“According to scientific studies, this virus is spreading quicker than in previous waves, but the rates of hospitalizations and deaths remain relatively low,” according to a news release from South Africa’s Ministry of Health.
Health Minister Joe Phaahla told South Africans that they should practice reasonable safety measures and avoid so-called “super-spreader” events. The variant, he added, shouldn’t prevent people from enjoying a “joyous Christmas, and prosperous New Year celebrations.”
His comments come in contrast to those made by authorities in the United Kingdom. Since the first Omicron cases were detected on Nov. 27 in Britain, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson imposed tougher restrictions earlier this week and cautioned that the variant could overcome the immune defenses of people who received vaccines.
One Omicron-related death has been confirmed worldwide. Johnson announced the lone death from the variant earlier this week, saying the fatality occurred in the UK, although scant details have been provided.
On Thursday, the French government said it would tighten restrictions on travel from the UK, essentially banning all non-essential trips.
“People cannot travel for tourism or professional reasons,” the government said in a statement, noting UK government officials said the country would face “a tidal wave” of new infections due to the Omicron variant.
All arrivals from the UK will need to provide negative PCR or antigen tests taken within the previous 24 hours now. They will have to quarantine in France for seven days or 48 hours if they can produce a new negative COVID-19 test, the statement said.
“All travelers from the UK must register before their departure on a digital platform allowing them in particular to give the address where they will be staying in France,” the statement said. The quarantine requirement will be policed, it added.
The World Health Organization (WHO), which drew criticism for naming the variant Omicron instead of “Xi,” said Sunday that preliminary findings from South Africa suggest Omicron could be less severe than the Delta strain.
The U.N. agency noted at the time that all cases reported in the Europe region have been mild or asymptomatic, but WHO cautioned that it still remains unclear to what extent Omicron may be inherently less virulent.
Earlier this week, South Africa’s health ministry said it was unable to say with certainty if any of its COVID-19 deaths were caused by Omicron as deaths were not broken down by variant.
Reuters contributed to this report.