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EU leaders seek to avoid border closures as new virus strains spread

EU leaders were striving on Thursday evening to forge a strategy to keep in check fast-spreading new coronavirus variants, with some nations warning they may have to tighten borders.

Brussels, 21 January 2021 (dpa/MIA) – EU leaders were striving on Thursday evening to forge a strategy to keep in check fast-spreading new coronavirus variants, with some nations warning they may have to tighten borders.

“Important discussions ahead with EU leaders on the next steps to tackle the pandemic,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted at the opening of talks.

The top agenda items – according to the EU executive chief – are speeding up vaccinations and the prospect of handing out vaccination certificates.

But discussions among the 27 leaders may well be dominated by the question of additional border controls.

Germany is seeking a “cooperative approach” but cannot rule out controls as a “last resort,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said before the crisis videoconference.

Austrian Chancellor Kurz said his government supports “clear guidelines for travels and borders.”

“Everything must be done to prevent the introduction of further mutations to Europe, such as from Brazil,” he told reporters.

Belgium may suspend all non-essential travel and will recommend its EU partners do the same, Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told local broadcaster RTBF.

“Trips that aren’t essential – those we could classify as tourism – clearly we can’t take that risk,” he said on Wednesday.

When Covid-19 first hit Europe early last year, some EU states snapped their frontiers shut overnight. This caused chaos for freight and passenger transport in the bloc, where economic well-being is highly dependent on the flow of goods and workers.

To avoid a repeat response, the EU heads of state and government must convince each other that they are doing enough to stop the new virus mutations from taking hold in Europe.

Several states dependent on tourism, including Greece and Spain, are meanwhile pushing to introduce a European “vaccine passport,” which would allow restrictions to be lifted for those who have received a jab.

Israel is setting up a similar domestic scheme. All Israelis who have been inoculated will be able to apply for a “green pass,” allowing them to board flights with no need to quarantine on arrival.

Such privileges for the vaccinated are controversial, chiefly due to a lack of data on post-inoculation transmission.

No breakthrough on the matter is expected at the summit.

The EU health agency on Thursday advised against non-essential travel and enhanced testing as part of the measures to slow down the importation and spread new variants such as those detected in Britain, South Africa and Brazil.

“The risk associated with the introduction and community spread of variants of concern has been increased to high/very high,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said.

National governments should ready their health services for greater pressure and speed up vaccination of high-risk groups, the Stockholm-based body warned.

The ECDC had earlier called for countries to carry out genome sequencing to help track the variants.

Germany is among the EU states pushing for tougher restrictions on movement, including mandatory tests and quarantine for travellers.

A German discussion paper sent out ahead of the summit suggests agreeing on a list of areas affected by new variants and an option for EU countries to halt all non-essential travel within their free movement zone.

“There is the fear that further mutations will emerge,” the paper dated January 15 reads. “Only if Member States take joint and coordinated action, can the virus be contained effectively.”

Some EU countries have already imposed short-term border restrictions, or proposed extending existing ones.

Europe may have begun rolling out vaccines against Covid-19, but it will be some time before a critical mass of the population is inoculated.

In the meantime, the European Commission is urging countries to ramp up testing and more frequently probe the genetic code of the virus to more quickly detect new variants.

The leaders are also set to discuss a commission target to vaccinate 70 per cent of the EU’s adult population by summer, and 80 per cent of over 80-year-olds by March.

One EU diplomat said Wednesday that this goal might not be feasible in each country across the bloc.

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