New UK COVID Travel Policies that Discriminate Against African Vaccine Recipients Condemned – Leaders Call for Clarifications
International passengers arriving at London’s Heathrow Airport border control – quarantine rules now based on where they were vaccinated, and not what vaccine they received.

IBADAN – Following new travel policies that discriminate against vaccinated travellers from African countries, as compared to their European, Asian and Middle Eastern counterparts, African health officials have demanded clarifications, and accused the UK government of potentially festering vaccine hesitancy on the continent.

A British government’ plan to drop a 10-day quarantine requirement for fully-vaccinated travelers arriving from Europe, North America, and a handful of Asian, Middle Eastern and Caribbean countries – but excluding vaccinated Africans, Indians, Latin America and other low- and middle-income nations – has been met with confusion and condemnation alongside calls for calm and clarification.

The new rules, set to take effect Monday, 4 October, will discriminate between the recipients of COVID-19 vaccines, not based on the vaccine received, but on the region in which these vaccines were received — a development which the Africa Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC) described as deeply concerning.

“We are deeply concerned that policies and rules such as this carry a risk of deepening vaccine hesitancy across Africa and creates distrust in the community,” Africa CDC said in a statement.

World Health Organization – Still Seeking Clarifications 

Richard Mihigo, Immunisation and Vaccines Development Programme Coordinator at WHO’s Regional Office for Africa.

Dr Richard Mihigo, WHO’s Program Area Manager for Immunisation, said the global health body is still seeking clarifications regarding the issues.

“We are still consulting to find out what the real issue is. It looks like the issue is not the vaccine itself but the documentation around the vaccine,” Mihigo told Health Policy Watch, in response to a question at an WHO African Region briefing Thursday. 

The imbroglio is proving to be a major embarrassment for the UK, which is a leading  contributor to the COVAX global vaccine facility, a crucial source of vaccine doses for African countries. 

COVAX is receiving 80% of the 100 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines that the UK is donating to low- and middle-income countries, mostly in the African region.

But the new ruling now means that recipients of its donated vaccines, won’t be recognized as vaccinated if they travel to the United Kingdom. 

“The UK is one of the countries that have provided vaccine donations to countries in the region. So it cannot tell those countries that are using vaccines from the UK that those vaccines are not valid,” Mihigo told Health Policy WatchHe added that the UK policy casts aspersions on Africa’s vaccination programme – even though the continent has been successfully vaccinating its people long before COVID.

“We’ve eradicated wild polio virus on the continent, many diseases have been controlled with a very vaccination programme. The issue is not about the reliability of our vaccination programme so we are trying to understand very well what the circumstances around that are,” he added.

‘Phased Approach’ to recognising vaccine certificates in absence of WHO global policy

Absence of a single WHO policy has left to each country to decide for itself which country’s vaccine certificates to recognize.

Mihigo stressed the importance of ensuring that Africans are not discriminated against nor are prevented from moving freely.

“Indeed anything that can prevent free movement of people, particularly in this time where countries are struggling to put the economy back on track is something that we should avoid,” Mihigo concluded.

But so far, the WHO has also rejected the creation of any unified vaccine certification  programme for international travelers – on the grounds that vaccine certificates shouldn’t be used at all in travel, until more of the world is immunized.  And that has left countries to fend for themselves in terms of determining the validity of other country’s vaccine certificates.

In the absence of a global policy, UK, officials told media that they were taking a “phased approach” to recognising vaccine certificate of other countries that are not on the UK “red list” – from which international travellers may not enter at all, unless they have UK citizenship or residency.

So far, vaccinated travellers entering  just 18 countries, along Europe, can have their vaccine certificates recognised officially, and thus avoid the 10-day quarantine. Those include Australia, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Bahrain, Brunei, Canada, Dominica, Israel, Japan, Kuwait, Malaysia, New Zealand, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Discrimination fuels vaccine hesitancy in Africa  

African public health experts worried that as news of the UK government policy gets more attention, it will also worsen vaccine hesitancy on the continent; the general public may wrongly believe that the policy directions of the UK government imply that vaccines being administered in Africa are not effective or are different from the ones being given to people in the UK and other developed countries.

“They are making it very difficult for us to do our job when they issue those conflicting policies,” Taiwo Abayomi, a community health worker in Nigeria, said in an interview with Health Policy Watch.

Even as health officials strive to convince Africans that the vaccines are safe, such restrictions make it easier for fake news and misinformation to quickly spread, she said.

But it is not only African countries that should be worried officials stressed; developed countries will still be at risk if vaccination efforts falter in Africa due to policies in the global north. 

Fortunate Bhembe, the Kingdom of Swaziland’s Deputy Director of Pharmaceutical Services told Health Policy Watch that the UK and other foreign governments need to be reminded that as long as the pandemic does not get in control everywhere, their country would also be at risk.

“If other countries are not doing well with vaccination, no one is safe. So we have to help each to ensure we vaccinate as many people as possible so as to ensure the safety of everyone. We are liaising with our partners including the UK government in this regard,” Bhembe said.  

Forging ahead

Despite the concerns that the UK government’s travel restrictions could impact Africa’s vaccination plans, and in spite of unavailability of enough doses of the vaccine, the continent continues to expand its vaccination approaches.

On Thursday, the WHO announced that 15 African countries representing nearly a third of the continent’s 54 nations, have fully vaccinated 10% of their people against COVID-19 — meeting the global goal of fully vaccinating 10% of every country’s population by 30 September, the goal was set in May 2021 by the World Health Assembly.

Seychelles and Mauritius have fully vaccinated over 60% of their populations, Morocco 48% and Tunisia, Comoros and Cape Verde over 20%. However, most of the African countries that have met the goal have relatively small populations and 40% are small island developing states.

However, meeting the more ambitious 40% vaccination goal set by WHO for 31 December remains a challenge.  

“The latest data shows modest gains but there is still a long way to go to reach the WHO target of fully vaccinating 40% of the population by the end of the year. Shipments are increasing but opaque delivery plans are still the number one nuisance that hold Africa back,” Mihigo said.

Image Credits: @HeathrowAirport/capt_saini, @HeathrowAirport/AndrewFell .

Combat the infodemic in health information and support health policy reporting from the global South. Our growing network of journalists in Africa, Asia, Geneva and New York connect the dots between regional realities and the big global debates, with evidence-based, open access news and analysis. To make a personal or organisational contribution click here on PayPal.