Omicron may be ‘major blow’ to tourism, warns minister
By Makeida Antonio
A newly detected variant of the Covid-19 virus has caused the government to express concern about the impact it may have on the country’s tourism industry.
On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) published a classification of the Omicron (B.1.1.529): SARS-CoV-2 strain on its website, calling it a “variant of concern”.
Omicron was discovered in South Africa on November 24.
The WHO also reported that the first known infection of the variant was collected on November 9 and is extremely concerning as large mutations of the virus were detected. The preliminary data on Omicron suggests that it may be more transmissible and more likely to re-infect those who test positive for Covid-19 compared to previous variants such as Delta.
Numerous countries including Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Brazil, Canada and the United Kingdom have imposed travel restrictions to countries in the southern region of Africa in an attempt to control the spread of the new variant.
In light of these emerging developments internationally, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said that the government may be forced to reconsider its recent decision to end the state of emergency (SOE) in December.
“As it stands now, that policy initiative to lift the state of emergency on the 23rd still stands, but it could be reviewed and reversed depending on any significant spread of this new variant,” Prime Minister Browne said.
He shared that the local statistics on Covid-19 based on existing protocols currently paint a positive picture, however, it could all be different in just a matter of weeks.
“These are measures that are required to manage any escalation in Covid. Admittedly, Covid cases are significantly down, hospitalisations are down, beds are stabilised at 117, so at this point we are in a relatively good place, but the situation is very fluid and could change in a couple of weeks,” Browne warned.
The United Kingdom is Antigua and Barbuda’s second largest tourism market, which deeply concerns Prime Minister Browne. He believes the twin island nation could be among the first in the region to be affected by Omicron due to the close relationship with the UK.
“The Omicron could be more deadly and more transmissible, then it means it could end up here in the Caribbean too. The fact that it is already in the UK which is one of our major source markets, you can be assured that if there is any significant spread in the United Kingdom it will end up here in the Caribbean, it will end up here in Antigua and Barbuda.
“Interestingly, Antigua and Barbuda could be one of the first countries,” according to Prime Minister Browne, who asserted that the government will continue to monitor the variant.
Meanwhile, Tourism Minister Charles ‘Max’ Fernandez told Observer that the emergence of this new Covid-19 variant could unravel plans to boost revenue from the country’s main industry.
“There is international concern about this new variant. It is still being investigated to establish whether it causes more severe disease and whether it can evade vaccines.
“We are hoping that it will not be as severe as it could be. Covid continues to pose a tremendous challenge to the world over.
“In our case, a threat to tourism at a time where we are looking forward to a great season could be a major blow,” Fernandez added.