BRUSSELS – European Union leaders agreed that borders should remain open and assessed more measures to counter the spread of coronavirus variants during a video summit Thursday as the bloc's top disease control official said urgent action was needed to stave off a new wave of hospitalizations and deaths.
Expressing great concern about the virus' mutations, the 27 leaders looked at further border restrictions like limits on all non-essential travel, better tracking of mutations and improving coordination of lockdowns.
Though worried that another surge of deaths across the EU was imminent, they could not immediately agree on whether or not to halt non-essential travel.
“It is of great importance not to travel, but you cannot immediately enforce this legally," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said after the conference call.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen insisted on the importance of keeping borders open to ensure that goods continue to move smoothly while introducing measures “that keep us all safe."
She said leaders discussed a proposal to introduce new trans-border “dark red zones" where infections rates are particularly high and where all non-essential travel should be discouraged. Travelers from these areas could be required to undergo tests before their departure and be placed in isolation upon arrival in another location. Von der Leyen said the commission will make precise recommendations to member states in the coming days.
Some 400,000 EU citizens have died from COVID-19-related causes since the start of the pandemic, and the head of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Andrea Ammon, said that “an increasing number of infections will lead to higher hospitalization and death rates across all age groups, particularly for those in older age groups.”
In a study published just before the summit, the ECDC warned of the high dangers of the new variants, like those initiating in Britain, Brazil and South Africa. Ammon said that “member states are also encouraged to accelerate vaccination of high-risk groups, and prepare the health care system for high demand.”
Some EU countries have already strengthened restrictions by imposing stricter curfews and more stringent mask requirements on public transport and in shops. Among the measures the ECDC recommends is a ban on nonessential travel and a speeding up of vaccinations.
“Most said free movement must survive but that it is vital to ask not to to travel," Rutte said. “It is essential that we discourage travel in Europe as much as possible. Don't travel, simply don’t travel."
Echoing the ECDC advice, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo had proposed a temporary ban on nonessential travel during the February school break.
With the health situation at a critical point, the commission also urged member states before the meeting to step up the pace of vaccination, to ensure that at least 80% of those over age 80 are vaccinated by March, and that 70% of the adult population across the bloc is protected by the end of the summer.
Charles Michel, the president of the European Council, said there is “a global and clear support for this proposal."
But since the EU doesn't expect vaccines to be ready for mass distribution before April, leaders should in the meantime find efficient ways to contain the new variants. The commission believes that better tracking the virus' mutations with genomic sequencing, coupled with an increased use of rapid antigen tests, will be crucial.
The EU Commission said several EU nations are testing under 1% of samples. It has proposed to “urgently" increase genome sequencing to at least 5% of positive test results and would ideally see that figure reach 10% to detect the variants. Member states unanimously agreed Thursday on a common framework for the use of rapid antigen tests and the mutual recognition of PCR test results across the bloc of 450 million inhabitants.
Discussions also focused on the disruption of vaccine deliveries after Pfizer last week announced a temporary reduction that has affected all EU countries. The EU has sealed six vaccine contracts for more than 2 billion doses, but only the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been approved for use so far.
The EU now expects Pfizer to keep the drop in deliveries limited to this week, while resuming full distribution again next week, with the resulting backlog made up during February.
Leaders also weighed a Greek proposal to issue vaccination certificates to ease travel. But with doubts about whether the people vaccinated could still be contagious, and only a small fraction of the EU population already vaccinated, they agreed it was too soon to decide if vaccination proof certificates should be considered as travel documents.
Associated Press writer Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report .
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