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Worried about travelling with unvaxxed kids during the Covid-19 pandemic? Here’s a legal loophole to explore


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You’re probably itching to shake off two years of Covid-19-induced stress and take a little pick-me-up overseas trip with the family. If you have children aged between five and 12, who are not yet eligible for vaccination, steel yourself for a potentially expensive uphill battle to get them back into the country.


                        headshot of Hollard's Head of Travel, Uriah Jansen.

Head of Travel at Hollard, Uriah Jansen


Luckily, there is hope on the horizon, thanks to a little-known provision in the law.

Even though South Africa’s lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic have technically ended, some regulations remain in place for the foreseeable future – including the need for international travellers to either show proof of vaccination or produce a negative PCR test (taken no more than 72 hours prior) upon their arrival in this country. Under-fives do not have to be tested; unvaccinated five- to 12-year-olds do.

These rules apply not only to overseas visitors coming to our shores but also to South Africans who intend to travel abroad for business or leisure and then return home. This, of course, presents potential headaches for families travelling with young children, but the good news is that there is a way to get around this inconvenience.

Here’s the conundrum: picture a South African family of four – a mother, a father and two children, one eight and the other five. We’ll call them Family X, but they could be any of us. The parents are fully vaccinated against COVID-19; the kids have not been able to get vaxxed, since the government has not yet authorised it for under-12s. Borders are now open, and they eagerly book a well-deserved family holiday to the Maldives. The children do not need a PCR test to enter the Maldives.

As Family X prepares to return to South Africa after a relaxing island break, the two children have to undergo a PCR test before flying home. One returns a positive test, which is the residue of a recent infection, even though the child has long recovered. However, this spanner in the works means they’re stuck in the Maldives – at their own cost – until the child returns a negative test. And they could be in for a long wait.

This is not an outlandish or isolated scenario – it is happening all the time. We’ve had a number of our travel insurance customers contact us in a panic, stranded and desperate to get home. An idyllic family holiday can turn nightmarish in the blink of an eye. Those blissful beach memories could vanish in a puff of smoke, only to be replaced with feelings of anxiety about work, school, pets, commitments, money and time wasted waiting around. Not to mention the fact that PCR tests are not cheap, either.

While our insurance does pay for travel cancellations due to Covid-19 and we do offer quarantine cover for travellers who test positive when arriving at their destination, it is not limitless. And no one wants to be stuck for weeks twiddling their thumbs in a quarantine hotel if they can help it. After all, this is meant to be a holiday!

A ray of hope is that travellers who have tested positive for the coronavirus – and have served out their isolation period – can obtain a Covid-19 recovery certificate from a medical professional and then apply to the Department of Health for an exemption to South Africa’s entry, re-entry and quarantine rules. This “fit to fly” document can save you a lot of unwanted stress.

According to the SA Coronavirus portal, if you have recently contracted Covid-19, chances are you might continue to test positive for weeks after you’ve recovered. This means that even though you as a vaccinated adult (COVID status notwithstanding) can travel in and out of South Africa as long as you can present your vaccination certificate, your small children can’t do the same and are at the mercy of a PCR test.

Here’s how you can take steps to ensure that your dream family trip doesn’t go up in flames if your child has recently had the virus (such as in the hypothetical case of Family X, stranded in the Maldives). Armed with a copy of the PCR test that confirmed your child’s initial infection, go to your doctor to obtain a certified letter confirming that your child has fully recovered, is not experiencing any new symptoms and is fit to travel. 

The recovery certificate from a medical practitioner must include details such as the child’s name and surname as reflected on their passport, the date, and the doctor’s signature, physical address and contact details. Make sure it’s legitimate and not a hastily scribbled note, to rule out any reason for your exemption application to be refused.

Email all the documentation, plus scans of your and your child’s passports, to porthealth.travel@health.gov.za. Make sure to submit your request for exemption well in advance of your planned trip, to give the department time to review and process it. 

Our travel sector is in the early stages of bouncing back from the devastation wrought by the pandemic, and those of us who love and cherish travel are thrilled to see how it is rebounding. We’re happy to see more people coming to South Africa, and more South Africans rediscovering the joy of travelling – which is great not only for our economy but also for our national well-being and collective psyche after a bruising couple of years. 

So, let’s not allow the few remaining travel restrictions to put a damper on that bucket-list holiday – South Africans are renowned for making a plan and hurdling over any obstacles, and the exemption application is one way you can try to ensure your trip is as stress-free as possible.


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