Omicron Divides Europe Over Plan to Simplify Travel Rules
(Bloomberg) -- The omicron variant of Covid-19 is scrambling the European Union’s plans to simplify its travel rules, particularly as some countries move ahead with new unilateral restrictions.
EU governments are split over a plan to shift the rules to base them on a person’s vaccination status rather than on case levels in a particular country, with some countries asking for a delay to better understand the impact of the new variant, according to an diplomat familiar with talks. One of the EU’s largest members suggested pushing off discussions until January, the official said.
As those talks continue, Italy announced Tuesday it would require Covid tests for all visitors, including vaccinated people from other EU countries, starting on Thursday. The change is likely to frustrate some EU countries and further harm the airline and travel industries.
A senior EU official acknowledged that Italy’s decision undercuts the objectives of the digital Covid certificate the EU introduced to facilitate travel inside the bloc.
“These individual decisions of the states will decrease the trust of the people that there will be equal conditions everywhere in Europe,” EU vice president for values Vera Jourova told reporters on Tuesday evening, adding the move will be discussed when EU leaders meet in Brussels on Thursday. She added that member states insisted on a “back door” to impose additional unilateral restrictions on travel as long as it’s based on the epidemiological situation.
More broadly, several EU countries are now pushing to require Covid tests for anyone traveling into the bloc -- including EU citizens -- while several others are opposed to such a comprehensive approach, according to the diplomat. The bloc is also split over how and whether to remove a travel ban imposed on southern African nations, where the spread of the variant was first identified.
Last month, just as the new variant was emerging, the European Commission proposed making travel fully dependent on the status of the traveler as of March 1. Under that plan, vaccinated people from any country would be allowed into the EU. Those with a vaccine approved by the World Health Organization that isn’t yet recognized by Europe’s drug regulator would have to show proof of a negative PCR test as an additional safeguard.
The pushback comes as EU leaders head to Brussels this week for a summit that is set to address developments around Covid-19 and the omicron variant.
“Coordination of our measures, based on the best available scientific evidence, is critical, notably in order to preserve mobility,” European Council President Charles Michel wrote in a letter Tuesday inviting EU leaders to the summit.
EU leaders are expected to push for more urgency on booster shots, including encouraging a shorter timeframe between shots, according to an EU diplomat.
Some member states want to see more science-based data on the new strain before taking a decision on the proposals, the diplomat said, even as they remain split on which steps to take.
Several governments also pushed back against the commission’s attempts to streamline the passenger locator forms the bloc uses to track incoming visitors, citing data privacy concerns, the diplomat said.
Despite the differences, member states are expected to back the EU’s proposal to limit the validity of Covid vaccine certificates to nine months for travel purposes to encourage the use of booster shots, the diplomat added.
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