KUALA LUMPUR: Malaysia will suspend umrah trips to Saudi Arabia from Jan 8 as part of efforts to curb the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant, health minister Khairy Jamaluddin announced on Saturday (Jan 1).
The decision was made as authorities are concerned about people breaching home quarantine after returning from the pilgrimage.
“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, positive COVID-19 cases among umrah pilgrims caused the infection to spread among family members,” said Mr Khairy at a press conference.
“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.”
Bookings for new umrah flight tickets were suspended on Saturday, he said.
The health minister added that pilgrims returning to Malaysia from Jan 3 will have to quarantine at designated facilities.
“Pilgrims leaving for the Holy Land (Mecca) between Jan 1 and 7 will be allowed to proceed with their journey. However, they need to undergo quarantine at quarantine stations or hotels identified by NADMA (national disaster management agency) on their return to Malaysia,” he told reporters.
Malaysia has recorded 64 Omicron cases as of Dec 31, of which 32 involved umrah pilgrims, said Mr Khairy. There were also nine clusters involving pilgrims.
“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.
Those who have paid for an umrah package but are unable to go as a result of the restrictions will be refunded or have their travel rescheduled, said Mr Khairy.
"I'm very sorry to those who want to go for the umrah, but the harm is public health ... no Muslim minister wants to postpone the umrah, but this is a serious matter, this is not a tweet on social media, not a video on TikTok, this is about life,” he added.
The government will carry out a risk assessment of the Omicron situation in and outside Malaysia before lifting the suspension on umrah activities.
“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,” Mr Khairy said.