Saudi Arabia pauses international umrah, flights over new coronavirus strain

The kingdom has also suspended entry through its land and seaports for one week.

al-monitor Saudi passengers observe from a safe distance as they wait for their flights at Terminal 5 in the King Fahad International Airport, designated for domestic flights, in the capital, Riyadh, on May 31, 2020, after authorities lifted the ban on flights within the country.  Photo by FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images.

Dec 21, 2020

Saudi Arabia has suspended flights in and out of the country for one week and put the year-round international umrah pilgrimage on hold following reports of a new strain of the coronavirus emerging in the United Kingdom.

The Saudi government is "suspending all international flights for travelers, except in exceptional cases, temporarily for one week, which can be extended for another week,” the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said on Sunday.

Authorities are also “suspending entry to the kingdom through land and seaports temporarily for one week, which can be extended for another week.” Recent arrivals from certain European countries will be required to isolate at home for two weeks and take repeated COVID-19 tests.

In March, the kingdom put umrah pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina, which attract some 19 million people to the holy cities annually, on hold as part of measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Faced with a decline in new cases, Saudi Arabia in October began allowing a limited number of citizens and residents to undertake the pilgrimage.

The new restrictions in Saudi Arabia come as scientists in the UK say they have identified a new strain of the coronavirus they say is more contagious. The discovery prompted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday to impose a new round of severe restrictions in London and southern England. By Monday, more than 30 countries had responded by banning travel to the UK and South Africa, where the mutation has also emerged.

In a TV interview Monday, Saudi Health Minister Tawfiq al-Rabiah sought to reassure the public that the kingdom is “taking all related appropriate precautionary measurements … to assess the situation and understand the impact” of the virus mutation.

Al-Rabiah was among the first in Saudi Arabia to be vaccinated last week, a day after the first shipment of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine arrived in the Gulf country. Citizens and residents of Saudi Arabia will receive the vaccine free of charge, officials say, and the first phase of vaccinations will target the elderly. So far, more than 400,000 people in the high-risk group have signed up to receive vaccinations.

Saudi health officials announced 168 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, raising the total number of confirmed infections to 361,178 since the start of the pandemic.

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