European Union leaders have ‘strongly discouraged’ Europeans from non-essential travel and warned that tighter travel restrictions could come in days if efforts to tackle the coronavirus fail after a meeting to discuss the challenge growing more infectious virus variants.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a press conference on Thursday that the health situation in Europe was now “very serious”, with new variants and an increase in infections affecting the continent.
His comments came after a four-hour summit via video link with heads of government of the 27-nation bloc.
Von der Leyen stressed that countries should not close their borders, to ensure the functioning of the EU single market, including the movement of goods and the movement of workers across borders.
However, she said the commission, the bloc’s executive arm, would add a new “dark red” category to its traffic light risk indications, for areas where the virus was circulating at a very high rate. Today almost all of Europe is red.
“People traveling from dark red areas may be required to take a pre-departure test, as well as submit to quarantine after arrival,” von der Leyen said, adding that all non-essential travel should be discouraged. in these areas.
Charles Michel, President of the European Council, for his part said that additional restrictive measures to limit non-essential travel “will probably be necessary”. “This is the direction we are taking,” he said.
Both added that further coordination on this issue would be carried out “in the coming days”.
But both also said the EU wanted to avoid a repeat of the height of the first wave, in March last year, when several member states panicked and unilaterally closed national borders, sparking travel and economic chaos. .
“We will only contain the virus if we have targeted measures, and not unnecessary measures like a blanket border closure, which would seriously harm our economy, but not greatly limit the virus,” said von der Leyen, describing the ‘EU as “an epidemiological zone”.
Thursday’s summit began just as the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said there was a “very high” likelihood of emerging coronavirus variants spreading more contagious in the EU.
These mutations – first recorded in the UK, South Africa and Brazil – have raised fears of a dramatic increase in transmission.
Problems with vaccines, travel certificates
Discussions on Thursday also focused on halting vaccine deliveries after Pfizer last week announced a temporary cut that affected all EU countries.
The EU has signed six vaccine contracts for more than two billion doses, but only Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been approved to date.
The European Commission has nevertheless urged member states to speed up the process after a disappointing start to vaccination in the bloc.
The leaders also weighed a Greek proposal to issue vaccination certificates to facilitate travel.
Greece and Spain have raised the idea that they could help restore cross-border travel.
However, French President Emmanuel Macron said vaccine passports should be examined with “great caution,” according to the Elysee, especially because it was not yet clear whether those vaccinated could still transmit the virus to d ‘other.
With doubts lingering over whether those vaccinated could still be contagious, and only a small fraction of the EU population already vaccinated, EU leaders agreed on Thursday that it was too early to decide whether the vaccination certificates were to be considered as travel documents.
Michel, who chairs the EU summits, said it should be a debate for later.
EU states roll out new rules
Thursday’s meeting also coincided with a wave of actions from EU member states trying to tackle the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said ahead of the summit that European countries must take the new mutation found in the UK seriously to avoid a third wave.
“We cannot rule out border closures, but we want to prevent them through cooperation within the European Union,” she said at a press conference in Berlin, two days after her government and heads of state have agreed to extend a hard lockdown for two weeks.
Alexander De Croo, Belgian Prime Minister, where per capita cases are lower than in neighboring countries, meanwhile said he would ask fellow EU leaders to stop non-essential travel, such as tourism .
“The slightest spark could raise the numbers. We have to protect our good position, ”he told broadcaster VRT.
De Croo’s Portuguese counterpart Antonio Costa said on Thursday all flights to and from the UK would be suspended from Saturday as Portugal scrambled to tackle the rapid spread of the new variant of the coronavirus.
French President Macron has told his EU counterparts that France will make PCR testing mandatory for all travelers to France from Sunday, including from EU countries.
Elsewhere in Europe, the Netherlands adopted a plan on Thursday to impose its first nighttime curfew since World War II starting on Saturday.