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Airline shares tumble as new Covid variant triggers travel restrictions

Airline shares tumbled on Friday after the UK introduced restrictions on travel to southern African countries and the EU indicated it was preparing to do the same following the discovery of a new coronavirus variant.

British Airways owner International Airlines Group fell as much as 20 per cent in early trading, while easyJet dropped 17 per cent and Lufthansa lost 12 per cent.

The selling rippled out across the wider travel sector with shares in French hotel group Accor down 8 per cent and InterContinental Hotels Group 7 per cent lower.

The UK late on Thursday placed six countries on to its red list of travel restrictions — South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Lesotho and Eswatini — while the EU has indicated it will ban travellers from the region.

The return of international travel restrictions came as scientists expressed mounting concern over a surge in cases of a heavily mutated coronavirus variant, the B.1.1.529 Sars-Cov-2, amid fears over its ability to evade vaccines and transmit faster than the Delta variant.

Airlines and other travel shares had already been under pressure this month after several European governments introduced new local lockdown rules following a wave of infections from the dominant Delta variant.

But the prospect of a return to widespread restrictions on international travel opens up new concerns for a sector that had enjoyed a fragile recovery over the past six months.

The sharp share price losses on Friday sent several major airlines including IAG and easyJet to their lowest levels since the introduction of Covid vaccines reopened the pathway to international travel late last year.

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