EU Cautions Against Loosening Virus Restrictions; Doesn’t Ban Holiday Travel

Christmas Market in Bonn, Germany. File Photo

The European Union’s Executive Commission on Wednesday kept up the pressure on member states to maintain their strict coronavirus protocols before the Christmas season is upon us, with all its temptations to travel and engage in social activities.

When many people go home to celebrate the holidays with family and many others flock to EUrope’s ski mountains for wintertime recreation, the EU body cautioned against any letup of the lockdowns and other measures already in place across the continent during the upcoming weeks and into the new year.

However, the Executive Commission did not explicitly ban travel and the recommendations it did make were non-binding.

The Commission cited sources such as a European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control study, which said that abandoning all  coronavirus restrictions several days before Christmas would inevitably result in “a subsequent increase in Covid-19 hospital admissions…as early as the first week of January 2021.”

The number of new coronavirus cases are now falling steadily across Europe, where more than 300,000 people with Covid-19 have died with the malady. Until vaccines against the virus are rolled out, however, the EU commission is recommending prudence.

“Every 17 seconds a person loses their life due to Covid-19 in Europe,” EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said. “The situation may be stabilizing, but it remains delicate. Like everything else this year, end of the year festivities will be different. This year, saving lives must come before celebrations.”

All the EU health ministers discussed the European Commission’s strategy on Wednesday as European countries famous for their skiing resorts struggled to find a way to stay afloat while keeping their customers safe.

Restrictions to slow the spread of the virus have kept ski lifts closed in Italy, France and Germany but other nations have expressed concerns about the decision, which has a very large economic impact. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, supports a common approach, rather than each country going its own way in this regard.

Earlier this year, after the virus hit Europe, ski resorts in France, Italy and Austria were the sites of several superspreader events that helped seed individual Covid-19 outbreaks across the continent. When cities in northern Italy went into a strict lockdown, many there headed for the mountains, where the virus was spread to other travelers.

The EU commission, however, somewhat surprisingly did not discourage tourism and cross-border traveling this winter.

“While travel itself is a risk factor, the generalized widespread transmission of Covid-19 across member states means that at present, intra-EU cross-border travel does not present a significant added risk,” it said in a statement.

Still, the commission “strongly discouraged” people with coronavirus symptoms from traveling and recommended vaccination against the seasonal flu for travelers.

“Where possible, public transport options and capacities should be increased to reduce crowding, particularly on days or at times expected to be relatively busier to ensure social distancing,” it added. “The use of masks should be compulsory in public transport, and all vehicles should be well ventilated.”

To keep any further outbreaks in check, the EU’s executive arm also invited member nations to consider additional nighttime curfews, to ban mass gatherings, to issue clear guidelines for small private reunions, and to consider extending school breaks or introducing a period of online teaching to prevent students from bringing the virus back to schools after the holiday period.

For EU member states which are considering a temporary holiday-time loosening of their infection-control rules, the Commission promoted the use of “household bubbles, which means that people are encouraged to spend the days of the festivities with the same people and to reduce further social contacts.”

The commission also recommended avoiding large religious services and for churches, synagogues and mosques to use online, TV or radio broadcasts instead of in-person worship this holiday season.