European Union leaders have “strongly discouraged” Europeans from non-essential travel and warned tougher restrictions on trips could come within days if efforts to curb the coronavirus fell short after a meeting to discuss the mounting challenge from more infectious virus variants.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told a news conference on Thursday that the health situation in Europe was now “very serious”, with new variants and an increase in infections affecting the continent.
Her comments came after a four-hour summit by video link with the heads of governments of the 27-nation bloc.
Von der Leyen stressed that countries should not close their borders, to ensure the functioning of the EU’s single market, including the flow of goods and travel for cross-border workers.
However, she said the commission, the bloc’s executive arm, would add a new “dark red” category to its traffic light indications of risk, for regions where the virus was circulating at a very high rate. Today, almost all of Europe is red.
“Persons travelling from dark red areas could be required to do a test before departure, as well as to undergo quarantine after arrival,” von der Leyen said, adding all non-essential travel should be discouraged from these areas.
Charles Michel, president of the European Council, meanwhile, said additional restrictive measures in order to limit non-essential travel “will be probably necessary”. “That is the orientation that we are taking,” he said.
Both added that further coordination on that issue would be made in “the next 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 closed off national borders unilaterally, triggering travel and economic chaos.
“We will only contain the virus if we have targeted measures, and not unnecessary measures like a blanket closure of borders, which would severely hurt our economy, but not very much restrict the virus,” von der Leyen said, describing the EU as “one epidemiological zone”.
Thursday’s summit started just as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said there was a “very high” probability of emergent coronavirus variants thought to be more contagious spreading in the EU.
These mutations – first recorded in the UK, South Africa and Brazil – have raised fears of dramatic upticks in transmission.
Vaccine issues, travel certificates
Discussions on Thursday also focused on the disruption of vaccine deliveries after Pfizer last week announced a temporary reduction that has affected all EU countries.
The EU has sealed six vaccine contracts for more than two billion doses, but only Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been approved for use so far.
The European Commission has nonetheless been urging greater speed from member states after a disappointingly slow start to vaccination in the bloc.
Leaders also weighed a Greek proposal to issue vaccination certificates to ease travel.
Greece and Spain have floated the idea that they could help restore cross-border travel.
However, French President Emmanuel Macron said vaccine passports needed to be looked at with “great caution”, according to the Elysee, particularly because it was not yet clear if vaccinated people could still transmit the virus to others.
With doubts lingering about whether the people vaccinated could still be contagious, and only a small fraction of the EU population already vaccinated, EU leaders on Thursday agreed it was too soon to decide if vaccination proof certificates should be considered as travel documents.
Michel, who chairs the EU summits, said this would have to be a debate for later.
EU states roll out new rules
Thursday’s meeting also coincided with a flurry of action from EU member states bidding to clamp down on the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said before the summit that European countries needed to take the new mutation found in the UK seriously to avoid a third wave.
“We can’t rule out border closures, but want to prevent them though cooperation within the European Union,” she told a news conference in Berlin, two days after her government and state leaders agreed to extend a hard lockdown by two weeks.
Alexander De Croo, prime minister of Belgium, where cases per capita are lower than the neighbouring countries, meanwhile, said he would ask fellow EU leaders to halt non-essential travel, such as tourism.
“The slightest spark could push the figures back up again. We need to protect our good position,” he told broadcaster VRT.
De Croo’s Portuguese counterpart, Antonio Costa, said on Thursday that all flights to and from the UK would be suspended from Saturday onwards as Portugal scrambles to tackle the rapid spread of the new variant of the coronavirus.
French President Macron told his EU counterparts that France would make PCR tests compulsory for all travellers into France from Sunday, including from fellow EU countries.
Elsewhere in Europe, the Netherlands on Thursday settled on a plan to impose its first nighttime curfew since World War II from Saturday onwards.