EU leaders on Thursday “discouraged” Europeans from non-essential travel and warned that stricter travel restrictions could come in a few days if efforts to curb the coronavirus are lacking.
EU leaders Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel issued the warning after a four-hour summit via video link with the heads of government of the 27-nation bloc focused on responding to the second wave of the pandemic.
The urgency is driven by fears of the spread of highly contagious coronavirus variants that could send already high rates of infection to the heights and strain hospitals, as is happening in the former EU member UK.
“All non-essential travel should be strongly discouraged both within the country and, of course, across borders,” von der Leyen, head of the European Commission, told a media conference.
Michel, President-in-Office of the European Council, said: “It will probably be necessary to take further restrictive measures to limit non-essential travel and that is the direction we are taking.”
Both added that further coordination on that issue would be made in the “coming days”.
But both also said that the EU wanted to avoid a repetition of the height of the first wave, in March last year, when several member states panicked and closed national borders unilaterally, which triggered travel and economic chaos.
“It is absolutely essential that the internal market works,” von der Leyen said, so that workers and goods can continue to cross borders.
The European Union is “an epidemiological zone,” she said.
“We will only contain the virus if we have targeted measures and not unnecessary measures such as a blanket of borders, which would seriously damage our economy, but not particularly limit the virus.”
But to avoid closing the borders within the EU in the passport-free Schengen area, testing must be intensified, the leaders agreed.
As of Sunday, anyone arriving outside the EU – only possible for essential reasons – may need to test Covid-19 before departure, von der Leyen said.
Within the EU, some countries will apply previous tests for cross-border travel that do not fall into essential categories such as workers and truck drivers.
As of Sunday, France will require a negative PCR test 72 hours before departure for most European arrivals other than those on major travel, President Emmanuel Macron told the European Council, according to his office.
A statement from Macron’s office said that “some of his European counterparts” have also chosen this approach.
Variety distribution in Portugal
The summit also supported a broader use of antigen testing in other situations that were considered low-risk. These tests, which often use saliva samples, are cheaper and faster – but less reliable – than nasal probing PCR tests.
Thursday’s summit began, just as the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control said there was a “very high” probability that the more contagious variants would spread in the European Union.
These mutations – which emerged in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil – have already led to bans or restrictions on travelers from these countries.
Belgium – divided between Germany, France and the Netherlands – had entered the summit and asked for a “temporary” closure during the holiday in February.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had also expressed support “for stricter entry controls and test requirements to keep virus mutations out”.
At present, the variants in question are still a small proportion of the total cases in most of the EU.
But Portugal serves as an early warning of what may come.
Its government ordered schools closed for two weeks due to the rapid spread of the British variant, which Prime Minister Antonio Costa said accounted for 20 percent of infections and could make up 60 percent as soon as next week.
Although there were no indications yet, the new variants were more lethal, but there were concerns that their faster spread could overload the hospital’s intensive care capacity.
Following a disappointingly slow start to vaccination in the EU, the European Commission has called on Member States to increase the speed.
It hopes to soon be able to approve more vaccines in addition to the BioNTech / Pfizer and Moderna currently being injected, and aims to vaccinate 70 percent of adults in the EU before September.
The leaders also discussed vaccine certificates, something that tourism-dependent countries like Greece hope can facilitate the travel edges and save what looks like a catastrophic summer holiday period.
But EU leaders decided it was too early and too many questions remained for such a certificate to be used as anything other than a health record.