Travel news latest: Asian countries close borders again due to omicron

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Malaysia and Singapore have become the latest Asian countries to tighten travel restrictions amid the global surge of the omicron variant. 

Singapore has frozen the sale of tickets for its quarantine-free ’travel lanes’ system which allowed vaccinated people from 24 countries to enter, and Malaysia has in turn frozen the sale of bus and flight tickets to Singapore – its only travel corridor.

This comes after Thailand yesterday announced it would reinstate a mandatory Covid-19 quarantine for foreign visitors. Only the island of Phuket will remain in the country’s ‘sandbox’ scheme, allowing quarantine-free travel.

In late November, Japan banned entry from foreign nationals and imposed a managed quarantine on returning nationals. These rules were supposed to last one month, but Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has confirmed the restrictions will continue into the new year.

Other countries around the world have tightened border restrictions in recent days. New Zealand yesterday announced that it would delay the reopening of its borders to the end of February due to fears around the omicron variant.

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Meanwhile, at Stonehenge

A spectacular sunrise this morning ushered in the winter solstice at Stonehenge.

Five reasons why travel bans shouldn’t return, come what may

Another Christmas, another Covid-19 wave, and another string of logic-defying travel bans around the world.

France, Germany and Israel have already pulled up the drawbridge on British arrivals due to the outbreak of omicron in the UK, and other European countries are likely to follow in the coming days. Our little island feels rather isolated, once again.

Indeed the UK has been known to impose sudden travel bans too. Our quarantine hotel system has been one of the harshest in Europe, and the Government temporarily brought it out of retirement in late November to ban arrivals from 11 African countries including South Africa. Other countries did the same. The result? Omicron is (of course) everywhere.

Two years and almost 300 million cases after the first Covid-19 case was detected in Wuhan, you don’t have to be a swivel-eyed pandemic denier to see that travel restrictions have failed to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The WHO itself, the international oracle of Covid-19 wisdom, has repeatedly expressed concern that travel bans harm economies and discourage countries from being forthright reporting new viruses or variants. So why do governments keep leaning on them as a first barrier of defence?

Here are five reasons why outright flight bans, red listing and prohibitive hotel quarantines – the kind of restrictions that effectively rule out going somewhere – should be consigned to history.

Read the article here.

German health experts urge more Covid curbs, as lockdown not ruled out  

German health experts said that new Covid curbs may not go far enough to keep omicron in check, as the country’s health minister said he had not ruled out a full lockdown if cases spiked.

The measures, decided on Tuesday, include limits on private gatherings, closing clubs and discos and banning spectators at football matches and are set to be introduced from December 28.

Janosch Dahmen, health expert for junior coalition partners the Greens, said they were a step in the right direction. “But they probably won’t be able to curb the danger that omicron represents,” he told broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

German Hospital Federation chairman Gerald Gass called the measures “necessary, but possibly not sufficient” in comments to the Funke media group.

The Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for infectious diseases, meanwhile, recommended that “maximum contact restrictions” and “maximum infection prevention measures” be implemented immediately.

Defending the partial nature of the curbs, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said he valued the institute’s advice but “there can sometimes be demands that we do not immediately implement.”

Bars close in Portugal from Saturday

Bars and nightclubs in Portugal will shut from Christmas Day, a week earlier than previously planned, as the Government attempts to curb the surge of omicron infections.

Remote working will become mandatory from December 25, Prime Minister Antonio Costa said in a press conference on Tuesday. The measures were initially meant to take effect on January 2.

Omicron now accounts for 47% of cases in Portugal, and is expected to be the dominant variant by the new year.

On the slopes in Italy, where British skiers are still welcome 

Lifts have been opening across Italy since mid-November, but Sunday December 12 marked the start of the winter season proper – and the first time that UK tour operators had hosted British skiers in Europe since before the pandemic.

December 12 marked the first time that UK tour operators had hosted British skiers in Europe since before the pandemic

December 12 marked the first time that UK tour operators had hosted British skiers in Europe since before the pandemic

Credit:
Tristan Kennedy/Tristan Kennedy

“These are the first people we’ve sent on a ski holiday for over 600 days,” explained Chris Logan, managing director of Crystal Ski Holidays, the UK’s largest outfit. “We haven’t actually had a customer in a resort since we had to repatriate thousands of people from France in March 2020”. 

Read Tristan Kennedy’s experiences skiing in Italy here.

Forget Downing Street parties…

… this is the best place on Earth for wine and cheese.

In this overlooked corner of France, some of Europe’s loveliest white wines run into Munster cheese, the whiff of which can clear a county, writes Anthony Peregrine.

For the best cheese and wine parties, head to this region of France – the locals know a thing or two about both 

For the best cheese and wine parties, head to this region of France – the locals know a thing or two about both 

Credit:
Getty

USA could lift travel ban on southern African countries

President Joe Biden is considering removing travel restrictions on arrivals from southern Africa countries, where the omicron variant was first identified. This comes as omicron becomes the dominant strain in the States.

“I’m considering reversing, I’m going to talk with my team in the next couple days,” Biden told reporters at the White House on Tuesday. He said his health advisers had suggested he reconsider the ban.

Rail passengers told to check for Covid disruption to services

Rail passengers have been advised to check train services before they travel for Christmas, amid concerns of disruption caused by surging omicron cases.

Seb Gordon, director of external communications at industry membership body the Rail Delivery Group, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that 19 out of 20 trains had still run over the last week and operators are running as many trains as they “possibly can”. Mr Gordon said:

We think that, at the moment, that in the Christmas week, when people are trying to get away – fewer people than in a normal year but lots of people still trying to get away – we think it’s important to prioritise running as many trains as we can even if that means there’s a few more of those frustrating short-notice cancellations.

But obviously, as we get further into this wave of the pandemic – we hope will not materialise in the way that people are anticipating – it may be that we decide actually we need to prepare for a lower level of staffing over a longer period of time and we will reduce the timetable.

Obviously the Government’s announcement today of the reduced isolation period is going to really help.

Reports of mask-free crew on BA flight

Travel journalist Julia Buckley has reported cabin crew and pilot going mask-free on a recent flight.

Covid isolation periods cut from 10 to seven days as ‘test to release’ introduced 

People who test positive for coronavirus must now isolate for seven days rather than 10, under new rules that allow positive cases to “test to release”.

Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, is said to be concerned that the Government’s 10-day isolation rules have had a crippling effect on the NHS because so many staff are off work with the virus.

From Wednesday, infected people will be required to conduct lateral flow tests on days six and seven of their isolation, and the period will end if both are negative.

Unvaccinated people who come into contact with a positive case will still be required to isolate for 10 days.

Follow all the latest updates on our live blog here.

Catalonia plans to close nightclubs 

Catalonia is set to become the first Spanish region to reinstate Covid-19 limitations, amid a surge in omicron cases.

“We had all hoped to spend these Christmas holidays with our family and loved ones, but unfortunately we are not in that situation,” Catalan regional president Pere Aragones said. “You don’t have to look at the numbers. All of us know people who have been infected.”

Catalan health authorities have asked courts to authorise a range of new measures, including a curfew from 1am to 6am, a limit of ten people per social gathering, 50% capacity caps in restaurants and gyms, and 70% capacity in theatres.

If approved, the measures will come into force for 15 days, eliminating hopes for New Year’s Eve parties.

Finland places curfew on bars and restaurants 

Finland is to restrict the opening hours of bars and restaurants to try and curb rising Covid infections and the spread of the new omicron variant.

Starting on Christmas Eve, bars will have to stop serving alcohol at 9pm and close at 10pm. From December 28 onwards, alcohol can only be served until 5pm and bars need to close by 6pm and restaurants by 8pm, the government said in a statement.

Bars are also allowed to take in only 50 per cent of maximum customer capacity and restaurants 75 per cent, it added.

The government also decided university and other adult students would shift to remote schooling after the Christmas holidays and foreign travellers coming to Finland would need a proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid and a recent negative test result.

Finland has so far allowed restaurants and events to sidestep Covid restrictions based on certification showing proof of vaccination, recovery from Covid or a recent negative test.

Japan confirms first known local omicron transmissions  

Japan has confirmed its first known local transmissions of the omicron variant, in a sign that it is already spreading within the country.

A family of three in Osaka had no record of traveling overseas and their infections could not be traced, Osaka Governor Hirofumi Yoshimura said.

The three are the first known cases of community transmission of the highly infectious omicron variant in Japan, Yoshimura said. “I believe they only happened to be detected and we must take steps on the assumption that there already are other cases of community transmission,” he said.

Yoshimura said current restrictions on restaurants in Osaka will remain in place, including a limit of four people per table for a maximum of two hours, to minimize risks during the holiday season, after coronavirus infections surged last year.

Thailand reinstates mandatory Covid hotel quarantine

Thailand has reinstated its mandatory hotel quarantine period for foreign visitors.

A government spokeswoman said the measure has returned due to concerns over the spread of the omicron variant. As part of its tightened restrictions, the country is halting its ‘Test and Go’ waiver programme, which allowed fully vaccinated arrivals to take a PCR test on arrival and isolate in a government-approved hotel for a night while they awaited their result.

However, the Thailand government said that the 200,000 people who had already received approved for the ‘Test and Go’ programme would still be eligible to enter the country.  They will have to take a (free) test upon arrival and a second (free) test seven days later.

It is understood that the ‘sandbox’ scheme, where visitors could visit certain areas of the country, will remain in place in Phuket but nowhere else.

Thailand has only been open for quarantine-free travel since November.

New Zealand delays reopening

New Zealand has announced it will push back the start of its quarantine-free border reopening until the end of February, in a move that will disappoint New Zealanders around the world hoping to reunite with family.

Covid-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said the move would increase New Zealand’s protection against omicron, and slow the spread of the virus.

New Zealanders have protested against the country's strict border closure

New Zealanders have protested against the country’s strict border closure

Credit:
PRAVEEN MENON /REUTERS

“Covid-19 keeps throwing new curve balls and we have to respond in a way that continues to protect lives and livelihoods without putting in place restrictions and lockdowns unless absolutely necessary,” Hipkins said.

 “All of the evidence so far points to Omicron being the most transmissible Covid-19 variant yet and public health advice says that soon, every case that comes into MIQ [managed isolation and quarantine facilities] will be Omicron.”

Singapore shuts up shop

Singapore has frozen all new ticket sales for flights and buses under its programme for quarantine-free travel into the city-state. The new rule comes into force tomorrow (December 23) and will last until January 20.

Singapore’s health ministry said:

Our border measures will help to buy us time to study and understand the Omicron variant, and to strengthen our defences, including enhancing our healthcare capacity, and getting more people vaccinated and boosted.

Yesterday’s headlines

A recap of what happened yesterday

  • Austria appears poised to effectively ban British skiers 
  • The travel industry says it has been left in the cold by Rishi Sunak’s Covid support package
  • The EU has limited the validity of its Covid certificate for international travel to nine months after a second vaccine dose 
  • New Zealand has postponed the reopening of its borders until at least the end of February

Now, on with today’s news.

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