The White House on Friday announced that it is lifting the travel restrictions it imposed on eight southern African countries last month following the discovery of the COVID-19 omicron variant.
President Biden will lift the restrictions on Dec. 31, just one month after the bans were first announced, according to White House assistant press secretary Kevin Munoz.
Munoz noted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that the restrictions be lifted.
“On Dec. 31, @POTUS will lift the temporary travel restrictions on Southern Africa countries. This decision was recommended by @CDCgov,” Munoz wrote on Twitter.
“The restrictions gave us time to understand Omicron and we know our existing vaccines work against Omicron, esp boosted,” he added.
The Biden administration announced the restrictions on South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Mozambique and Malawi last month to try and tame the spread of the omicron variant.
A senior administration official told CNN that the CDC ultimately recommended lifting the restrictions because of progress health experts have made in understanding the omicron variant, and because of how much the strain has spread across the globe.
“First, our nation’s health officials have made progress in understanding Omicron; importantly, our existing vaccines are effective against severe disease with Omicron, especially if you’re boosted. Second, with Omicron now present across the US and globally, international travelers from these countries will not have a significant impact on US cases,” the official told CNN.
President Biden on Tuesday said he was “considering reversing” the travel restrictions, telling reporters “I’m going to talk with my team in the next couple of days.”
He reiterated that the administration implemented the bans “to see how much time we had before it [omicron] hit here so we could begin to decide what we needed by looking at what’s happening in other countries.”
He said the U.S., however, was “past that now.”
A senior official told Reuters, which first reported on the restrictions being lifted, that the temporary travel ban “served its purpose,” adding that “it bought time to understand the science, it gave time to analyze the variant.”
The official said the restrictions were not meant to stop the omicron variant from entering the U.S., but rather “to reduce the number of cases coming in — in those early days and weeks.”
On keeping the strain out of the U.S., the official said “we knew we couldn’t do that.”
The highly mutated strain has since spread to a number of countries across the globe, including every state in the U.S. It now accounts for the majority of COVID-19 cases in the U.S.
Other nations, including the United Kingdom, implemented similar travel bans on African countries in the wake of the first detection of the omicron variant. The U.K. lifted its restrictions last week, pointing to community transmission of the strain within the country.
The lifting of the restrictions comes after the Biden administration faced criticism for implementing them from the international community and public health experts, who argued that the bans were ineffective because the variant had spread widely in the U.S. and other countries. The White House, however, had defended the restrictions as a necessary public health step.
The Hill reached out to the White House for more information.
— Updated at 9:44 a.m.