- Italy wants all of EU to test China travelers for Covid
- Others reluctant or wait for EU joint decision
- EU health committee agrees no concrete steps
- EU committee to continue discussions
By Giselda Vagnoni and Philip Blenkinsop
ROME/BRUSSELS, Dec 29 (Reuters) – Italy on Thursday urged the rest of the European Union to follow its lead and test travellers from China for COVID, but others said they saw no need to do so for now or were waiting for a common stance across the largely border-less bloc.
The EU’s health officials could not agree on one course of action when they held talks in the morning and said they would continue their talks later.
This was not the first time EU countries were split on COVID policies. At the start of the pandemic there was much debate on what to do, and heated competition to buy safety equipment, before member states pulled together and successfully placed – and shared – joint vaccine orders.
Italy “expects and hopes” that the EU will impose mandatory COVID tests for all passengers flying in from China like Rome did, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni told a news conference.
The scale of the outbreak in China and doubts over official data have prompted countries including the United States and Japan to impose new travel rules on Chinese visitors as Beijing lifted its restrictions.
In the EU, so far only Italy has ordered COVID-19 antigen swabs for all travellers coming from China. This risks not being effective if others in the bloc, where people travel freely from one country to another, will not do the same, Meloni said.
The main airport in the Italian city of Milan started testing passengers arriving from Beijing and Shanghai on Dec. 26 and found that almost half of them were infected.
But earlier on Thursday, Brigitte Autran, head of the French health risk assessment committee COVARS, said: “From a scientific point of view, there is no reason at this stage to bring back controls at the borders.”
Autran, who advises the government on epidemiological risks, told Radio Classique that for now the situation was under control and that there were no signs of worrying new COVID variants in China.
Germany and Portugal have also said they saw no need for new travel restrictions, while Austria has stressed the economic benefits of Chinese tourists’ return to Europe.
Norway, which is not an EU member but is part of the bloc’s border-free deal, was taking a similar approach.
“We likely have several hundred thousand people getting COVID in Norway every week now,” Professor Preben Aavitsland of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health wrote on Twitter. “A few hundred extra cases among travelers from China would be a drop in the ocean.”
Elsewhere in Europe, Britain has also said it did not plan to bring back COVID testing for those coming into the country.
The EU health committee, made of officials from health ministries across the bloc and chaired by the Commission, ended its meeting with a call for a united stance.
“We need to act jointly & will continue our discussions,” the European Commission said in a tweet, without specifying when talks would resume.
China’s borders have been all but shut to foreigners since early 2020, soon after the coronavirus first emerged in its central city of Wuhan, but it has announced it will do away with a quarantine for inbound travellers from Jan. 8.
The re-opening raises the prospect of Chinese tourists returning to shopping streets around the world, once a market worth $255 billion a year globally.
(Reporting by Jan Strupczewski and Phil Blenkinsop in Brussels, Myriam Rivet and Geert De Clercq in Paris, Gavin Jones in Rome, Maria Sheahan in Berlin, Patricia Rua in Lisbon, David Latona in Madrid, Terje Solsvik and Anna Ringstrom; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Robert Birsel and Tomasz Janowski)