European Commision: Covid-19 May Make EU Return to Internal Borders and Travel Restrictions

Health | August 20, 2021, Friday // 16:45|  views

It’s a situation the European Commission would like to avoid at all costs: a return to internal EU travel restrictions like the ones imposed last year as coronavirus swept the globe.

The borders some member countries such as Germany and France threw up last year without prior warning caused a headache for border communities, travelers and a big chunk of the EU’s integrated economies, which rely on just-in-time transport and a mobile workforce. They were also embarrassing for the Commission, which was effectively powerless to prevent chaos and struggled to impose uniform rules even as a second, third and fourth coronavirus wave led each time to new border checks.

Now the fear is that a fresh surge in cases following the arrival of cold weather in the fall could see the return of barriers within the bloc.

At the moment transit throughout the EU is regulated by the travel certificate system. The so-called digital green pass allows travelers to show whether they’ve been vaccinated or previously infected and display their coronavirus test results in order to board flights and cross borders. Countries also consult the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control incidence map to decide whether to impose some additional checks on passengers from the most at-risk regions. 

The carefully orchestrated system benefits both airlines and the tourism industry, which are in desperate need of business after a year and a half of hardship. 

Commission officials fear this could unravel in the not-so-distant future. Worries over a new surge are compounded by big differences in vaccine uptake.

While close to 90 percent of the adult population in countries like Ireland, France and Spain have already had at least a first vaccine shot, only 20 percent of the adults in Bulgaria and 60 percent in Poland have taken up the offer to get vaccinated, amid high vaccine skepticism, particularly in the bloc's former communist states.

Senior EU officials said the Commission was already bracing for that possibility and preparing plans to keep the movement of goods and people flowing within the EU as smoothly as possible. “The Commission is worried about new intra-EU restrictions from the fall,” one said.

An EU diplomat estimated that the “chances are 50-50” that new travel restrictions will be introduced in the fall.

“Some countries might push for it, as it is high-stake on their national agendas, but the Commission is strongly against it as for now,” the diplomat said.

Internal politics might also have a role to play here. Germany is looking to its elections at the end of September. The governing CDU party is out to show that it is taking the coronavirus seriously after missteps earlier in the year weighed on its popularity. Earlier in the month, Health Minister Jens Spahn warned that a "fourth wave was coming" and that it was necessary to "hold out until the spring."

Whether tough action would amount to more than showmanship remains to be seen.

Bruno Ciancio, the medical epidemiologist who heads ECDC’s surveillance activities, dismissed restrictions on travel as not supported by scientific evidence. 

“I don't think at this point in time travel measures within the EU would be justified,” Ciancio said. The scientist explained that travel, with the exception of the very start of the pandemic, “didn't play a major role in the infection rates that we have seen in Europe.” 

“It’s really a minor effect,” he said, while the main factor accounting for virus transmission was behavior within individual countries. 

Ciancio was also doubtful that the seasonal changes in weather would have a big effect on new cases. The surge in cases seen last September was tied to the timing of public health measures. With very strict lockdowns in the spring followed by almost complete relaxation in the summer months, the virus was able to spread to parts of Europe that had avoided the virus in the first wave. 

Seasonal viruses like influenza start spreading in “November, or in December, not in August,” said Ciancio. By contrast, it’s clear that the coronavirus “can peak in the summer, as well as in winter.” 

He emphasized that the focus now should be on raising vaccination rates throughout the bloc. Even the most vaccinated countries in Western Europe are short of the rates necessary to have an impact on virus transmission — though they have had a significant effect on the number of hospitalizations. 

 

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Tags: europe, COVID-19, internal borders, restrictions, travel restrictions

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