As the number of countries joining Britain in banning travel from southern Africa mounted yesterday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised President Cyril Ramaphosa that he would explore ‘ways to work together to deal with (panic over the new Covid variant) and reopen international travel’.

Downing Street confirmed that the two leaders discussed the latest crisis yesterday afternoon.

This came as the World Health Organisation (WHO) designated the new Covid-19 variant – which it named Omicron – detected in South Africa with a large number of mutations as being ‘of concern’. It is the fifth variant to be given this designation.

More countries joined the list of those banning or restricting travel from southern Africa, including the United States, Canada, the European Union, Seychelles, UAE, and Turkey.

A Downing Street spokesperson said late yesterday: ‘The Prime Minister spoke to President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa this afternoon. They discussed the challenges posed globally by the new Covid-19 variant, and ways to work together to deal with it and reopen international travel.

‘The Prime Minister commended South Africa’s rapid genomic sequencing and leadership in transparently sharing scientific data.’

Meanwhile, Cape Town Mayor Geordin Hill-Lewis sharply criticised the national health department for its handling of the announcement of a new Covid-19 variant, in view of the potentially devastating impact of travel restrictions on the region’s already pummelled tourism industry.

He said: ‘If we know we’re going to get punished for detecting new variants, as in the past…then surely, we should know what we’re dealing with before we go and announce it to the world.’

Western Cape Premier Alan Winde called for speedy research to analyse the impact of the new variant, especially ahead of the province’s tourism season.

He said it was ‘urgent that we get to understand the implications of the variant and what it means to us for our economy’.

Health Minister Joe Phaahla emphasised the importance of South Africa being transparent, but said that some of the ‘draconian’ and ‘knee-jerk’ reactions to the announcement were unjustified.

He said there was no ‘suggestion at this stage’ that the variant would cause severe illness.