Tourism Minister Mamoloko Kubayi says any decision on travel restrictions to and from India amid a massive surge in coronavirus cases and deaths in that country will be guided by scientific evidence.

The minister appeared in a virtual briefing before Parliament’s Tourism Committee. This comes as the National Ports Authority confirms that 14 Filipino crew members onboard a ship in the Durban harbour have tested positive for COVID-19.

The vessel arrived from India on Sunday. There are also concerns around a COVID-19 infected traveller from India who recently entered South Africa.

Kubayi commented on concerns that the variant identified in India could reach South African shores.

“As we have said previously, that decisions by government in terms of either opening or closing borders will be scientific, will be based on informed decisions. I just want to reiterate that part that there are discussions around it and [Health] Minister Zweli Mkhize would have communicated publicly on the issues. There’s been a lot of speculation that South African people came from India and they got COVID-19. Mr Mkhize today has confirmed that there isn’t such information, so I do appeal as we work in the tourism space all of us as honourable members, (to) assist us in communicating, so that some of the fake news and some of the misinformation that gets into the public, sometimes its creates panic which is unnecessary.”

The Health Department has reassured South Africans that there are no direct flights from India to South Africa.

Importance of vaccination programme

Health expert Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia has emphasized the importance of vaccination programmes continuing, despite the emergence of new coronavirus variants across the globe. It follows concerns by the medical sector over a variant, first detected in India, which appears to be more infectious in younger age groups.

Dr Ahluwalia says vaccines still need to be administered to fight off the coronavirus.

“Viruses tend to only stay alive by mutating so they can fight a human immunity. What we are going to be evaluating is whether the vaccination-induced immunity is strong enough and will this virus continuously mutate itself to a level that it might even escape that immunity further. It is too early for us to say that our vaccines are ineffective. At this moment, vaccines are effective and vaccinations are a way of curbing the virus so we have to support vaccination programmes.”

Impossible to control spread of variants

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) says it is impossible to control the spread of coronavirus variants around the world.

Acting NICD Executive Director, Prof. Adrian Puren, says people should continue observing COVID-19 health protocols.

Puren says, “This (new) variant in India specifically is thought to resemble some of the aspects that are highly transmissible. We should try and monitor this particular case. But what would then be critical at this particular time is that that person is in isolation but it is really important that the contents of that particular individual are investigated in terms of levels of contact and exposure in order for us to test and isolate to try and limit transmissions. So you can’t always control the importation of variants.”