The EU’s top official has proposed a 30-day ban on non-essential travel into the bloc, to slow the spread of coronavirus, while insisting on the need to keep the internal borders between the 27 member states open as much as possible.
After the surge of Covid-19 cases in Europe led the Italian government to put the country on lockdown, other member states have implemented drastic measures and travel restrictions, including partially closing their borders.
Speaking after an extraordinary video-conference meeting of the leaders of the G7 countries, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said travel restrictions should be in place for an initial period of 30 days, which can be prolonged if necessary.
“The less travel, the more we can contain the virus,” Ms von der Leyen said.
She said long-term residents in the European Union, frontier workers, family members of EU nationals and diplomats would be exempted from the restrictions.
“Essential staff such as doctors, nurses, care workers, researchers and experts that help address the coronavirus should continue to be allowed in the EU,” Ms von der Leyen added.
“People transporting goods are exempted too. Why that? Because the flow of goods to the European Union must continue to secure the supply of goods, including essential items such as medicine, but also food and components that our factories need.”
The @EU_Commission presents guidelines on border measures & proposes:— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) March 16, 2020
1â£Green lanes/fast lanes giving priority to essential transport to keep the mobility sector going & ensure economic continuity
2â£Temporary restriction on non-essential travel to the EU (30 days) pic.twitter.com/9bda9MntF0
Ms von der Leyen also urged member states to co-ordinate on the European level to ensure goods and essential services continue to flow in the internal market.
EU leaders are set to hold a summit via video-conference on Tuesday on efforts to contain the spread of the virus, which has now infected more than 50,000 people across Europe, and claimed more than 2,000 lives.
With Italy reporting the most virus cases and deaths anywhere in the world except China, neighbouring countries including Austria and Slovenia have moved to slow traffic. But other EU nations, including Germany, Poland, Slovakia and Cyprus, have also introduced restrictions that could damage the bloc’s economy and slow down the circulation of medical equipment.
Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Lithuania and Germany plus non-member Switzerland have notified the commission that they have taken immediate steps under the EU’s border rule book allowing member states in exceptional circumstances to reintroduce border checks for a limited period. The EU’s borders code stipulates that the initial period of 10 days can be renewed for up to two months.
On Monday evening, France announced nationwide restrictions on how far from their homes people can go and for what purpose.
President Emmanuel Macron said “movements will be very strongly reduced” for 15 days starting at noon on Tuesday. Residents will only be permitted to leave their homes for necessary trips such as going to work or the supermarket.
Mr Macron said in televised remarks that the government had decided to order the restrictions because people had not complied with earlier public health measures and “we are at war”.
The different approaches in different countries are raising concerns that vital medical equipment may be blocked. The EU is urging its members to put common health screening procedures in place at their borders to limit the spread of the virus, but not to block the transport of important medical equipment.
In a series of guidelines for border management measures, the commission urged member states to facilitate the circulation of workers, to ensure an efficient movement of goods and to impose restrictions only when they are “duly motivated” and science-based.
“Member states should preserve the free circulation of all goods. In particular, they should guarantee the supply chain of essential products such as medicines, medical equipment, essential and perishable food products and livestock,” the commission said.
Jon Worth, a visiting lecturer at the College of Europe in Bruges, said he was not surprised that member states decided to restrict the movement of people at their borders given that health care is a matter of national responsibility in the EU.
“But the single market is definitely the EU’s responsibility and they have to make sure the chain of supply does not break down,” he said. “That will be the short-term challenge to come.”