EU urges border health checks as virus case count mounts
BRUSSELS -- The European Union urged member countries Friday to put health screening procedures in place at their borders to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus but said they must co-ordinate the effort so people can still quickly get the medical care they need.
The virus is now present in all 27 EU countries. More than 22,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed across Europe, and more than 1,000 people so far have died on the continent.
With Italy at the epicenter of Europe's outbreak, neighbouring Austria, Slovenia and non-EU country Switzerland moved to restrict traffic at their borders, raising questions about the movement of food and medical equipment. But others, like the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland, are taking action too. Spain is set to declare a state of emergency for two weeks.
"What we can do, and what we should do, is to carry out health screening measures," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.
Preliminary checks for signs of infection could be done at borders between the 26 nations that make up the passport-free Schengen Area, but also at the EU's external borders and within individual countries, von der Leyen said.
The ID-check free area is a jewel in Europe's crown. Besides smoothing travel arrangements, it allows businesses and transportation to move easily across borders of the countries within the Schengen zone, which share common security standards. The EU's executive commission polices the zone's rules.
"In the last few hours, we've seen travel bans and controls being put in place in a number of member states," von der Leyen told reporters. "Certain controls may be justified, but general travel bans are not seen as being the most effective by the World Health Organization. Moreover, they have a strong social and economic impact, they disrupt people's lives and business across the borders."
"Any measure that is taken must be proportionate" and co-ordinated with Brussels, she said. "Member states, especially neighbouring ones, need to work very closely together. In this way, and it's the only way, we can make sure that our citizens receive the health care that they need immediately wherever they are."
Health screening recommendations were discussed by EU interior ministers Friday as they sought to build a unified response to the virus. The bloc's institutions have a very limited role to play in combating the COVID-19 pandemic and individual countries are responsible for their own health and public safety policies.
"The problem is on different levels in different countries," Swedish Interior Minister Mikael Damberg told reporters, but he said "we hope that all countries that take new measures also inform other European countries."
"The transportation system must work when it comes to food and to health care materials and these kinds of things that are important to all European countries so that we don't make problems for each other handling the crisis," Damberg said.
Homes Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said that on the EU's borders to the outside world medical checks could be carried out at the same time as routine ID checks are done. Any people showing coronavirus symptoms could be barred from entering, or placed in quarantine, she said.
She also said that EU nations, if they wish, could decide individually or in groups to ban people from certain at-risk countries from entering.
When it comes to internal Schengen borders, member countries must inform the commission within 10 days if they reintroduce systematic border checks for unforeseen public safety reasons. But Johansson suggested a temporary way around this.
"It's always possible for a member state to have health checks. If they introduce health checks, it is not seen as an internal border control," she told reporters. "So they do not have to notify the commission on that, so they can always do that."
Johansson said the commission would publish its border and health guidelines soon.
Brussels also said that it will set up a 37-billion euro (US$41-billion) investment fund and allow "maximum flexibility" on state aid and fiscal rules to help member states weather the economic fallout from the coronavirus outbreak.
In addition to loosening the rules constraining public spending, von der Leyen said the European budget will guarantee eight billion euros in liquidity for small and medium companies affected by the crisis.
"The virus is not only dangerous for our health, it is also hitting our economies. It is a major shock for the global and European economy. We have to take decisive and bold action now, on all levels," she said.
Many EU meetings have been cancelled due to the virus, and Friday's was among the rare exceptions. Two ministerial sessions, between health and justice ministers, were held via video-conference this week. Italy's envoy to the EU called on the bloc to cancel all meetings and hold only video-conferences from Monday.
Frank Jordans in Berlin and Karel Janicek in Prague contributed to this report.