Any border restriction related to coronavirus in the EU should be based on a thorough risk assessment and scientific advice, two European Commissioners said on Monday (24 February), highlighting that it must be a proportional response and above all, one that is coordinated among different member states.
Speaking after a recent coronavirus outbreak in Italy, EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides and Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič added that imposing restrictive border measures in the Schengen area is a member state competence,
No member state has currently notified the Commission of the intention to take such action.
Kyriakides said the Commission is closely following the situation in Italy, which demonstrates how quickly the situation can change.
She added that the situation causes concern and highlighted how important it is for member states to be prepared for similar cases.
With the number of cases topping 200, Italy is currently facing the worst coronavirus outbreak outside Asia. Entire towns in the Northern part of the country have been on lockdown, while schools were closed and public events, such as the final days of the Venice Carnival, were cancelled.
More than four people have died since Friday (21 February) in Italy. On Sunday evening, Vienna blocked a train coming from Italy after the Italian State Railways informed the Austrian train operator OBB that there were two people with symptoms of fever on board.
“Tonight a train on its way from Venice to Munich was stopped at the Austrian border,” Austria’s interior ministry confirmed.
However, Italy’s government is reluctant to suspend the Schengen borderless system.
“There’s no ground for an initiative of this kind, at the moment,” said PM Giuseppe Conte, adding that a temporary reintroduction of border control will have a devastating impact on the country’s economy. “What are we going to do with Italy, a lazaretto?” he added.
In a TV interview, French health minister Olivier Veran said that closing the borders with Italy “would make no sense, as a virus doesn’t stop at borders.”
He also added that there’s no actual epidemic in Italy, since health authorities have, on the contrary, taken steps “to prevent an epidemic from occurring.”
Asked if the Commission is prepared for an EU-wide suspension of the Schengen area in the event of an escalation of the situation, Lenarčič replied that the executive was not currently working on this, but added that there are several constituency plans and various scenarios.
Officials from the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the World Health Organisation will visit Italy tomorrow (25 February) and the Commission has asked the ECDC to review the situation with regard to Europe.
In an interview with EURACTIV.com earlier this month, ECDC director Andrea Ammon said that as long as there are only a few cases and few clusters around them, there is no need to worry too much about novel coronavirus.
However, she called for a rethink of pandemic preparedness plans to help ensure Europe is equipped to deal with a virus spread scenario such as the current one in China.
[Edited by Natasha Foote/Gerardo Fortuna]