Picture: 123RF/HANDMADEPICTURES
Picture: 123RF/HANDMADEPICTURES

It’s worth taking a look at the countries included on the UK’s "amber" list to see what an irrational snub it is to SA — one of the UK’s largest trading partners, and a top tourist destination for both countries — that we languish under "red" on that country’s traffic-light Covid travel classification system.

The countries from Africa now on the amber list include Benin, Burkina Faso, Chad, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Libya, Liberia, Niger and Nigeria. Those moving to the amber list next month include Egypt and Kenya.

Let’s start with Nigeria. By September 15, according to statistics website Our World in Data, a mere 0.9% of its population had been fully vaccinated, while only 2.1% of adults — 4.1-million people in a nation of around 200-million — had received their first dose.

Kenya, meanwhile, has now fully vaccinated 857,370 people. That’s a paltry 1.6% of a population of 52.7-million. Incredibly, Kenya reports just 4,989 deaths from the coronavirus.

Contrast that with SA, a nation of 58.5-million people, which has recorded 2.8-million cases and 86,174 deaths — though the excess mortality statistics provided by the life insurance sector suggest that more than 300,000 may have lost their lives to the virus. But 13% of adults are now fully vaccinated while almost 20% have received their first dose.

What then can we conclude about the difference between Kenya’s Covid experience and SA’s? Either Kenyans are an extraordinarily robust people, impervious to a virus that has swept the globe, or their numbers should be taken with a pinch of salt.

But, according to the UK government, SA remains subject to the highest travel sanction because Westminster is "concerned" about "the continued presence of [Covid variant] Beta given its potential ability to circumvent vaccines".

If the UK thought this parlously thin reasoning and abysmal attempt at science would withstand scrutiny, it has woefully misjudged the matter.

Prof Francois Venter, an expert in communicable diseases at Wits University, is withering. "It’s insane," he tells the FM. "The Beta variant is pretty much extinct, not just in SA but in most of the globe. There is no scientific reason to be on the red list."

As to the contention that the Beta variant is somehow resistant to the vaccines now being rolled out in SA, Venter says: "All current vaccinations are highly protective against hospitalisation and death, irrespective of variant."

Tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu isn’t taking this lying down.

"They are confusing the variant with SA because it was first detected here. But it does not mean it is an SA variant," she told a tourism summit this week. "We have agreed to have a joint team of scientists to advise the SA and British governments so they can get us out of the red."

The fact is, as British government officials well know, the Beta variant was simply first identified in SA. And all viruses constantly mutate into new versions or variants. What’s more, the Beta variant has been completely pushed out in recent months by the Delta variant, which is now the most prevalent strain in almost all countries.

Thankfully, two of SA’s key tourism markets, Germany and the US, have taken a more adult approach. SA is now off Germany’s high-risk list, while fully vaccinated South Africans will be allowed to travel to the US from November.

Perhaps, you might argue, SA is reaping the whirlwind of rampant corruption — both perceived and real. Our vaccination cards, for a start, are lamentably open to fraud, while a QR code that is internationally recognised, for example, is less so. Yet, according to the German mission to Southern Africa: "The commonly used SA vaccination record card — if properly filled out — does fulfil these formal requirements."

This remains an inexplicable decision, and a hard blow both to SA’s tourist industry and the thousands of families that have been separated by months of Covid-related restrictions.

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