The Foreign Office changed its travel advice to six southern Africa countries as they were abruptly added to the travel red list from midday today (Friday) due to new Covid variant fears.
Advice against all but essential travel was imposed on South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho and Eswatini.
The change was made “based on the current assessment of Covid-19 risks”.
The government confirmed that direct flights from the six countries will be banned from midday Friday until hotel quarantine is up and running from 4am on Sunday.
The temporary ban on travel from the six countries aims to “reduce the risk of importing this new variant under investigation while hotel quarantine is stood up”.
Between 500 and 700 people are estimated to have been travelling to the UK from South Africa each day, but this figure was likely to have increased as the festive period began.
British Airways was contacting affected customers and Virgin Atlantic said it would be reviewing its schedule for South Africa for the coming week, with flights from Johannesburg to Heathrow cancelled between midday on Friday and 4am on Sunday.
A Virgin Atlantic spokesperson said: “We’re currently reviewing our schedule of South Africa operations for the coming week and recommend that any customers booked to travel to or from South Africa with us check their flight status on www.virginatlantic.com. Any customers who made their booking through a third party or travel agent, should contact them directly with any questions.”
Advantage Travel Partnership chief executive Julia Lo Bue-Said tweeted: “Black Friday for the travel industry has an entire different meaning today as South Africa is back on the red list. Devasting on so many levels.”
An Abta spokesperson said: “While Abta has always maintained that public health must take priority and we recognise why this decision has been made, this news will be devastating for many travel companies that specialise in travel to the southern African countries affected.
“These businesses have had very little opportunity to generate income for almost two years and now face a further period of being unable to trade – just as the region’s peak season begins.
“The government must consider stepping in to provide targeted support where precautionary measures such as these close UK travel businesses, as they have done previously for other sectors of the economy.
“It is also vital the decision is kept under careful review and that restrictions are lifted promptly if it becomes clear there is not a risk to the UK vaccination programme.”
The government said: “From midday on Friday 26 November, non-UK and Irish residents who have been in these countries in the previous 10 days will be refused entry into England. This does not apply to those who have stayed airside and only transited through any of these countries while changing flights.
“UK and Irish residents arriving between midday Friday 26 November and 4am Sunday 28 November from these six countries will be required to self-isolate at home for 10 days. They must take PCR tests on Day 2 and Day 8 post-arrival. These can be NHS PCR tests and passengers should take them even if they have already booked or taken their lateral flow test.
“UK and Irish residents arriving from 4am Sunday must isolate in a government-approved facility for 10 days. During their stay, they will be required to take a coronavirus test on day 2 and day 8.”
Health secretary Sajid Javid said: “We are taking precautionary action to protect public health and the progress of our vaccine rollout at a critical moment as we enter winter, and we are monitoring the situation closely.”
Transport secretary Grant Shapps told the BBC the UK “acted immediately” with a “safety first” approach.
But South Africa’s international relations minister Naledi Pandor attacked the UK’s decision.
“Our immediate concern is the damage that this decision will cause to both the tourism industries and businesses of both countries,” she said in a statement reported by the BBC.
She said the move had come before the World Health Organization (WHO) had issued any guidance on the matter, and the country would work with the UK authorities to try to get the ban lifted as soon as possible.
The UK is South Africa’s largest source for tourists outside of the continent, with more than 400,000 visitor arrivals a year before the pandemic.
BA said on its website: “We are aware that the UK government has issued a temporary ban on flights between the UK and South Africa from midday on 26 November, as a result of the new Botswana variant.
“We will be working closely with the government and staying close to any developments.
“If you’re due to travel between now and Monday 29 November, we will be in touch to advise and update you about any new information we have received. We will also update this page regularly with any new information.”
Which? Travel editor Rory Boland said: “This worrying news is a reminder that travel is not back to normal. The pandemic continues to disrupt passengers’ travel plans, often with very little notice.
“As all flights are being suspended to these countries, all passengers will be entitled to a full refund for the holiday or flight, so long as they booked with a UK or EU carrier, or with any carrier due to depart from the UK or EU.
“Getting a refund for accommodation can be more difficult, and is dependent on the policy of the property.
“We have seen restrictions change in several countries over recent days and refunds are not always guaranteed.”
He insisted: “It is vital that travellers choose holiday providers with good, flexible booking policies in case your trip can’t go ahead.”