KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 1 — The government has decided to temporarily suspend the permission for travelling to perform the umrah beginning Jan 8 to curb the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant.

In announcing this today, Health Minister Khairy Jamaluddin said the authorities were concerned that non-compliance with home quarantine procedures among returning pilgrims had caused the spread of the new variant among family members.

“Most pilgrims who returned from performing the umrah applied to undergo their seven-day quarantine at home. However, when there was non-compliance with the stipulated standard operating procedure (SOP), positive COVID-19 cases among umrah pilgrims caused the infection to spread among family members.

“Due to non-compliance with the home quarantine procedures, family members living in the same house or neighbours and relatives who come visiting are exposed to COVID-19 infection,” he told a press conference here.

He said a special meeting was held yesterday to discuss the situation with several agencies involved in umrah pilgrim management, including the Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry; Wakaf, Zakat and Haj Department; Transport Ministry; National Security Council; National Disaster Management Agency (NADMA); Immigration Department and Association of Umrah and Haj Tour Agencies.

It was followed by a Special Quartet Meeting chaired by Senior Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein to discuss proposals for suspending umrah travel over concerns on the spread of Omicron.

The meeting decided to temporarily suspend the permission for travelling to perform the umrah beginning Jan 8 until a date to be announced later, and bookings for new umrah flight tickets have been suspended effective today (Jan 1), he said.

Khairy said it was also decided that pilgrims returning to Malaysia beginning Jan 3 would have to undergo compulsory quarantine at quarantine stations or hotels designated by NADMA.

“Pilgrims leaving for the Holy Land (Mecca) between Jan 1 and 7, 2022 will be allowed to proceed with their journey. However, they need to undergo quarantine at quarantine stations or hotels identified by NADMA on their return to Malaysia.

“The decisions of the meeting have been approved by the prime minister (Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob),” he added.

Khairy said mass gatherings of pilgrims from various countries in Saudi Arabia exposed Malaysian pilgrims to high risks of contracting COVID-19 including the Omicron variant, and this situation also made it difficult for the pilgrims to observe the umrah SOP set by the Malaysian government.

“The arrival of Malaysian umrah pilgrims in big numbers of about 800 to 1,000 daily (on four special flights) further increases the risk of importing COVID-19 cases and the Omicron variant into the country,” he added.

He said risk assessment on the COVID-19 Omicron situation in and outside the country especially in Saudi Arabia would be carried out periodically before a decision was made to allow the resumption of umrah activities.

This suspension of umrah travel is expected to help reduce the risk of the Omicron spread and stem an increase in COVID-19 cases in the country.

“It is also hoped that this measure will give the government an opportunity and space to make thorough planning and preparations on umrah pilgrim management before umrah activities could be allowed to resume,” he added.

Meanwhile, Khairy said 2,763 positive COVID-19 cases were detected among travellers who arrived at the country’s international entry points (PMA) between Jan 1 and Dec 30 last year, and of this number, 1,446 positive cases were found among those who arrived from Saudi Arabia, followed by Singapore (322 cases), Indonesia (264), and the United Kingdom (217).

He said that as at Dec 30, a total of 11,108 umrah pilgrims had arrived in Malaysia and 1,306 or 11.76 per cent of them were found COVID-19 positive, with 592 detected positive in their first test conducted on arrival in Malaysia and 714 found positive during their second test conducted on the fifth day of quarantine.

He said two more Omicron cases were detected in the country yesterday, bringing the total for the new variant so far to 64, half of which or 32 cases involved umrah pilgrims.

He said 63 cases involved travellers and one was suspected to be a local infection.

Khairy said the Institute for Medical Research (IMR) had conducted PCR Genotyping Assay tests on 1,077 samples of positive COVID-19 cases involving travellers between Dec 21 and 29 last year.

“A total of 966 samples showed presumptive Omicron variant and are now awaiting whole genomic sequencing (WGS) results, and of these 966 samples, 750 or 77.6 per cent involved samples of travellers who arrived from Saudi Arabia.

“As at Dec 30, there were nine clusters involving umrah pilgrims, with five clusters involving index cases confirmed to be of the Omicron variant, one cluster involving index case of presumptive Omicron – awaiting WGS results – and three clusters involving index cases of positive COVID-19 cases not of the Omicron variant,” he added.


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