BRUSSELS—The European Union moved March 16 to suppress the spread of the coronavirus by restricting foreign travelers while also proposing fast-track traffic lanes to make sure vital medical equipment reaches EU citizens.
The plan was announced almost a week after a nationwide lockdown took effect in Italy, the country with the most reported virus cases in the world except for China. Spain followed suit over the weekend, while other EU nations have adopted ad hoc national measures, including partial border closures.
EU officials fear that countries acting alone and without coordination might make things more difficult for neighbors whose health care systems are already creaking. The virus has infected more than 50,000 people across Europe and caused 2,000 deaths.
“The less travel, the more we can contain the virus,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said, as she unveiled the plan that Brussels will put to the bloc’s 27 leaders at a summit to be held via video conference on March 17.
She said travel restrictions into Europe should be put in place for an initial period of 30 days. Exemptions could be given to long-term residents in the EU, border area workers, family members of European nationals, and diplomats.
British citizens wouldn’t be included in the ban, even though the country officially withdrew from the EU on Jan. 31.
“Essential staff such as doctors, nurses, care workers, researchers, and experts that help address the coronavirus should continue to be allowed in the EU,” von der Leyen said.
Transport workers also could receive exemptions to ensure supplies of “essential items such as medicine, but also food and components that our factories need,” she said.
On the borders inside the 26-country area of Europe that is visa- and passport-free for citizens and authorized residents, fast lanes would be set up for transporting medical supplies and essential goods. EU officials said the goal is to help cut down on traffic jams in border areas and to keep EU economies working as the disease chips away at world markets.
The overall idea is “to reduce unnecessary movement, but at the same time to ensure the movement of merchandise, of goods, so that we can guarantee as much as possible the integrity of the single market, guarantee the deliveries that are needed.” EU Council President Charles Michel said.
In recent days, the EU has urged its members to put common health screening procedures in place at internal borders but not to block the transport of important medical equipment.
In a series of border management guidelines, the European Commission said countries should help ease the movement of workers and goods like medicines or perishable food products and livestock within Europe but refrain from imposing any other restrictions that aren’t science-based.
Jon Worth, a visiting lecturer at the College of Europe in Bruges, said he wasn’t surprised that countries decided to restrict the movement of people at their borders given that health care is a matter of national responsibility, not in the hands of Brussels.
“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 told The Associated Press on March 16. “That will be the short-term challenge to come.”
For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
To ensure they get the help they need, “essential goods and medicines must be able to cross borders as smoothly as possible. This is a time for solidarity and cooperation,” EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides wrote on Twitter, after hosting a separate virtual meeting of the bloc’s health ministers.
EU finance ministers also held coronavirus talks by computer March 16, as the disease and the efforts to combat it take their toll on the bloc’s economy.
Worth noted that the EU’s limited financial means were a major obstacle in the response to the crisis and that deploying the medical aid needed across the bloc with a very restricted budget was a tall order.
“The total British NHS budget is larger than the EU’s total budget for everything per year,” he said. “At EU level, you don’t have the means to sort out this problem.”
By Lorne Cook