• Seven countries, including South Africa, placed in category C
• Minister asks citizens to get vaccinated without delay

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Satur­day placed seven countries in category ‘C’ and imposed a ban on direct and indirect inbound travel from these regions with immediate effect following the emergence of ‘Omicron’ — a virulent strain of Covid-19 — in South Africa and its subsequent transmission to several countries.

Passengers from South Africa, Hong Kong, Mozambique, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini and Botswana will face the travel ban. “A complete ban has also been enforced on direct and indirect travel from these high-risk countries,” a notification issued by the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) stated, explaining that the countries have been included in category ‘C’ due to the surfacing of Omicron coronavirus variant in South Africa and its spread to adjoining regions.

Omicron has been classified by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as “highly transmissible” variant — the same category that includes the predominant Delta variant.

The strain was first detected in South Africa this week, with scientists holding it responsible for the recent spike in Covid-19 infections in Gauteng, the country’s most populous province.

“However, Pakistani passengers tra­velling from these countries on ext­r­e­me emergency will only be allowed after obtaining exemptions and a number of health/testing protocols including presenting vaccination certificates, negative PCR report (72 hours old maximum) before boarding and rapid antigen tests (RAT) on arrival at the airport.”

The NCOC statement said RAT negative cases would undergo three-day mandatory home quarantine and re-RAT would be conducted on the third day by the civil administration.

Positive cases would have to observe a mandatory quarantine (government/self-paid) for 10 days after which a PCR test would be carried out, it stated. “To facilitate stranded Pakistanis, travel from these countries will be allowed till Dec 5 without exemption but above-mentioned health/testing protocols will remain applicable,” the statement added.

Moreover, the Aviation Division, Airport Management and Airport Security Force have been directed to devise a mechanism to screen passengers traveling from category C countries through indirect flights and share it with the relevant authorities by Nov 29.

Meanwhile, Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umar, who also heads the NCOC, advised people to get themselves as well as their children over the age of 12 years vaccinated at the earliest in the wake of new Covid variant.

“Based on the emergence of the new Covid variant, notification has been issued restrict travel from 6 South African countries and Hong Kong. The emergence of new variant makes it even more urgent to vaccinate all eligible citizens 12 years and older,” the minister tweeted.

The Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) also expressed its concerns over the classification of the new variant by the WHO as “highly transmissible”.

According to the PMA statement, Omicron was detected in South Africa where very mild to moderate symptoms of the variant were clinically found with no loss of smell or taste. The PMA warned the government to be vigilant and take urgent measures to prevent the variant entering into Pakistan.

The PMA stated: “We strongly suggest the government to improve the facilities at airports and other entry points of the country to scan and monitor passengers and resume antigen Covid-19 test at airports, especially for passengers arriving from high-risk countries particularly South Africa.”

Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2021

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