Finland restricts entry from southern Africa due to new variant; few arrivals so far

More travellers are expected to arrive at Helsinki Airport from southern Africa next week.

Covid-19 information at Helsinki Airport (file photo). Image: Vesa Moilanen / Lehtikuva

The government decided on Sunday afternoon to impose entry restrictions for people arriving from southern Africa, Interior Minister Krista Mikkonen (Green) announced on Twitter.

As of 3pm on Sunday, Finland will restrict entry into the country for travellers who have been in Botswana, Eswatini (Swaziland), South Africa, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia or Zimbabwe during the 14 days prior to their arrival. There are no direct flights to Finland from Southern Africa.

"A person may enter Finland from these countries only if they have an essential reason for doing so, such as compelling family matters or another compelling personal reason. However, Finnish citizens and permanent residents of Finland may always return to Finland," according to a government statement, which notes that the decision does not restrict internal border traffic from Schengen countries.

The restrictions are to remain in effect until at least 19 December.

Officials have been scrambling to react to Thursday's news of a new, apparently much more infectious variant of Covid-19, first identified in South Africa last week.

It has been detected in the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark and Belgium as well as Israel and Hong Kong, with suspected cases in the Czech Republic and Germany.

On Saturday, regional administrative agencies ordered mandatory health checks at border crossing points for passengers who have been in certain southern African countries within the past two weeks. These countries include the seven mentioned above as well as Malawi.

Omicron is the most mutated form of Covid-19 seen so far, with 32 mutations to the spike protein. It was named and declared a "variant of concern" by the World Health Organisation on Friday.

Recent arrivals asymptomatic

Only a few people have arrived at Helsinki Airport from South Africa in recent days, and they have been asymptomatic, Timo Aronkytö, Deputy Mayor and Head of Health and Social Services in Vantaa, told the Finnish news agency STT on Sunday morning.

Test results from those tested on Saturday will be available on Sunday, but according to Aronkytö, the assumption is that the results are negative.

Due to the new omicron virus variant, mandatory testing began at Helsinki Airport on Saturday for passengers who have been in southern Africa recently. The city of Vantaa, where the airport is situated, is responsible for health checks.

Aronkytö says that next week dozens of people are expected to arrive in Finland from South Africa, some of whom are continuing their journey from Helsinki to other places.

On Friday afternoon, the Finnish Foreign Ministry recommended avoiding all travel to South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Lesotho or Eswatini.

Updated at 14:40 with government decision, other details.