Austria bans flights from southern Africa over new Covid-19 variant

A new Covid-19 variant detected in southern Africa is causing international concern and prompted Austria to ban flights from South Africa and several neighbouring countries on Friday.

Austria bans flights from southern Africa over new Covid-19 variant
A flight ban from South Africa to Austria will come into effect from midnight on Friday. Photo credit Emmanuel Croset/AFP.

Austria has issued an entry ban on flights from South Africa as the World Health Organisation (WHO) investigates a new variant of Covid-19.

Austrian citizens returning from South Africa are still allowed to enter Austria but have to provide a PCR test result on entry, register with the authorities and quarantine for ten days.

FOR MEMBERS: Why is German-speaking Europe lagging on Covid vaccines?

Health Minister Wolfgang Mückstein (Greens) announced on Twitter that the flight ban will come into effect from midnight on Friday and will apply to South Africa, Lesotho, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Namibia and Eswatini. 

All countries are now classified as virus variant areas in Austria.

The new variant, currently known as B.1.1.529, is reported as being a heavily mutated strain.

In a Tweet, Ursula von der Leyen, EU Commission President, recommended activating the “emergency brake” to suspend air travel from the southern African region into the EU.

The WHO will meet today to discuss the new variant.

READ MORE: ‘Impfpflicht’: How will Austria’s mandatory vaccination law work in practice?

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‘A game changer’: Airlines demand EU explain new border system for non-EU travellers

Industry associations representing airlines have called on European authorities to plan a “public communications campaign” to alert non-EU nationals about new requirements to enter and exit the Schengen area.

'A game changer': Airlines demand EU explain new border system for non-EU travellers

The EU Entry/Exit System (EES) will record the biometric data (finger prints and facial recognition) of non-EU citizens travelling for short stays to the Schengen area (EU countries minus Ireland, Romania and Bulgaria, plus Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland), each time they cross the external borders.

Fully digital, the system will enable the automatic scanning of passports replacing manual stamping by border guards. The data collected will be kept in a centralised database shared among the Schengen countries.

The EES was created to tighten up border security and will ensure the enforcement of the 90-day limit in any 180-day period for tourists and visitors. But it requires changes in the infrastructure at the external borders, including airports, and the setting up of a new digital infrastructure to connect authorities in participating countries.

Its entry into operation has already been delayed several times. The latest date for the EES launch was May this year, but last week European authorities decided to postpone it again “due to delays from the contractors”. It is now expected to enter into force at the end of 2023, as The Local reported this week.

Airline associations including European region of Airports Council International (ACI), Airlines for Europe (A4E), the European Regions Airline Association (ERA) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) welcomed the delay and said further preparations are needed.

“The EES will be a game changer for how the EU’s borders are managed. There are, however, a number of issues which must be resolved to ensure a smooth roll out and operation of the new system so that air passengers do not face disruptions,” a joint statement says.

Things to be resolved include a “wider adoption and effective implementation of automation at national border crossing points by national authorities, funding by member states to ensure a sufficient number of trained staff and resources are deployed to manage the EU’s external border, particularly at airports,” and the “deployment of sufficient resources” to help airports and airlines with new procedures.

Airlines also said there needs to be a public communications campaign to inform non-EU citizens about the changes.

In addition, industry groups called on EU-LISA, the agency responsible for managing the system, to “strengthen communication” with airlines and with international partners such as the US “to ensure IT systems are connected and compatible.”

The decision to postpone the EES entry into operation until after the summer “will give airlines, airports and EU and national authorities the opportunity to resolve these issues and ensure the system is fully tested,” the statement continues.

The EU-LISA is currently preparing a revised timeline for the launch, which will be presented for approval at the Justice and Home Affairs Council, the meeting of responsible EU ministers, in March 2023.

This article was prepared in cooperation with Europe Street News.