The European Union’s executive body and US President Joe Biden’s administration are considering new travel restrictions to counter the spread of new coronavirus variants.
Amid concerns related to the production and delivery of COVID-19 vaccines, the European commission urged the bloc’s 27 member countries to reinforce testing and quarantine measures for travellers as virus mutations that are more transmissible threaten to overwhelm hospitals across the continent with new cases.
More than 400,000 people in EU countries have already died from the virus since the pandemic first hit Europe last year.
“The start of the EU vaccination campaign kicked off the beginning of the end of the pandemic,” EU Justice commissioner Didier Reynders said.
“At the same time, new, more transmissible variants of the virus have surfaced. There is currently a very high number of new infections across many member states. And there is an urgent need to reduce the risk of travel-related infections to lessen the burden on overstretched healthcare systems.”
Among the new measures, which need to be approved by EU members before taking effect, is the addition of a new “dark red” colour to the EU’s weekly map of infections.
Reynders said this new colour highlights areas where the rate of new confirmed infections in the last 14 days is 500 or more per 100,000 inhabitants.
He said between 10 and 20 EU countries would already have that colour on all or part of their territory if it was in effect now.
“We also think it is necessary for essential travellers arriving from dark red areas to get tested before travelling and to undergo quarantine, unless these measures would have a disproportionate impact on the exercise of their essential function,” Reynders said.
Since the discovery of the new virus variants, several EU countries have already reinforced their lockdown measures.
Belgium has introduced a ban on all non-essential travels for its residents until March while France could soon start a third lockdown if a stringent 12-hour daily curfew already in place can’t slow down the spread of new infections.
Insisting that all non-essential travel is “strongly discouraged,” the commission repeated the need to keep the single market functioning so workers and goods can continue to cross borders smoothly,
“Border closures will not help, common measures will,” Reynders said.
The commission also proposed that travellers from outside the EU should face mandatory coronavirus testing before they depart, tests once they arrive, mandatory quarantines for up to 14 days and hand over data for contact tracing.
It suggested citizens and residents of EU countries take a coronavirus test upon arrival and could face further restrictions if they coming in from a country where a variant has been detected.
Two White House officials said US President Joe Biden will on Monday formally reinstate travel restrictions on non-US travellers from Brazil, Ireland, the United Kingdom and 26 other European countries that allow travel across open borders.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the order, also confirmed that South Africa will be added to the restricted list because of concerns about a variant of the virus that has spread beyond that country.
Top US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci called Biden’s decision “prudent” on Monday in a round of television interviews.
“We have concern about the mutation that’s in South Africa,” Fauci told CBS.
“We’re looking at it very actively. It is clearly a different and more ominous than the one in the UK and I think it’s very prudent to restrict travel of non-citizens.”
Biden is reversing an order from former US president Donald Trump in his final days in office that called for the relaxation of the travel restrictions as of Tuesday.
Trump’s move was made in conjunction with a new requirement from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that all international travellers to the US obtain a negative test for COVID-19 within three days of boarding their flight.
Biden’s team had announced that he would reimpose the travel restrictions but the addition of South Africa to the restricted travel list highlights the new administration’s concern about mutations in the virus.
The South Africa variant has not been discovered in the US but another variant – first detected in the UK – has been detected in several states.