Omicron COVID variant causes athletes to flee southern Africa



JOHANNESBURG — British and Irish golfers and rugby teams were scrambling to return home on Friday after the U.K. government announced it was banning flights from South Africa to counter the spread of a new COVID-19 variant.

The inaugural season of the DP World Tour started Thursday but more than a dozen players pulled out of the Joburg Open because of the new restrictions, tour spokesman Steve Todd confirmed on Friday.

United Rugby Championship matches scheduled in South Africa over the next two weekends were postponed, and Welsh teams Cardiff and Scarlets were trying to get out.

The Netherlands men’s cricket team has reportedly called off its tour of South Africa midway through the first one-day international at Centurion on Friday, which it will complete. The Dutch had two more ODIs scheduled.

The U.K. announced it was suspending flights from South Africa and five other southern African countries and making travellers from these countries self-isolate for 10 days effective from 1200 GMT Friday. From Sunday morning, travellers would have to go into hotel quarantine.

U.K. Health Secretary Sajid Javid said there were concerns the new variant “may be more transmissible” than the delta strain, and “the vaccines that we currently have may be less effective” against it.

Also, the European Union said Friday it plans to stop air travel from southern Africa because of the variant as the 27-nation bloc is battling a massive spike in cases.

Irish golfer Paul Dunne told RTE Radio he was unaware of the situation at the Joburg Open when he finished out his delayed first round Friday morning. He has withdrawn and planned to take a flight to Dubai on Friday.

“I’d three holes to finish in my first round, and when I came in I turned my phone on and I had messages from everyone asking me if I was going to go to the airport or stay and play. That’s when I started to look into it,” Dunne told the radio show.

“A few people are on the course without kind of a real idea of what’s going on,” he added, “but some people are finding it hard. I’ve heard people can’t get a flight until Sunday evening.”

Dunne said there were flights available but routing through Ethiopia, where fighting in the country’s yearlong war draws closer to the capital, Addis Ababa.

Paul Dunne of Ireland plays a shot during a practice round
Irish golfer Paul Dunne was one of several UK golfers figuring out how to get home amid flight bans.
Getty Images

“Bit of a minefield at the minute,” he said.

Not every British player left. Ashley Chesters shot 2-under 69 on Friday to complete his second round on 7 under overall.

The Joburg Open is the start of a South Africa swing, followed by the SA Open and Alfred Dunhill Championship.

The caddie of Luke Jerling of South Africa during the second round of the JOBURG Open
Several golfers opted to leave the Joburg Open amid rising concerns over a COVID variant in southern Africa.
Getty Images

With the United Rugby Championship on hold in South Africa, Scarlets said in a statement it “would like to assure families and friends that we are making every effort to get our touring party back home to the UK as soon as possible.”

Cardiff said “we are now looking to repatriate our staff ASAP.”

Irish province Munster and Italian club Zebre Parma were also in South Africa.

Munster on Friday tweeted: “We all are safe & well in Pretoria. We are working with URC on the ongoing situation relating to Covid-19 & will provide an update once we know more.”

Zimbabwe is hosting a qualifying tournament for the Women’s Cricket World Cup in 2022. The eight visiting teams are the United States, West Indies, Netherlands, Ireland, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Games were played this week and are scheduled through next week.

Warren Deutrom, chief executive of Cricket Ireland, said they are “very concerned about the latest developments” and have been in contact with the ICC, the Irish government and local officials “to better understand the facts, and to properly inform and reassure” the delegation.

“Our decision-making will be first and foremost based on the health and safety of players and support staff,” Deutrom said in a statement on Friday. “We will provide updates as soon as we can.”


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