Markets plunge

Belgium reports Europe’s first cases of Covid variant

Sajid Javid

Sajid Javid: ‘huge international concern’

Belgium may have recorded the first cases in Europe of the mutant Botswana variant of Covid which has spread to three continents in just two weeks. 

Scientists believe they have detected two cases of the new variant B.1.1.529, which emerged in southern Africa and could be resistant to current vaccines.

The Netherlands was also on alert after passengers arriving this morning on a flight from Johannesburg to Schiphol airport in Amsterdam were told they could not enter the country. 

There were also unconfirmed reports that passengers from Cape Town would be barred from entry as European nations took swift action to halt the spread of the new strain, which has been given the name Omicron.

Travellers arriving in the UK from six African states are now subject to tighter restrictions, though there were reports that travellers arriving from Johannesburg were left to mingle with hundreds of other passengers as they flew into Heathrow on the last flights out of Africa before the red list was re-imposed at midday. 

The Israeli health ministry said today a patient tested positive for B.1.1.529 after returning from Malawi.

All EU states banned travel from southern Africa today and the World Health Organisation called an emergency meeting to discuss the latest twist in the pandemic.

US President Joe Biden has announced travel will be banned from eight African countries including South Africa starting from Monday. 

UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the variant is a clear sign the pandemic is “far from over”.

He told the Commons: “I want to reassure this House that there are no detected cases of this variant in the UK at this time, but this new variant is of huge international concern.” 

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said Britain was taking a “safety-first approach” and acting quickly to slow down its entry into the country.  

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The variant has raised fears of another Christmas lockdown to curb B.1.1.529’s transmission. UK vaccines adviser Professor Adam Finn said people needed to “be ready for the possibility of a change in the restrictions.”

Stock markets around the world plunged today amid fears of further restrictions and a slowing of economic growth.

At the close the FTSE 100 was down 266.34 points (3.64%) lower at 7,044.03. Other markets in Europe were down by between 2.5% and 3.6%.

British Airways owner IAG fell 14.49%, Premier Inn owner Whitbread was 8.84% lower, InterContinental Hotels 8.59% weaker, and tour operator TUI 9.74% lower.

However, markets now say that a rise in interest rates is less likely with the market putting a 63% chance of a Bank of England hike in December compared to 93% a week ago, while traders are expecting the US Federal Reserve to delay its hike from July to September.

Jeffrey Halley, analyst at Oanda in Jakarta, told the Reuters agency: “The one bull in the China shop that could truly derail the global recovery has always been a new strain of COVID-19 that swept the world and caused the reimposition of mass social retractions.

“All we know so far is the B.1.1.529 is heavily mutated, but markets are taking no chances.”

Mark Arnold, CIO at Hyperion Asset Management in Brisbane, said: “I don’t think there’s any going back to the pre-COVID world. We’re just going to get mutations through time and that’s going to change the way people operate in the economy. That’s just reality.”

Anyone who has arrived in Scotland from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana in the previous 10 days will need to enter Managed Quarantine hotel on arrival to Scotland and will need a day two and day eight coronavirus (COVID-19) PCR test regardless of their vaccination status.

Cabinet Secretary for Net Zero, Energy and Transport Michael Matheson said: “International travel restrictions are necessary to protect the greater public health.

“While many restrictions have been significantly relaxed… we have always said it may be necessary to quickly impose fresh measures to protect public health in Scotland.”

More information on international travel and quarantine

There are no direct flights from South Africa, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe or Botswana into Scotland.

See: Market report

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