France and the UK on Friday joined a list of countries imposing stricter travel rules in response to the COVID wave currently hitting China following the lifting of the country’s zero-COVID policy.
Now that Beijing, after three years, allows its people to travel again, other governments fear that new strains of COVID-19 could be spread to their populations. The concern is heightened by the lack of transparent health information forthcoming from China.
Italy was the first EU nation to impose, on December 28th, additional requirements. Outside the EU, the U.S. and India also announced new restrictions this week.
British media reports that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, after being pressured by fellow Tory MPs, gave the all-clear for stricter measures to be pursued. Starting January 5th, passengers arriving in England from China will need to show a negative COVID-19 test, taken no more than two days before departure. In addition, “a sample of arrivals” will be tested for COVID-19 to “enhance existing measures to monitor for new variants [of the COVID-19 virus],” a Westminster press release said.
France is demanding that all passengers from China, either directly or via a stopover, present a negative test taken no more than 48 hours before departure. In addition, wearing a mask will again become mandatory on flights originating in China.
France has not set a start date for these measures, but will publish a government decree and notify EU member states over the weekend, its ministries said. A source within the government told Reuters it would take “a little while” for the mandatory testing to be put in place.
Starting January 1st, random PCR tests will also be performed on passengers to detect any new variants, the French health ministry said.
Earlier today, Spain also announced upcoming changes to their travel requirements. Travelers from China will have to present either a negative COVID-19 test or proof of vaccination. The Spanish minister of health, Carolina Darias, justified the measures as a consequence of the opacity of information from Chinese authorities:
There is concern about the evolution of the contagion in China, as well as the difficulty of making a correct evaluation of the situation given the scarce information we currently have.
The Chinese silence has only increased existing fears of new variants of the virus (possibly circumventing whatever protection is offered by existing vaccines), being introduced to the population.
In a Friday meeting with Chinese health officials, the World Health Organisation urged Beijing to regularly share specific and real-time information regarding the COVID-19 situation in the country, including more genetic sequencing data (to map out any possible emerging variants) and data on hospitalizations and deaths.
In the meantime, Chinese state media is slamming foreign governments for imposing COVID-19 tests on travelers from their nation, calling such measures “discriminatory” and an attack on the Chinese system itself.
Oddly enough, with their proposed measures, Spain, France, and Italy are not aligning themselves with the advice coming out of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), an official EU agency.
On Thursday, the ECDC considered it “unjustified” to take new measures for travelers from China arriving on European soil. “Europeans are generally well protected, health systems can handle the pressure and there are no indications that new variants are circulating in China,” the ECDC argued.
This disjointed approach, with individual EU member states determining their own course of action concerning public health, serves to lay bare confusion, or perhaps a mild rift, within the EU bloc.
Indeed, while the EU touts its new-fangled ‘European Health Union,’ which would enable EU countries to “prepare and respond together to health crises,” on this issue its members apparently do not find themselves on the same page.
For her part, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni has advised the EU to come up with a collective approach. Action by Italy alone, she said, “may not be completely effective unless it is taken by the whole EU.”