Cheryl Kahla
Deputy Online News Editor
3 minute read
15 Dec 2021
8:59 am

UK red list: SA ‘wasn’t punished’ for the science, says British high commissioner

Cheryl Kahla

The high commissioner has admitted the UK travel ban was damaging to South Africa, but the 'imperial mindset' has not changed.

Picture: iStock

Antony Phillipson, the British High Commissioner to South Africa, has acknowledged the damage done by the UK’s red list travel bans, but says he doesn’t believe SA was “punished for the science”.

Phillipson on Wednesday morning desperately attempted to evade Bongani Bingwa’s hard-hitting questions on Radio 702 about the reasoning and impact of the travel bans imposed on South Africa.

This after the UK removed 11 African countries – including South Africa – from its red list barring incoming travel.

UK red list debate

Travel bans serve ‘no purpose anymore’

The high commissioner attempted to explain why southern African countries were subjected to travel bans in the first place.

He said it was to give Britain time to “know what they are facing”, and the bans were implemented in order to slow the spread of the Omicron variant.

Phillipson said there was no purpose in maintaining the travel bans now as the Omicron variant was already “widespread in the UK and the rest of the world”.

So, why target African countries?

However, Bingwa countered by asking why African countries were banned, but other countries – where Omicron cases were also reported – were not added to the UK’s Red List.

Phillipson said the cases investigated by UK authorities could only be traced to southern African countries – which we know now was not the case.

Earlier this month, Professor Oliver Pybus – co-director of the Oxford Martin school’s programme on pandemic genomics – said Omicron has likely been circulating in the UK “for at least a month”.

That said, Phillipson wasn’t prepared to address such an uncomfortable topic and just reiterated that all the cases investigated in the UK could be traced to southern Africa.

Phillipson did, however, acknowledge the “hurt and the anger of those affected”, and said the way forward would be to remain vigilant, engaged and study the risks of Omicron “together”.

UK health secretary caught in a lie

On Tuesday, UK Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the travel ban was being lifted because it was “now less effective in slowing the incursion of Omicron from abroad”.

Javid said the UK’s surveillance was unparalleled in the world, and it was the UK who had raised alarm about Omicron, carelessly brushing aside the hard work and research done by South African scientists.

Bingwa asked Phillipson to explain why Javid blatantly lied before the UK parliament on Tuesday.

‘Imperial mindset’ behind UK red list

Bingwa asked if the UK was the first to identify the Omicron variant days before South African scientists reported it, why didn’t the UK report it to the world?

If that was the case, why was South Africa punished for the Omicron variant? And if UK scientists didn’t identify it first, why did Javid lie before the House of Commons?

While Philipson said the health secretary did not lie, he also didn’t clarify if the UK identified the variant first and just wilfully chose to ignore the protocols for reporting new variants.

As one 702 listener succinctly pointed out, Phillipson’s interview “only exposed Britain’s imperial mindset”.

ALSO READ: UK red list lift: Common sense has finally prevailed

uk red list travel ban british high commissioner
Picture: Imperial

UK’s response to Nigeria

Meanwhile, the British High Commissioner to Nigeria, Catriona Laing, explained that the UK removed Nigeria from its travel red list due to “scientific and public health data”.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Laing said “like all countries around the world. the UK has had to make difficult decisions to protect public health”.

She said Britain “took this necessary precautionary action” to give them time to understand the challenges brought by the Omicron variant, and how to slow down the spread.

“When we announced the heightened restrictions, we made clear that we would remove them as soon as we could, and that is the decision Ministers have taken today”.

Laing said while this would be “welcome news for students, tourists, businesses and families in the UK and Nigeria”, she “recognises the impact these temporary health measures have had”.