European borders kept open despite coronavirus outbreak

EU authorities warn Member States to avoid diverging approaches and to prevent panic

Photo: EPA Tourists wearing protective face masks visit Rome, Italy, 26 February.

Amid growing public fears, the EU Members States seek to coordinate their responses to the outbreak of the coronavirus and to prevent panic. At the same time, the European Commission says it is working around the clock to support countries and strengthen international efforts to slow the spread of Covid-19.

“This is a situation of concern but we must not give in to panic,” EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told reporters in Rome on Wednesday after meeting Italian Health Minister Roberto Speranza. “All Member States need to inform us about their preparedness plans and how they propose to implement them,” she said, pointing out that diverging approaches across the EU should be avoided.

The European Commission has requested all Member States to review their pandemic plans as well as health care capacities, including capacity for diagnosing, laboratory testing and procedures for contact tracing. Kyriakides also urged all authorities to be vigilant when it comes to misinformation and disinformation as well as xenophobic statements which are misleading citizens. Health ministers from Italy's neighbours, meeting in Rome along Commissioner Kyriakides have expressed their opinions that closing borders would be a “disproportionate and ineffective” measure, even as numbers of infections continue to rise.

The European Union was not yet considering suspending travel within the border-free Schengen area after the outbreak of the coronavirus in Italy, but it was preparing contingency plans, EU Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarcic said. Stella Kyriakides noted that travel restrictions in the Schengen area should be proportionate and coordinated among EU states and they should also be based on scientific evidence. Under European Union rules, travel restrictions are decided by each of the 27 Member States. For the moment, none have notified the Commission of wish to suspend temporally Schengen, according to the Commission press service. However, some EU Member States have imposed quarantine measures on people returning from the most affected areas in Italy. EU institutions - Parliament and Commission - also have ordered their staff who travelled to areas of northern Italy to stay at home in quarantine for two weeks.

These measures seem like they would not be sufficient as meanwhile the coronavirus spread in all Italy, including Tuscany, Sicily and Liguria, and to nearby EU states like Croatia and Greece. The Italian health ministry reported on Wednesday the twelfth victim among 374 cases confirmed. All 12 of those who have died so far in the country were either elderly or had pre-existing medical conditions.

Earlier this week, a joint mission of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and the World Health Organisation arrived in Italy to better understand the situation, provide concrete support on clinical management and infection control - and not least to identify areas where further EU-level support would be needed.

Measures took by the Italian government to stem the spread of infections in the industrial north already had economic repercussions, Italian media reported. According to experts, Veneto and Lombardy alone represent between 25% and 30% of Italian GDP. Industry representatives are warning of severe effects for Italian hotels, restaurants and other businesses, which make a significant contribution to Italy's economy. The Venice carnival was cut short last Sunday and other major events on the cultural calendar have been cancelled over the past week, including the performances at Milan's famed opera house La Scala. Milan Fashion Week was closed to the public. Trade shows have been postponed, including the Milan Furniture Fair.

Meanwhile France reported on Wednesday the first French victim of the coronavirus and three new cases. New cases were also recorded in Austria, Croatia, Germany, Spain and Switzerland. Three hotels, in Austria, in France, and in the Canary Islands of Spain, were locked down after guests tested positive for the virus. Later on Wednesday Estonia, Greece, North Macedonia and Denmark reported first cases.

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