The European Union has “strongly encouraged” its member states to impose pre-departure Covid-19 testing of passengers from China, in a move that is likely to upset Beijing and has already been criticised by the global airline industry.
Following a week of talks between EU health experts, the bloc stopped short of fully imposing on all 27 member states such a travel restriction that members like Italy, France and Spain had already implemented.
China has already vehemently rejected such actions and has warned of “countermeasures” if such policies were to be imposed across the bloc.
Even though the EU presidency said in a statement that the member states “agreed on a coordinated precautionary approach”, part of the approach fell short of full agreement.
In the most crucial part of the statement, it said that “the Member States are strongly encouraged to introduce, for all passengers departing from China to Member States, the requirement for a negative Covid-19 test”.
On other issues, the EU said there was full agreement to have passengers wear masks when traveling to and from China and to offer advice on personal hygiene and health issues.
Earlier on Wednesday, EU Commission spokesman Tim McPhie had said that the “overwhelming majority of countries are in favour” of imposing testing of passengers from China prior to departure. But the EU apparently could not find agreement to bind them all.
The Chinese government and European health experts have said there is no pressing need for any blanket restrictions on travel since the coronavirus variants emerging from China are already prevalent in Europe.
On Wednesday, the International Air Transport Association, which represents some 300 airlines worldwide, lent its powerful voice to the protests.
“It is extremely disappointing to see this knee-jerk reinstatement of measures that have proven ineffective over the last three years,” said IATA director general Willie Walsh.
“Research undertaken around the arrival of the omicron variant concluded that putting barriers in the way of travel made no difference to the peak spread of infections. At most, restrictions delayed that peak by a few days,” Mr Walsh said.
A day after threatening countermeasures, Chinese government spokesperson Mao Ning said on Wednesday that “we sincerely hope that all parties will focus on fighting the epidemic itself, avoid the politicisation of Covid”.
Still, the EU sought to take some sort of joint action to ensure incoming passengers from China do not transmit any potential new variants to the continent.
Fearful of being caught unawares like at the outset of the global pandemic in early 2020, the EU Integrated Political Crisis Response group wanted quick action, and ended up with encouragement on several issues instead of imposing measures.
Wednesday’s EU Presidency statement also said member states “are encouraged” to carry out random testing of passengers and check waste water from planes arriving from China to see if it contains dangerous variants that are not common in the continent.
Over the past week, EU nations have reacted with a chaotic cascade of national measures to the crisis in China, disregarding an earlier commitment to act in unity before anything else.
Italy was the first EU member to require coronavirus tests for airline passengers coming from China, but France and Spain quickly followed with their own measures.