Spain tightens travel restrictions amid concerns over omicron coronavirus variant

Visitors from the United Kingdom who are not EU residents will now only be able to enter the country if they are fully vaccinated, while those from ‘high-risk’ areas will need to provide a negative Covid test in addition to proof of vaccination

omicron España
Barcelona’s El Prat airport last week.David Zorrakino (Europa Press)

The Spanish government has tightened entry requirements to the country due to concerns over the new variant of the coronavirus, named omicron by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Under the new rules, published Saturday in the Official State Gazette (BOE), travelers from “high-risk” countries will need to present proof of being fully vaccinated, or of having recovered from Covid-19, as well as a “diagnostic certificate of an active Covid-19 infection with a negative result.”

According to the BOE, seven countries are currently classified as high-risk: Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Travelers from these countries will need to present a negative Covid-19 test – for example, a PCR test taken within 78 hours – regardless of whether they are fully vaccinated or have recovered from the disease. Travelers from these seven countries will also be subject to a mandatory 10-day quarantine, according to a separate order published Monday by the Spanish Health Ministry.

The European Union on Friday proposed suspending all flights to and from these seven nations in southern Africa, while the European Commission indicated that it will establish new entry requirements for visitors from high-risk areas. The Spanish government on Friday also announced plans to restrict flights from South Africa and Botswana at its next Cabinet meeting, which will take place on Tuesday. Spain does not have any direct commercial flights between South Africa or Botswana, but passengers can travel to the country from these countries via connecting flights, cargo planes or private planes.

The entry requirements, released by Spain’s Interior Ministry on Saturday, also contained new rules for non-essential visits from the United Kingdom. Starting December 1, passengers from these areas will only be able to enter the country if they are fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Up until now, visitors from the UK had been able to enter Spain if they could show proof they had been fully vaccinated or had a negative PCR test result taken up to 72 hours before arriving. According to detailed information released by the Spanish embassy in London (and which can be viewed in English here), this change does not apply to those under 12 years old, Spanish citizens, or EU citizens and their family members.

The information states that British and other third-country citizens coming from a risk area or country – which includes the United Kingdom – can travel to Spain for an “essential trip” if they are “duly accredited long-term residents in the EU, Schengen Associate States, Andorra, Monaco, The Holy See or San Marino, in transit to their country of residence.” They can do so on presentation of “a vaccination certificate, negative PCR, LAMP, TMA or antigen test certificate, or a certificate of recovery.” British or other third country citizens coming from a risk country – including the UK – for tourism or other non-essential reasons require a vaccination certificate if aged over 12.

The order in the BOE explained: “The appearance of new variants causing [coronavirus] obliges an increase in restrictions.”

The UK is likewise tightening travel restrictions due to the emergence of the omicron variant. Starting November 30, fully vaccinated travelers returning to England and Scotland from Spain must self-isolate and take a PCR test before the end of the second day of their arrival. Travellers will be able to break quarantine on receipt of a negative result from said test. Wales has announced similar plans, according to the BBC, as has Northern Ireland, according to a statement released by the Northern Irish Department of Health on Saturday.

Omicron variant

Sources from the Spanish Health Ministry confirmed on Friday that no cases of the omicron variant have so far been detected in Spain. Despite this, there are still concerns over the strain as it is considered more contagious and more likely to evade the current Covid-19 vaccines.

“In the last few days, a significant increase in the number of Covid-19 cases was detected in a province of South Africa, which has led to the identification of a new variant that has numerous mutations related to a possible rise in transmissibility and a drop in the neutralizing capacity of antibodies [from the vaccines],” the order on the new entry requirements explained.

On Monday, Portugal announced that it had detected 13 cases of omicron.

A resolution approved by the Health Ministry added that the new variant “highlights the need to have an agile mechanism that allows additional health measures to be adopted for people from high-risk countries due to their worsening epidemiological situation or in which especially worrying variants have been detected.” These measures would be applied via a list of at-risk and high-risk countries. “More than concern, what is needed is action,” sources from the Health Ministry told EL PAÍS.

On Monday, the WHO said that the new variant poses a “very high” global risk. This statement comes just days after the health organization elevated the risk level for omicron as “a variant of concern” on Friday. This is the fifth strain to receive this classification since the beginning of the pandemic. The new variant has 30 mutations, and there are fears that this could make it spread faster than other strains.

“This variant has a large number of mutations, some of which are concerning. Preliminary evidence suggests an increased risk of reinfection with this variant, as compared to other VOCs [variants of concern],” explained the press release from the WHO on Friday.

Although it is common for a virus to mutate as it spreads among the population, these mutations become “worrying” when there are signs that they make the virus more transmissible, trigger more serious illness or enable infections to escape the protection offered by vaccines or the antibodies produced naturally following recovery from the disease.

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