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6th Jun 2020

Coronavirus

Where, what and when? EU commission lockdown advice

The EU Commission rolled out recommendations to member states on Wednesday (15 April) on how to manage easing their lockdown measures while restarting the economy.

Countries will decide on the measures themselves, but the EU executive urged coordination to better control the spread of the virus.

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Here is an overview of the recommendations, which describes Europe living with the virus for a year with half-full schools and stores, mobile tracing apps, continued social distancing and closed borders.

Preconditions

The commission set out three conditions on when lockdown measures could be eased in member states.

One is that spread of the disease has significantly decreased and stabilised for a sustained period of time. Second, is that the there is sufficient health system capacity for more than only Covid-19 patients. Large-scale testing should also be a pre-requisite to easing measures, meaning testing in the communities - not only at hospitals.

What should be open?

The EU executives wants countries to coordinate, warning that a lack of coordination risk have negative effects for all member states, and create "political friction". It calls for member states to notify each other and the commission about their planned measures.

The commission emphasised a gradual reopening of shops, starting locally and then progressively - taking some time between different easing measures to see their effect on the spread of the virus.

Most vulnerable groups should be protected for longer, it argued, including the elderly and people suffering from chronic diseases.

Intensified and regular cleaning and disinfection of transport hubs and vehicles, shops and workplaces should be introduced with protecting workers and customers.

Not everyone should go back to their workplace at the same time, the initial focus should be on the less vulnerable groups, and the essential sectors. Teleworking is encouraged, if possible.

"General states of emergencies with exceptional emergency powers for governments should be replaced by more targeted interventions by governments in line with their constitutional arrangements," the commission also pointedly argued.

Gatherings should remain limited: schools and universities with enhanced cleaning, smaller classrooms, increased reliance on e-learning, could open. Retail shops could come next with, for instance, a limited number of customers at the shops at one time.

Restaurants and cafes should also restrict their opening hours and the maximum people allowed in once they open.

Mass gatherings should be the last and final thing to be allowed, according to the commission's recommendations.

And governments should be prepared to roll back measures if they see an increase in the spread of the virus.

Should I wear a mask?

The commission said that campaigns should continue to encourage people to keep up the strong hygiene practices, and social distancing.

The use of non-medical face masks in public may be useful, the commission added, saying it could be considered when visiting busy, confined spaces.

"They may serve to reduce the spread of the virus, but they could never ever be a replacement for the other hygiene measures, only additional, complimentary," commission president Ursula von der Leyen said. Medical-grade face masks should be given to health care workers.

Traced by an app?

The commission also recommends the development of mobile applications "that warn citizens of an increased risk due to contact with a person tested positive for Covid-19", as more and more people come into contact because of lifting the lockdown measures.

The commission said the use of such apps should be voluntary, "based on users' consent" and respecting EU privacy and data protection rules. Users should remain in control of their data.

"Tracing close proximity between mobile devices should be allowed only on an anonymous and aggregated basis, without any tracking of citizens, and names of possibly infected persons should not be disclosed to other users," the commission argued.

The apps should be de-activated as soon as the coronavirus crisis is over with any remaining data erased, the commission said, adding that a pan-EU reference app would be more effective.

"We don't want a situation where citizens think about how they can circumvent an app, this should be [on a] voluntary basis, but we should convince them it is their interests, that we have this advantage today compared to epidemics in that past," argued one EU official.

What about borders?

The passport-free Schengen zone was quick to fall apart at the start of the pandemic, when most EU countries shut their borders to try to keep the virus out. The move threatened essential cross-border workers and the smooth operation of supply chains, risking shortages.

The commission then stepped in to coordinate fast lanes, dubbed 'green lanes', for lorries at the borders, and issued guidelines on border management.

On Wednesday, the commission suggested it might be some time before borders can open up again to everyone. It will have to be done step-by-step depending on the health situation.

"The travel restrictions and border controls currently applied should be lifted once the border regions' epidemiological situation converges sufficiently and social distancing rules are widely and responsibly applied," the document said.

"Restrictions on travel should first be eased between areas with comparably-low reported circulation of the virus," the commission document said.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) will, in cooperation with EU countries, maintain a list of such areas.

Von der Leyen warned that the countries should avoid situations when one EU member lifts border controls while their neighbour's rate of infections is still high.

"Good neighbours talk to each other," she said.

"Once we got control of the virus, the border needs to be opened. But that's in the long term. The movement within the Schengen area must be completely free," von der Leyen said.

When will this be over?

The commission puts it out there quite bluntly: "It is also evident that societies will have to live with the virus until a vaccine or treatment is found".

And it might take a year, the document said, based on the estimates of the European Medicines Agency (EMA), before "a vaccine against Covid-19 is ready for approval and available in sufficient quantities to enable widespread and safe use".

"The way back to normality will be very long," the commission document said, adding that constant and transparent information for the public will be key throughout the period.

Up until then it seems as though governments will need to manage keeping economies afloat and keeping the virus at bay.

EU leaders at odds on virus-hit economy

Italy, with the backing of France and Spain, call for substantial EU economic help, others want to see how long the outbreak will last before committing to big plans.

New rules coming for Europeans' summer travel

The commission will out forward guidelines for safe travel, as some member states and companies are already drawing up plans to restart tourism under the threat of the pandemic.

EU Commission clash with countries over travel refund

Twelve EU countries have asked the commission to temporarily suspend rules that require travel operators to provide cash refunds for cancelled trips. The commission argues consumers have to be protected - and that vouchers should be made more attractive.

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