EU member states agreed on Tuesday to introduce pre-departure Covid-19 testing on all arrivals from China as well as other measures, as the country re-opens to cross-border travel on January 8 despite a surge in coronavirus cases.
The decision was reached by an “overwhelming majority” during a meeting in Brussels of the EU’s Health Security Committee made up of member state health experts and chaired by the European Commission.
“The overwhelming majority of countries are in favor of pre-departure testing. These measures would need to be targeted at the most appropriate flights and airports and carried out in a coordinated way to ensure their effectiveness,” said a Commission spokesman.
In the meantime, the EU’s Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR) mechanism is scheduled to meet later today to set out the details of the decision and coordinate EU response.
Commission proposals to be discussed at the meeting include a recommendation for mask wearing on flights from China, wastewater monitoring for aircraft arriving from China, genomic surveillance at airports with monitoring and sequencing and increased EU vigilance on testing and vaccination.
Commenting on the news, Greek Health Minister Thanos Plevris admitted that there was concern in the EU that a new Covid-19 variant may appear due to inbound travel flows from China.
“It is a concern. We as EU members must take measures, this does not mean we are backtracking. Greece is requesting a negative test prior to departure from China, we believe that this is enough and more or less what most countries want,” he said in interview to public broadcaster ERT on Wednesday.
Greece welcomed its first direct flight from Shanghai in December operated weekly by Air China, which is aiming to increase flight frequency in the coming period. Additionally, Air China recently reinstated its Beijing-Athens route.
Earlier this week, China said the introduction of measures by several countries including the US, Canada, Australia, France and Japan was “unacceptable”. Spain and Italy have also called for measures and in Germany, one lawmaker called for a temporary stop to flights between China and the EU.
Commenting on these decisions, the ECDC issued a statement earlier this week saying that such measures were not necessary in the EU and that an introduction of mandatory Covid screenings of travelers from China was “unjustified”.
In response to the Commission’s announcement, International Air Transport Association (IATA) Director General Willie Walsh said it was “extremely disappointing to see this knee-jerk reinstatement of measures that have proven ineffective over the last three years”.
Walsh said research had shown that putting barriers in the way of travel made no difference to the peak spread of infections. “That’s why governments should listen to the advice of experts, including the WHO, that advise against travel restrictions,” he said.