No ban on connecting flights from southern Africa despite Omicron Covid variant; arrivals must be tested and quarantined

There are no direct flights between Finland and southern Africa, but passengers can arrive from the region via connecting routes.

There are no direct flights between Helsinki-Vantaa airport and southern Africa. Image: Antti Lähteenmäki / Yle

Public health authority THL has recommended that people in Finland avoid traveling to southern Africa because of a new coronavirus variant that is believed to be highly contagious. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has called it a variant "of concern" and named it Omicron.

The European Commission plans to propose the suspension of air travel from southern Africa, according to media reports, but authorities in Finland have so far made no decision on passengers arriving from the region.

The United Kingdom announced on Thursday that it is placing South Africa on a travel 'red list' after scientists described Omicron as the worst Covid-19 variant ever identified, the Guardian reported (siirryt toiseen palveluun).

"Currently, there are no direct flights from South Africa to Finland, so this does not require acute action," Jarkko Saarimäki, Director General of the Transport and Communications Agency Traficom, told Yle.

The new variant has not as yet been detected in Finland, but the first diagnosis in Europe was found in Belgium earlier on Friday, in a traveller who had been in Egypt and Turkey.

National airline Finnair does not fly directly to or from any destinations in southern Africa, and the company said on Friday that there have been no updated guidelines or instructions from authorities on border restrictions.

This means that passengers can still come to Finland from southern Africa via connecting flights.

"The Finnish Transport and Communications Agency can only intervene in direct threats to health safety. The danger posed by connecting flights must be prepared for," Saarimäki said.

Minister of Transport and Communications Timo Harakka (SDP) said it is now essential that EU member states cooperate with each other.

"The most effective way to prevent the virus variant from spreading is to prevent direct flights from southern Africa to Europe," Harakka said.

Lab tests will determine danger posed by new variant

Initial research into Omicron suggests it may have twice as many mutations as the Delta variant. This could mean that current vaccines may not be as effective in protecting against the virus variant, and that it may be more highly contagious.

However, the danger posed by the new variant is yet to be determined.

Olli Vapalahti, a Professor of Virology at the University of Helsinki, told Yle that it is still too early to say how dangerous Omicron could be, adding that more detailed data will be collected in laboratory studies over the coming weeks.

Traficom's Saarimäki said the agency will continue to monitor the situation and act accordingly.

"If the need for restrictions arises, we will be ready to take immediate action together with the health authorities," he said.

Arrivals from southern Africa to be tested at Helsinki Airport

Helsinki Airport is tightening its health and safety precautions due to the omicron variant, according to Timo Aronkytö, Deputy Mayor of Vantaa, where the airport is located.

In a tweet on Saturday morning, Aronkytö said that everyone arriving from southern Africa will be directed to mandatory inspection, Covid testing and quarantine.

"Planes arriving from Munich and Frankfurt will be checked," Aronkytö wrote.

27.11: Updated with WHO statement and name, Aronkytö statement.