EU leaders ‘discourage’ travel, eye tougher border rules

EU leaders on Thursday “stronglydiscouraged” Europeans from non-essential travel and warned tougherrestrictions on trips could come within days if efforts to curb thecoronavirus fell short, reports AFP.

EU chiefs Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel issued the warning aftera four-hour summit by video link with the heads of government of the 27-nation bloc focused on responding to the second wave of the pandemic.

The tone of urgency was fuelled by fears over the spread of highlycontagious coronavirus variants that could send already high infection ratesskyrocketing and strain hospitals, as is happening in former EU memberBritain.

“All non-essential travel should be strongly discouraged both within thecountry and of course across borders,” von der Leyen, head of the EuropeanCommission, told a media conference.

Michel, president of the European Council, said “It will be probablynecessary to take additional restrictive measures in order to limit the non-essential travels and that is the orientation that we are taking.”

Both added that further coordination on that issue would be made in “thenext days”.

But both also said the EU wanted to avoid a repeat of the height of thefirst wave, in March last year, when several member states panicked andclosed off national borders unilaterally, triggering travel and economicchaos.

“It is absolutely important to keep the single market functioning,” von derLeyen said, so that workers and freight can continue to cross borders.

The European Union is “one epidemiological zone,” she said.

“We will only contain the virus if we have targeted measures, and notunnecessary measures like a blanket closure of borders, which would severely hurt our economy, but not very much restrict the virus.”

But to avoid closing the intra-EU borders in the passport-free Schengenzone, testing needs to be stepped up, leaders agreed.

From Sunday, anybody arriving from outside the EU — possible only forthose with essential reasons — could have to have a test for Covid-19 beforedeparture, von der Leyen said.

Within the EU, some countries will apply prior testing for cross-bordertrips that do not come under essential categories such as workers and truckdrivers.

From Sunday France will require a negative PCR test 72 hours beforedeparture for most European arrivals other than those on essential travel,President Emmanuel Macron told the European Council, according to his office.

A statement from Macron’s office said “some of his European counterparts”have also chosen this approach.

The summit also backed wider use of antigen tests in other situationsdeemed low-risk. Those tests, often using saliva samples, are cheaper andfaster — though less reliable — than nose-probing PCR tests.

Thursday’s summit started just as the European Centre for DiseasePrevention and Control said there was a “very high” probability of the morecontagious variants spreading in the European Union.

These mutations — which emerged in Britain, South Africa and Brazil —have already prompted bans or restrictions on travellers from thosecountries.

Belgium — wedged between Germany, France and the Netherlands — had goneinto the summit pleading for a “temporary” closure during its February holiday period.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had also voiced support “for stricterentry controls and testing requirements to keep virus mutations out”.

Currently, the concerning variants remain a tiny proportion of overallcases in most of the EU.

But Portugal is serving as an early warning of what may be to come.

Its government ordered schools closed for two weeks because of the rapidspread of the British variant, which Prime Minister Antonio Costa saidaccounted for 20 percent of infections and could make up 60 percent as soonas next week.

While there was no indication as yet the new variants were more deadly,there were concerns their faster spread could overload hospital intensivecare capacity.

After a disappointingly slow start to vaccination in the EU, the EuropeanCommission has been urging greater speed from member states.

It hopes to soon authorise more vaccines beyond the BioNTechPfizer andModerna ones currently being injected, and aims to inoculate 70 percent of adults in the EU before September.

The leaders also discussed vaccine certificates, something tourism-dependent countries such as Greece hope might ease travel curbs and save whatlooks like another disastrous summer vacation period.

But EU leaders decided it was too early and too many questions remained forsuch a certificate to be used as anything more than a health record.