At the airport, red “cancelled” signs flashed next to London-bound flights listed on the departures board. Other destinations were still in limbo.
A KLM flight to Amsterdam was delayed by several hours after passengers were suddenly compelled to produce negative Covid-19 results.
Rapid polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests were offered at the airport with results guaranteed in two hours, but at a cost of US$86 (S$118), instead of the standard fee of around US$52 for results delivered in around 12 hours.
The requirement for PCR tests came as the Dutch health authorities said yesterday that 61 passengers aboard two KLM flights from South Africa tested positive for Covid-19 and the results were being examined for the new Omicron variant.
The positive cases were being quarantined in a hotel near Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, where the 600 people on the planes from Johannesburg spent hours waiting on Friday.
Dutch national carrier KLM said it would continue to operate flights from Johannesburg and Cape Town “in compliance with the stricter protocol”.
At the Johannesburg airport, some African passport holders were seen being told they would not be allowed to fly to Europe.
In one queue, a fair-haired woman who introduced herself as Ms Elke Hahn cradled a toddler. She had travelled to South Africa with her partner to adopt the child and was desperate to get back to their home in Austria.
The child’s paperwork was valid only for a specific flight route which had since been changed.
“We will have to get another flight, but I don’t know how that will work,” she said.
Where Omicron has been detected
• South Africa
• Hong Kong
Where suspected Omicron cases are
• The Netherlands
• Czech Republic
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