S. Africa president lobbies British PM over travel ban

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said Thursday he has had discussions with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson aimed at removing South Africa from a travel “red list” that bans visitors to the U.K. because of COVID-19.

The U.K.'s restrictions also mean anyone traveling from Britain to South Africa face a mandatory 10-day quarantine when returning home to Britain, even if they are fully vaccinated and test negative for the coronavirus.

Ramaphosa said he “put South Africa’s case” to Johnson, “which he understood very well.”

“We hope for a positive outcome when the subject comes up for review in the coming days by their scientists,” Ramaphosa said.

The South African government said last week it was puzzled at the U.K.'s decision to keep it on the list while removing other nations like Kenya and Egypt and easing restrictions for their travelers. South African scientists went further and criticized their British counterparts for being ignorant of South Africa’s pandemic situation.

Ramaphosa said British scientists were concerned over the beta variant of the coronavirus, which was first observed in South Africa. However, the beta variant now only accounts for a tiny proportion of cases in South Africa, experts say, and the delta variant is overwhelmingly dominant, as it is in the U.K.

South Africa was one of a number of nations angered by the U.K’s updated travel restrictions, with some accusing Britain of discrimination for seemingly not recognizing vaccines received in other countries.

South Africa is desperate to be removed from the list, more than anything to entice back British tourists put off by being forced to pay for an expensive quarantine stay at a hotel on their return home. Britain traditionally provides more tourists to South Africa than any other country outside Africa, and South Africa’s hard-hit tourism industry and struggling economy need a boost.

In a live speech on national television, Ramaphosa also announced the easing of virus-related restrictions in South Africa and said its third wave was now officially over, with new cases falling from over 20,000 a day during the wave’s peak to an average of just over 1,800 per day over the last seven days. South Africa would revert to lockdown level 1, the lowest alert, from Friday, Ramaphosa said.

That meant the nighttime curfew hours were eased, bars and restaurants will be allowed to stay open a little later, and alcohol may be sold under normal licensing laws. Alcohol sales were previously banned on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. The number of people allowed at gatherings was also increased.

It wasn’t all good news.

Ramaphosa warned that the vaccination program in South Africa — the worst-hit country in Africa by the virus — was still “far too slow” and urged South Africans to get vaccinated if they want to return to a normal way of life.

He said South Africans might soon be able to attend sports events, music concerts and other cultural events, which have all been off-limits since the pandemic began, but only if vaccination rates increase.

South Africa set itself a target of administering between 300,000 and 400,000 doses a day but has been averaging around 150,000 daily in recent weeks. Africa’s most developed economy has fully vaccinated less than 15% of its 60 million people and has recorded more than 2.9 million virus cases and more than 87,000 deaths from COVID-19.

South Africa will now administer vaccines on some weekends, which it hasn’t previously, to get the numbers up.

Ramaphosa also said the government would introduce a national vaccine certificate, possibly giving notice that businesses, places of worship and bars and restaurants might soon require a vaccine certificate for entry.