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15th Apr 2024

EU leaders divided over Omicron travel rules

  • EU leaders did agree that restrictions should not 'disproportionately hamper free movement between member states' (Photo: European Commission)
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EU leaders failed to guarantee a coordinated approach to travel measures for the Christmas holiday season at their summit on Thursday (16 December), after several member states introduced unilateral measures.

But they stressed boosters shots are "crucial" and "urgent" to curb the new wave of Covid-19 infections and the emergence of the more-transmissible Omicron variant.

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"Even as we battle at this time [the] Delta [strain], we know that the Omicron variant is threatening us. It is spreading at a ferocious pace and potentially has the risk of escaping our vaccines, at least partially," European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said after the meeting with EU leaders.

The rapid surge of cases in many countries has prompted several member states to introduce travel restrictions over the past two weeks, in scenes reminiscent of the unilateral measures taken in spring 2020.

Portugal and Ireland were the first countries to announce that all arrivals will be required to present a negative Covid-19 test, regardless of their vaccination status, origin or nationality.

But Italy and Greece followed soon after, imposing a mandatory negative test for all arrivals. In addition, unvaccinated people travelling to Italy are required to undergo a five-day quarantine.

Italian prime minister Mario Draghi justified the new rules on Wednesday, arguing that the spread of Omicron is significantly lower in Italy compared to other EU countries.

Many countries require a negative test from British tourists, due to the huge rise of Omicron cases in the UK. But France took one step further on Thursday, limiting the reasons of travel and requiring isolation upon arrival as from Saturday.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said before the summit that extra measures should only apply during the Christmas period "in order for us to gain additional time to boost as many people as possible".

"The one answer to the Omicron right now is the acceleration of our vaccination program, with a particular emphasis to the booster shots," he said.

Portuguese prime minister Antonio Costa, for his part, argued that "borders control is absolutely necessary" since the new variant is expected to be dominant in Europe within the next months, if not weeks.

The European Commission said that these measures were understandable "out of precaution" and "given the current unclear and evolving situation with the new variant".

However, in the summit conclusions, EU leaders pointed out that restrictions should be coordinated, based on objective criteria, and not "disproportionately hamper free movement between member states".

"Closing borders is in any case not the solution," Luxembourg's prime minister Xavier Bettel also said ahead of the meeting with EU counterparts.

The EU Covid-19 certificate has been a successful tool to restore travel across the EU, but individual member states retain the right to impose restrictive measures, such as quarantine or testing, to protect public health.

"Omicron is a new challenge and we need to address it together…There is common will to coordinate to make sure that there is a coherent approach in intra-EU mobility, but also with third countries," EU Council president Charles Michel told reporters after the summit.

Omicron threat

Concerns over the new variant deepened this week, after the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said on Wednesday that Omicron is likely to lead to an increase of hospitalisations, ICU admissions and deaths all across the continent, becoming the dominant variant in early 2022.

The EU agency has called for the rapid reintroduction of mask-wearing, telework and curbs on crowded spaces, arguing that vaccination will not be enough to halt spread of the new strain.

"In the current situation, vaccination alone will not allow us to prevent the impact of the Omicron variant, because there will be no time to address the vaccination gaps that still exist," the director of the ECDC Andrea Ammon said.

"It is urgent that strong action is taken to reduce transmission and alleviate the heavy burden on health care systems and protect the most vulnerable in the coming months," she added.

Vaccine shortages

Meanwhile, some EU member sates are facing a shortage of vaccines supplies for early 2022, in particular Germany.

But the EU executive announced on Thursday that it had reached an agreement with the US pharmaceutical company Moderna to speed up the delivery of its mRNA vaccine to the EU.

Moderna agreed to deliver 10 million doses to Germany in December and 25 million extra doses in the first quarter of 2022.

But Brussels is currently negotiating with vaccines developers to accelerate deliveries to the EU as a whole for early next year in order to tackle the surge of infections driven by the new more transmissible strain.

The EU commission stressed that the bloc has "enough doses to vaccinate and administer booster shots to all Europeans, including children".

WHO warns mandatory vaccination 'absolute last resort'

Mandatory vaccination has become a hot topic in the EU, but the European branch of the World Health Organization has warned that it should be "an absolute last resort". Children, meanwhile, account for the highest infection-rates across the continent.

EU agency: 'Omicron vaccine' approval to take 3-4 months

The EU drug regulator's chief said the bloc is ready to tackle mutations and allow for the fast-track approval of redesigned vaccines. The EU's disease agency said all known European Omicron cases were so far asymptomatic or had mild symptoms.

Christmas travel disrupted by Omicron variant

The spread of the more transmissible Omicron variant of coronavirus has triggered a flurry of flight cancellations, hampering Christmas plans for millions of people.

Will Christmas be cancelled again?

The surge of infections and emergence of the more-transmissible variant Omicron has raised concerns about possible lockdown restrictions in the EU, but for the thousands of Europeans who recently tested positive Christmas is already cancelled.

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