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12th Apr 2024

EU waters down Covid-19 traffic-light travel zones concept

  • Describing the current situation as 'unsustainable', the aviation industry has urged EU countries to replace quarantine measures with testing prior to departure (Photo: Chad Davis)

EU member states on Tuesday (13 October) will adopt common standards to coordinate coronavirus travel restrictions, including a 'traffic-light' system of affected areas - in a bid to prevent a recurrence of individual and unilateral measures, as seen during the first Covid-19 wave.

Under the proposal of the German presidency, endorsed by EU ambassadors last Friday, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) will publish a map, updated weekly, that categories EU regions into green, orange and red zones (or grey, for insufficient data), according to Covid-19 infection rates. The map will be available in the coming days.

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In an attempt to make things clearer for citizens and businesses, the European Commission proposed in early September that travel restrictions should only apply to the red and grey areas of this weekly map.

However, the German EU presidency has watered down that commission proposal, giving member states the ability to set out their own strategies, such as requiring negative Covid-19 tests or different quarantine periods, for those areas considered orange and red.

That means, for example, a traveller from Belgium, which is considered a red zone across the bloc due to the high number of infections, will face different restrictions when visiting different member states.

However, cross-border and seasonal workers, transport operators, students, diplomats or journalists, among others, should not be required to undergo quarantine when travelling to perform their duties, the proposal reads.

Shrinking green zones

Only travellers from green areas would not face travel restrictions.

But given the increasing number of cases across the bloc, currently just a few Bulgarian, Cypriot, Greek, German, Italian, Nordic and Baltic regions would qualify as a green zone.

EU countries have been ignoring, to some extent, the commission's calls for coordination since the beginning of the pandemic - when some decided to unilaterally impose export bans on medical supplies or closed internal borders.

After the first wave, the same disorder was seen again when Finland announced last week, just before EU ambassadors endorsed the agreement, that it would reintroduce internal border checks, and a ban on non-essential travel to and from the rest of the Schengen area.

Or when Hungary unilaterally decided in early September to reintroduce travel restrictions on almost all foreigners - with exceptions for travellers from Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Under the new agreement, however, EU capitals are expected to inform both other member states, the commission and their own citizens at least 24 hours before introducing any new travel restrictions.

Additionally, member states will not be able to impose any restrictions on people travelling to or from a red area, unless they apply the same measures on a red area in their own territory.

However, members states have been unable to agree on other meaningful public health Covid-19 aspects, such as a protocol to determine when face mask wearing should be obligatory, or on quarantine periods, which currently vary from 7 to 14 days depending on country.

Describing the current situation as "unsustainable," the aviation industry earlier this month called on EU leaders and the commission president to replace quarantine measures for testing prior to departure, based o an EU testing protocol for travel.

The EU executive said on Monday that it is currently working on a pilot project to see whether the so-called rapid Covid-19 tests, which can produce results in about 15 minutes, could be a solution for the travel and tourism sectors.

Czech Republic, EU's new hotspot

Meanwhile, Europe surpassed 100,000 daily reported Covid-19 cases for the first time last week, recording in total more than seven million cases across the continent, according to the World Health Organization.

In the EU, the Czech Republic now has more citizens testing positive for coronavirus daily than any other member state - with its prime minister Andrej Babis saying last Friday that the government may reimpose a lockdown if the numbers keeps growing.

Belgium, particularly Brussels and Wallonia, also recorded a jump in the daily number of coronavirus cases, prompting the federal health minister Frank Vandenbroucke to warn about an upcoming "difficult autumn," with the possibility of a new lockdown still on the table.

In the past few weeks, the Netherlands and Spain have also seen a sharp increase in the number of Covid-19 infections - which triggered the Dutch cabinet to draw up tougher restriction (due to be announced on Tuesday), and the partial lockdown of Madrid last week.

France is also a cause of concern with around 16,000 new cases are being detected each day - with eight cities now under maximum alert status, including Paris, Marseille, Toulouse and Montpellier.

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