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4th Dec 2022

EU mishandling corona-travel, Belgian expert says

  • EU travellers struggling with patchwork of national restrictions (Photo: Vladimir Kud)

The EU ought to make better use of regional data on coronavirus travel, a Belgian expert has said, amid a patchwork of national-level rules.

"It would be very interesting to have European coordination both on the opening and closing of borders, and on the colour-coding of risk areas," the Belgian scientist, Jean-Luc Gala, told national TV station, RTL, on Sunday (2 August).

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An EU agency in Stockholm, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) already published a colour-coded map of EU regions on the basis of reliable data, he said.

"It has the capacity to receive ... information from each [member] country and to standardise the codes according to the seriousness of the situation," Gala said.

ECDC data was robust because it came directly from its member states' authorities, he noted.

"It's the country in question which knows its epidemiological situation best and which is able to define what is or is not a red zone," Gala said.

But instead, each EU state was making its own best guess on which European countries or regions were safe or not and how to handle it, the expert added.

"Each country goes a little bit according to its own recommendation, but we see that this poses a problem for everyone", he said.

Belgium, for one, made a "mess", Gala noted, when it surprised Switzerland on Saturday by mis-coding its Geneva region as a "red" zone - forbidding travel.

Belgium also mis-coded a French region, the "région du Nord (Nord-Pas de Calais)", as "amber" - recommending quarantine and tests on return - even though no region of that name has existed since 2016, when France renamed the area "Hauts-de-France".

Gala is an epidemiologist and biological weapons expert at the Université Catholique de Louvain in Belgium.

His ideas on EU free travel came amid fears of a second wave of coronavirus in Europe, prompting new travel restrictions among its 27 states.

Germany, from next week, also plans to start testing people coming back from "high-risk regions" in the EU, further complicating the patchwork of rules.

Meanwhile, there were 1,733,550 cases in the EU and its close partners Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and the UK as of 2 August, the ECDC reported on Sunday.

Figures were on the rise almost across the board, but sharp increases were highly localised in, for the most part, Romania and north-east Spain, the ECDC map showed.

And the spikes in infections were still far lower than during the first wave in spring.

The ECDC data indicated that most parts of the EU were at relatively low-risk for travel, despite the World Health Organisation's (WHO's) global-level warning on redoubling of cases in recent weeks.

The need for the EU to rely on its own data was also shown by a BBC investigation into Iran's handling of WHO statistics, which accused the Iranian regime of hiding tens of thousands of deaths from the UN health body.

But the ECDC itself has, in the past, faced flak for its undue optimism on the EU's ability to handle the pandemic.

German tension

And internal tensions on coronavirus politics risked creating bigger problems than international travel in some member states, amid worrying protests in Berlin.

More than 20,000 people flouted German public hygiene rules in a rally in the name of civil liberties in the German capital on Saturday.

Isolated clashes hospitalised three police officers and prompted 130 arrests, including for use of Nazi symbols, German police said.

"Yes, demonstrations should be allowed, even amid the pandemic, but not like this," German health minister Jens Spahn said.

"Anyone who deliberately endangers others must expect that this will have serious consequences for him," German economy minister Peter Altmaier also said, hardening the tone, the same day.

And however the ECDC or EU might help in a smart approach to travel, nothing would hold back the outbreak if people behaved negligently, other German politicians warned.

"We must expect coronavirus to come back on us with full force ... many people have, unfortunately, become reckless," Bavaria's state premier, Markus Söder, told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper.

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