No decision to ban arrivals from outside Africa yet

  • Omicron discovered in 9 non-African nations

By Buddhika Samaraweera

The Ministry of Health has stated that no final decision has been taken regarding the imposition of restrictions on people coming to Sri Lanka from countries where the Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant (B.1.1.529) has been reported, which are outside the African Continent.

In view of the Omicron variant, the Sri Lankan authorities took steps to ban the arrival of foreign travellers who have been to six countries in the African Continent, including South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, and Eswatini (Swaziland), within the past 14 days.

Accordingly, when inquired as to whether the Health Ministry was taking steps to impose a ban on travellers who have been to other countries where cases of Omicron variant have been reported, Health Ministry Communication Director and Deputy Director General of Public Health Services (DDGPHS) Dr. Hemantha Herath said: “A final decision has not been reached regarding the imposition of such a ban. However, the matter is constantly being analysed.”

First discovered in South Africa, the variant has now been detected in Britain, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, Botswana, Israel, Australia, and Hong Kong.

He also said that it was important for people to follow the Covid-19-related health guidelines as it was not definite that this variant would not enter the country through such bans on foreign travellers.

“The spread of any variant can be controlled if people follow proper health guidelines such as wearing facemasks properly, maintaining social distance, and washing hands. In particular, so far, no variants have been found that can transcend health guidelines,” he added.

The Omicron variant is said to have 50 gene mutations in total, with 32 of them found on the spike protein gene. A total of 10 of these changes occur within the receptor binding domain (RBD). The new variant was first detected in Botswana on 11 November 2021. So far, around 100 confirmed cases have been recorded in the Gauteng Province in South Africa (an area that encompasses both Pretoria and Johannesburg), and may account for around 90% of the new cases in this location. It is likely to have spread to other provinces in South Africa. There have been four cases in Botswana and one in Hong Kong, but it is likely that the new variant has spread more widely.

Accordingly, passengers with a travel history – including transit – to South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, and Eswatini (Swaziland) within the past 14 days were banned from entering Sri Lanka with effect from midnight on 28 November. In a communication, Director General of Health Services (DGHS) Dr. Asela Gunawardena noted that irrespective of the Covid-19 vaccination status, travellers aged 12 years and above, who arrived in Sri Lanka on 26 and 27 November from the aforesaid countries, would be referred to a PCR test upon arrival. Even if the PCR test turns out to be negative for the virus, such travellers will have to undergo 14-day mandatory quarantine.