The EU has rejected an Italian demand to reimpose travel restrictions on arrivals from China, as capitals across the world take divergent approaches to surging numbers of coronavirus infections in the country.
EU officials at a meeting on Thursday did not endorse a call from Giorgia Meloni, Italy’s prime minister, for the bloc to collectively follow Rome’s move to test all air arrivals from China in response to Beijing’s abrupt decision to lift its zero-Covid policies.
Meloni warned Brussels that Italy’s mandatory testing, announced on Wednesday, would be “ineffective if it is not followed at a European level”. She added: “We wish Europe would move in this direction.”
France, Germany and other EU states have instead argued that the situation does not warrant a change in their national coronavirus policies.
The EU’s health and security committee, made up of member state officials, on Thursday agreed that “co-ordination of national responses to serious cross-border threats to health is crucial”, adding: “We need to act jointly and will continue our discussions.”
The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, said that the BF.7 Omicron variant, prevalent in China, was already present in Europe.
“However, we remain vigilant and will be ready to use the emergency brake if necessary,” the commission said, adding that it “could be activated if needed to reintroduce restrictions in a co-ordinated manner”.
The debate over reimposing pandemic travel curbs, lifted in western countries for most of the past year, is the latest repercussion of Beijing’s decision to scrap its draconian zero-Covid policies, which has sparked a coronavirus wave infecting tens of millions of people in China each day.
The huge increase in infections and a rush of international travel bookings from China have prompted the US to demand negative test results for new arrivals. Japan, India and Taiwan have also imposed testing requirements for Chinese arrivals, in anticipation of a wave of visitors.
Equities fell in Asia and Europe on Thursday as investors worried about the surge’s impact on the global economy.
Orazio Schillaci, Italy’s health minister, said the country would use genetic sequencing of positive test results to determine whether new variants were emerging in China. There are fears any new strain could pose a higher health threat than variants already in circulation for which vaccines in use in the west offer good protection.
Italy said that 52 per cent of passengers on one post-Christmas flight from China to Milan had tested positive for coronavirus. The EU’s one-visa Schengen zone means there are no restrictions on people moving around most of the bloc.
After Thursday’s meeting of the EU committee, the French health ministry said the talks underscored the need for a coherent EU strategy, as well as for more data and for further work on measures to protect people and keep travellers informed.
But it added that “at this stage, the number of Chinese travellers to Europe is limited and will remain so for several weeks, while China’s reopening measures are put in motion and take effect”.
Governments in the Nordic countries and the UK also said they had no plans to follow Italy’s lead or were waiting for further information.
Norway and Finland were not considering imposing any conditions on arrivals from China because there is already a significant amount of Covid infections in the countries and few travellers from the Asian nation at this time of year, health authorities said.
“It’s pointless,” Jari Jalava, an infectious disease expert at Finland’s health authority, told state broadcaster Yle.
The German health ministry said it was “watching the situation closely and co-ordinating closely with our international partners”. Spokesperson Sebastian Gülde said: “Up till now the health ministry has no indication that any kind of worrying variant has emerged in the context of the outbreak in China, compared to the variants that are currently circulating in Germany.”
The British government also said it was reviewing whether to carry out Covid checks on arrivals from China, but insisted there were “no plans” to reimpose controls at the border.
One government official said that Britain had already experienced the Omicron wave gripping China, adding: “Our vaccines work and our vaccination rate is superb.”
However, the UK’s Health Security Agency is monitoring the prevalence and spread of harmful variants and Downing Street said all available international data would be kept under review.
Additional reporting by Giuliana Ricozzi in Rome, Richard Milne in Oslo, Barney Jopson in Madrid and Guy Chazan in Berlin