Amid Omicron scare, European travel pass under threat as Italy and Greece add hurdles for vaccinees
Europe’s system for hassle-free travel for people vaccinated against Covid-19 is in danger of collapsing after Italy and Greece imposed their own rules.
The unilateral restrictions, which require PCR tests for inbound travellers, represent another blow to the mainland’s battered airlines ahead of the lucrative holiday season. The new national rules are also another setback for European Union solidarity and come as the bloc’s leaders gather in Brussels for two days of summit meetings.
Greece said on Wednesday it would require all visitors, including those from other EU countries, to present a Covid test taken within 48 hours of arrival. A day earlier, Italy surprised the bloc with a similar requirement that comes into effect on Thursday.
Finland did not go that far. The Nordic country will require travelers from outside the EU and Schengen area without a passport to present a negative test result from the previous 48 hours. The government is still debating when to start applying the rule, Krista Kiuru, the minister in charge of the pandemic response, said on Tuesday.
These measures, which are a response to fears over the fast-spreading omicron variant, have undermined a much-loved element of the EU’s response to the pandemic: the Covid digital certificate that has helped travel rebound in Europe this year.
“We need a common approach because when crossing borders it is these certificates that are used,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said in an interview with Bloomberg TV. “So we definitely need to have a common understanding.”
The EU had planned to use this week’s summit to secure agreement on increasing the role of the Covid pass and making travel even easier. Instead, the bloc slammed Italy for failing to inform its testing requirements in advance, as leaders arrived in Brussels.
EU countries are obliged “to inform the commission and other member states 48 hours in advance whenever they decide to impose additional restrictions”, spokesman Christian Wigand told reporters, adding that the notice period was necessary “to maintain a coordinated approach”.
Other EU countries may feel pressure to enact their own travel restrictions, particularly as omicron cases continue to rise. The variant is likely to be dominant in Europe by mid-January, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday, adding that the number of cases appears to be doubling every two or three days.
Denmark, which has one of the most rigorous virus testing programs in Europe, has confirmed that it is seeing more than 1,000 daily cases of omicron. The UK reported 78,610 new cases of coronavirus on Wednesday, the most since the start of the pandemic.
France could unveil new travel restrictions at a government meeting on Friday. Gabriel Attal, spokesperson for President Emmanuel Macron’s administration, told reporters that EU coordination is important, but France has always taken the necessary steps whether the EU has made a decision or not. .
The French government expects to see 4,000 Covid-related patients in intensive care units over the holidays, Attal said. That compares to around 2,800 currently. France reported around 50,000 new daily coronavirus cases on average last week, up 11%, he said.
The omicron variant strikes just as Europe struggles to contain a brutal fourth wave. With hospitals already overwhelmed, European governments are rapidly putting in place restrictions, meaning travel within Europe could see even more disruption in the days and weeks to come.
Despite pressure from the EU, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi is expected to defend the new rules and refuse to change them, according to people familiar with the matter.
“It’s a Covid test,” he said on Wednesday. “I don’t think we need to think too much about that.”
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