Saudi Arabia is limiting the number of Muslims who can take part in the annual pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina – called the Hajj – for a second year, because of COVID-19.

Only 60,000 of its own citizens and residents will be able to join the event, the state Saudi Press Agency (SPA) reported on Saturday.

That figure will be higher than last year, when barely 1,000 were allowed to go, but still many times less than the two million-plus who normally visit Islam’s holiest sites for the Hajj, including many Britons.

Only people aged between 18 and 65 who have been vaccinated or immunised against the virus, and are free of chronic
diseases, will be able to join the pilgrimage in mid-July this year.

The kingdom’s health minister. Tawfiq al Rabiah, said: “The decision (was made) to guarantee the safety of Hajj amid uncertainty over the coronavirus.

“Despite the availability of vaccine, there is uncertainty over the virus and some countries still record high numbers of
COVID cases.

“The other challenge is the different variants of the virus, hence came the decision to restrict Hajj.”

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The minister said only those who had received Pfizer, Astrazeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines will be able to take part in the Hajj.

Saudi Arabia’s decision is likely to be met with disappointment by many Muslims, who consider it a once in a lifetime duty for every able-bodied believer who can afford it.

The week-long Hajj and the lesser, year-round umrah pilgrimages together earned the kingdom about $12bn a year before the pandemic, according to official data.

In 2020, two-thirds of those who took part were foreign residents of Saudi Arabia from among the 160 different nationalities that would have normally been represented at the event. One-third were security personnel and medical staff who were Saudi citizens.

The COVID-19 pandemic is not the first time the event has been affected by illness, with a malaria outbreak in 632, cholera outbreaks in 1821 and 1865 and more recently Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, prompting concerns and controls.

Saudi Arabia had closed its borders for months to limit the spread of the virus and, so far, it has largely escaped the worst of its effects.

About 462,000 cases of the virus have been reported, along with 7,500 deaths, and some 15.4 million vaccine doses have been administered in the country of over 30 million people.