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UAE residents have mixed feelings about travel amid COVID-19 variant Omicron

Residents in the United Arab Emirates say they have mixed feelings about traveling ahead of the Christmas season as the new COVID-19 variant Omicron disrupts international travel.

Fallout from the new, potentially riskier COVID-19 variant first detected in southern Africa is adding fresh frustrations for travelers, just as they were glimpsing a return to normalcy.

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The US, European Union members, Canada, and Hong Kong are among the countries restricting travel from several nations in southern Africa.

The UK also halted flights, placing six African countries on its travel red list and will require arriving travelers to quarantine in hotels in an attempt to quash the spread of the B.1.1.529 variant — to which the World Health Organization has assigned the Greek letter Omicron.

It has also resumed extra restrictions such as requiring the use of face masks in public.

Some countries have gone one step further, with Japan and Israel both shutting their borders to international travelers.

In the UAE, some residents are nervous about pressing ahead with travel plans, while others say the new variant – and travel restrictions – will not stop them going home this Christmas

Kathy Scheepmaker, a manager at the Royal Atlantis Resort and Residences, spoke to Al Arabiya English from the airport.

She is flying from Dubai to the UK and hope that there will be no further disruptions.

“I am flying to see my daughter; I haven’t seen her in months and am concerned about what is happening and if other countries are going to close. But I cannot not see her.

“I have had a PCR test and am double-vaccinated and will do a test on day two in the UK and a PCR test to come back, but I really need to see my daughter.”

Another resident, of Dubai, who asked not to be named, plans to continue with her plans to the UK.

“The exact same thing happened last year and I cut my trip home short due to all of the scaremongering that the UAE was going to close its borders to the UK,” she told Al Arabiya English. “I won’t be falling prey to this again and I will be definitely enjoying ten days at home with my family.”

Another resident told Al Arabiya English that he, however, has concerns about his planned trip to Asia and the UK.

“I have been putting my annual leave off for Christmas and the New Year in the UK,” he said. “That is definitely on ice now.

“The unknowns are so many. Flights, travel bans, and a lack of information. The risks include being stuck on a country for months one end and employers saying travel at your own risk. Who is going to risk their job for a week’s holiday?”

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Another resident, who asked not to be named, said she was planning to press ahead with plans regardless of the new virus variant.

“It has been two-and-a-half years,” she said. “I am going back home.”

A South African man working in the construction industry in Dubai cancelled his family’s planned Christmas trip home. He told Al Arabiya English that the five-week holiday was costing 50,000 Dirhams with international and domestic flights accounting for over 50 percent of the total amount.

Noting that he booked flexi-flights some of the outlay could be recouped, but he believes it will be difficult to reclaim accommodation bills.

One UK national based in Dubai is flying to England tomorrow morning to visit his grown-up children. The media professional said that he is not concerned about the new variant.

“I haven’t seen the kids in 14 months, and I’m not worried, and I’m not cancelling the trip,” he said.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabians also expressed similar concerns regarding air travel as news of the spread of the new coronavirus variant Omicron worries some.

“Flying in general is terrifying for me, and with the news of the new [COVID-19] variant emerging, I am still very anxious and cautious about traveling,” Aseel al-Bassam, a 27-year-old Saudi told Al Arabiya English.

Al-Bassam’s job requires her to travel frequently between Dubai and Riyadh, she said.

Al Anoud Bin Juma, a Riyadh-based interior design student said she doesn’t feel anxious about traveling during the winter season due to COVID-19.

“I had been eager to travel, and I don’t let coronavirus news affect my plans,” she said.

Bin Juma said she is planning to travel in December, adding that she takes precautionary measures seriously but doesn’t “stress too much” about COVID-19 fears.

Al Arabiya English’s Reem Krimly contributed to this report.

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UAE reports 1,796 new COVID-19 cases, no deaths

The UAE announced 1,796 new COVID-19 cases on Saturday, the official Emirates News Agency reported.

This brings the current total active cases in the UAE to 17,551 and the total number of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic to 949,384, according to data from the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA).

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The cases were determined out of 232,943 tests in the last 24 hours.

No deaths from the virus were recorded on Saturday, maintaining the total deaths caused by COVID-19 to 2,317 in the UAE.

At least 1,727 patients recovered in the previous 24 hours, bringing the total COVID-19 recoveries to 929,516.

On June 13, the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) announced it would strictly enforce its mask rules – with penalties for those flouting the protocol – and announced it would tighten its rules on the Al Hosn green pass system amid rising coronavirus cases across the country.

NCEMA said that it has recently “monitored some behaviors that have become a danger to society and public health,” referring to people not adhering to COVID-19 precautionary and preventative measures and how it has “negatively” impacted recovery efforts.

“Negligence and recklessness in following precautionary measures, and failure in the societal role in maintaining public health and acquired immunity, has resulted in a rise in the number of infections and new waves of the virus,” the authority spokesman said in the briefing.

The authority reaffirmed the need to wear masks in closed public spaces, reiterating that it was mandatory and that not adhering to this rule would result in a fine of up to $816 (AED 3,000).

According to the World Health Organization, more than 4.1 million cases were reported globally in the last week.

It added, however, that the worldwide number of deaths remained relatively similar to the week before, at about 8,500, noting that COVID-related deaths increased in three regions: the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Americas.

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Omicron-specific COVID-19 vaccines could increase protection as boosters: EMA

Coronavirus vaccines tweaked to include the omicron variant strain can improve protection when used as a booster, the European Medicines Agency and other global health regulators said on Friday.
Following a meeting on Thursday, the EMA said global regulators had agreed on key principles for updating COVID-19 shots to respond to emerging variants.
While the existing coronavirus vaccines continue to provide good protection against hospitalization and death, the group said, vaccine effectiveness has taken a hit as the virus has evolved.
For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.
As such, an omicron-specific or bivalent booster – meaning a vaccine that includes both the new strain and the original coronavirus strain – could “increase and extend” protection, a statement from the EMA said.
The statement refers specifically to the mRNA vaccines. Both Pfizer Inc and Moderna Inc have been testing retooled versions of their vaccines to include the omicron variant.
Vaccines which include other variants, for example the beta variant, might also be considered for use as boosters if clinical trial data demonstrate an adequate level of neutralization against omicron and other variants of concern, the statement said.
It follows guidance from the World Health Organization that omicron-specific boosters could restore protection against emerging strains of the coronavirus.
But it stops short of the position of the regulator in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which said on Thursday that it would seek the inclusion specifically of the newer BA.4 and BA.5 strains of omicron, currently driving a surge in new infections globally, in any new shots for use domestically.
On Tuesday, the head of a WHO advisory committee that has considered the modified shots said the group preferred BA.1-based boosters, arguing that the variant is more distinct and could generate a broader response than the more recently circulating subvariants.
Top US FDA official Peter Marks said in an interview that regulators from other countries were seriously considering using new boosters based on the BA.1 omicron variant that caused the massive surge in cases last winter, because those shots can be available sooner than the BA.4/5 based booster the United States plans to use.
The EMA said it would provide more details in coming days.
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Russia scraps remaining COVID-19 restrictions

Russia said on Friday it was ending all restrictions to combat the spread of COVID-19, including the requirement to wear masks, citing a steady decline in deaths from the virus.
However, it did not rule out re-introducing restrictive measures if the situation deteriorates.
Consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor said it was “suspending previously introduced restrictions, including the mask regime, a ban on public catering at night, and a number of other measures.”
For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.
It said the dynamics of the virus were consistent with global trends and 93 percent of confirmed cases were mild or asymptomatic.
Since the start of the pandemic in Russia in April 2020, over 800,000 people have died from coronavirus or causes related to COVID-19, Reuters calculations show, with the country recording over 18 million infections.
Russia was quick to develop and launch its Sputnik V vaccine when the pandemic struck but take-up was slow, with many Russians citing distrust of the authorities and fear of new medical products. About 52 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated.
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