While Iran says the number of people carrying the highly infectious Omicron variant of the coronavirus is increasing, government travel restrictions seem patchy.
Public relations manager of the Iranian Health Ministry, Mohammad Hashemi, said on Sunday that 14 people are confirmed to be infected with Omicron in several parts of the country.
The number of people with the new variant is probably much higher than 14 because Iranian authorities in the past have been slow in announcing outbreaks. The head of the Medical Sciences University of Semnan province, Kamran Qods, talked about a family of five who caught the virus in less than a day, a case that the government has not reported, as an example for the high rate of Omicron’s contagion.
Iran was the second country after China where the corovirus spread and Covid-19 became an epidemic, but the government was slow to admit the crisis and act to contain it in early 2020.
Iran has announced that it has closed all its land and sea borders to non-Iranians for 15 days, but air travel is still ongoing except from eight African countries and four European ones, namely England, France, Norway and Denmark.
Head of Iran's Roads and Transportation Organization Javad Hedayati said on Sunday that Iranian passengers can cross the borders with their vaccine cards and a negative PCR test.
He added that a travel ban has also been put in place for Iranian tourists who want to visit Turkey, because according to Turkish authorities Omicron accounts for 10 percent of new cases.
If that is the case in Turkey, then Iran should also have hundreds of people infected with Omicron.
However, restrictions, which started with Khuzestan province on Saturday have exempted holders of valid residence permits, student and work visas, students of seminaries and universities, as well investors and medical visas. These groups constitute the major bulk of the people who travel to and from Iran.
More than 6,000 flights have been cancelled worldwide over the Christmas weekend as pilots, flight attendants and other employees are calling in sick or having to quarantine after exposure to COVID-19.
A senior official of Iran’s national Coronavirus headquarters says the new variant will be the dominant type of Covid-19 in Iran in the following weeks, if it is not controlled.
Deputy health minister Kamal Haidari said last week that about 1,800 suspected cases were sent to laboratories for further tests.
Iran, which confirmed the first Omicron case on Sunday, December 19, is one of the worst hit countries in the Middle East by more than 131,000 deaths since February 2020.