BRUSSELS – The European Union on Wednesday “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 criticized by the global airline industry.
Following a week of talks between EU health experts, the bloc stopped short of agreeing that all 27 member states impose such a travel restriction that members like Italy, France and Spain had already implemented at a national level. Instead, it only urged nations to do so.
China has already vehemently rejected such actions, warning 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 Wednesday, EU Commission spokesman Tim McPhie had said that the “overwhelming majority of countries are in favor” 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,” Walsh said.
Still, World Health Organization head Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday he understood why numerous countries have recently taken measures against travelers coming from China, given the lack of outbreak data from the Chinese government.
The EU also said it took its approach “especially considering the need for sufficient, reliable data” coming from China. The bloc said it will reassess the situation by the middle of the month, one week after China’s easing of travel restrictions on its citizens becomes official on Jan. 8.
A day after threatening countermeasures, Chinese government spokesperson Mao Ning said Wednesday that “we sincerely hope that all parties will focus on fighting the epidemic itself, avoid the politicization 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 — where the pandemic first exacted a heavy toll in Europe in early 2020 — 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.