BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei has joined other countries around the world in imposing travel bans on eight southern African nations as a precautionary measure against the new COVID variant named Omicron.

The home affairs minister announced Saturday that travellers from South Africa, Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe are now barred from entering the country, a day after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the Omicron a variant “of concern”.

The restrictions also apply to individuals who have received prior approval for entry into Brunei from the eight countries, YB Pehin Dato Hj Awg Abu Bakar Hj Apong said at a COVID press briefing.

Omicron, first found in South Africa earlier this month, has triggered concerns of greater transmissibility and immune escape due to its large number of mutations – double the number seen in the predominant Delta variant.

Noting that Brunei does not often receive visitors from African countries, Health Minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham Hj Jaafar said the travel ban aims to prevent the Omicron strain from reaching local shores.

The sultanate has yet to reopen its borders to non-essential travellers but had intended to lift travel restrictions when it proceeds to the endemic phase.

Asked whether Omicron will affect Brunei’s plans of moving from pandemic to endemic COVID, the health minister said the government will need to study the various factors that can impact the country’s transition to endemic living.

One aspect is to determine whether the country has the capacity to detect and diagnose the Omicron variant, he said.

Brunei has not started genomic surveillance to identify COVID variants in the country despite receiving a genetic sequencing machine from a Beijing-based equity firm in August. Health officials previously said training of lab workers is needed to operate the machine.

Health minister YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

The minister further said medical experts will analyse the incubation period of the Omicron variant to determine its transmission rate.

“We need to consider how long it will take for an infected person to [spread the virus] to another person and whether it can cause severe symptoms. What’s most important is its effect on vaccination.

“Even if only one of these factors is present, it can affect our move towards the endemic phase,” he added.

YB Dato Dr Hj Mohd Isham said the fact that WHO designated Omicron as a variant of concern meant that it’s “quite serious”.

A variant is classified “of concern” when there is emerging evidence that it is more infectious, causes severe disease or escapes vaccine protection.

The WHO Friday said early evidence suggests Omicron has an increased risk of reinfection compared to other strains, but it will take weeks to understand the variant’s impact.

Apart from South Africa, the new variant has been identified in Botswana, Israel, Hong Kong, Belgium and the UK.

The emergence of Omicron highlights the low vaccination rates in African countries, which experts blame on rich countries hoarding vaccines and increased the chances of a more dangerous variant spreading throughout the world.

Insufficient vaccine supply has contributed to only six percent of people in Africa fully vaccinated against COVID.

In contrast, over 70 percent of high-income countries have already inoculated more than 40 percent of their population in October.

Brunei has fully immunised 79.6 percent of its residents since its COVID vaccine drive began seven months ago.

Minister of Home Affairs YB Pehin Dato Hj Abu Bakar. Photo: Rasidah Hj Abu Bakar/The Scoop

Unvaccinated employees can return to workplaces from December 1

Beginning December 1, unvaccinated individuals will be allowed to return to workplaces in the public and private sectors as part of the government’s preparations in shifting towards endemic living.

YB Pehin Dato Hj Awg Abu Bakar said all returning unvaccinated and partially vaccinated employees must take antigen rapid tests every two days.

Staff who are “unvaccinated by choice or for personal reasons” are required to bear the costs of antigen test kits, while employers should pay the tests of those who are medically exempt from vaccination.

Fully vaccinated employers last week went back to offices as Brunei entered the transition phase of its COVID recovery plan. Double-vaxxed civil servants were also required to undergo antigen tests but at a reduced frequency of once a fortnight.

The home affairs minister added that the 10pm to 4am curfew has been extended for another two weeks until December 14 to “ensure the wellbeing of all”.

The night movement curbs have been in place for more than seven weeks.