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2nd Mar 2024

No risk yet to Schengen from Italy's coronavirus outbreak

  • 'Closing down the borders would make no sense, as the circulation of the virus is not just limited to administrative borders,' said France's transport minister (Photo: Dipartimento Protezione Civile)

Within a few days, cases of coronavirus in Italy, the most-affected country in the EU, have risen to over 200, with seven deaths, local media reported.

"We need to take this situation very seriously, but we must not give in to panic and, even more importantly, to disinformation," on Monday (24 February) warned the European commissioner for health, Stella Kyriakides, urging media to give the "right information" to concerned citizens.

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So far, a dozen towns in the northern regions of Lombardy and Veneto are under lockdown, with around 50,000 citizens not allowed to leave.

Schools, universities, museums and cinemas have been shut down for at least a week, and public gatherings have been banned - affecting the Venice carnival and Milan Fashion Week.

But Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte ruled out closing borders or suspending the Schengen agreement, saying that would not help towards the containment of the virus.

In an attempt to politicise the outbreak in the country, the Italian far-right former interior minister, Matteo Salvini, asked Conte to resign "if he isn't able to defend Italy and Italians".

However, the director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), Andrea Ammon, said that "these extraordinary measures in northern Italy are essential to limit the outbreak and may need to be replicated in other communities in the coming days".

Closing internal EU borders?

"The developments over the weekend in Italy showed how quickly the situation can change," said Kyriakides, who urged member states to coordinate action.

If the disease continues to spread, the fundamental principle of free movement could be in danger in the EU - as the Schengen agreement allows member states to temporarily introduce border controls if justified.

Austria halted on Sunday night a train from Venice to Munich amid concerns over two passengers possibly infected with coronavirus, but the suspension was lifted within a few hours.

"Travel or trade restrictions are not recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO) or the ECDC at the moment," said the EU crisis management commissioner, Janez Lenarčič,

When discussing any type of measures, including special borders controls, they must meet three conditions: be part of a coordinated approach, proportional and based on scientific advice and risk-assessment evidence, he said.

French transport minister, Jean-Baptiste Djebbari, said that there was no need to close down transport border between France and Italy.

"Closing down the borders would make no sense, as the circulation of the virus is not just limited to administrative borders," Djebbari told to the French media on Monday.

However, the French government urged anyone who has travelled to Lombardy or Veneto during the last weeks to wear face masks if they go outside, limit non-essential activities and regularly check their temperature.

Germany also said that the country is not considering closing the borders with Italy, as the danger to the German population remains low.

However, the German health ministry said on Monday that this "assessment could change at short notice".

In addition, Croatia announced that the authorities would monitor every traveller coming from Italy.

Croatia, Hungary, Ireland and Serbia have recommended to its citizens not travel to parts of Italy affected by the outbreak.

'Tracing and containing'

However, according to Kyriakides, looking at "the entering points" into a country is only a small part of the actions that must be taken to avoid the spread of the virus.

"We are focussed on tracing and containing the virus," she said.

A joint expert mission of the ECDC and the WHO will depart to Italy on Tuesday to assess the situation.

Also, the European Commission announced on Monday a further €232m of EU money to detect and diagnose the disease, support infected people and prevent further transmission.

Likewise, the health security committee, an advisory group at the European level, met on Monday to take stock of developments, especially in Italy.

According to the ECDC, there is a strong overall level of preparedness in the EU and the risk of infection remains low to moderate.

As of 24 February 2020, 79,360 laboratory-confirmed cases of coronavirus have been reported worldwide, as well as 2,618 deaths - most of them in China.

Will coronavirus lead to medicine shortage in EU?

The European Commission is ready to launch a joint procurement of medical supplies and to mobilise EU funding instruments, although no shortages have been identified in the EU so far, the commissioner for health Stella Kyriakides said on Thursday.

WHO on coronavirus in Europe: 'be prepared'

The European Commission also urged EU member states to review their pandemic plans and to inform it about their healthcare capabilities in response to the outbreak.

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