EU urges border health checks as virus case count mounts

European Union officials call for coordination as countries begin closing borders, infringing on bloc’s cherished policy of free movement

A medical worker wearing a protective suit assists students to an ambulance in Minsk, Belarus, March 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)
A medical worker wearing a protective suit assists students to an ambulance in Minsk, Belarus, March 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Sergei Grits)

AP — 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 coordinate so people can still quickly get the medical care they need.

With Italy reporting the most virus cases and deaths anywhere in the world except China, the pandemic is increasingly wearing on the EU’s cherished core principle, which envisions a border-free Europe where citizens can freely live, work and travel.

Countries that border Italy, including Austria, Slovenia and Switzerland have moved to reintroduce border controls and restrict traffic from outside. But several other EU nations, including Poland, Slovakia and Cyprus, announced restrictions that go far beyond travelers from Italy.

Poland’s prime minister said that starting at midnight Saturday, the country’s borders with all its neighbors would be closed and all foreigners denied entry unless they lived in Poland or had personal ties there. Non-citizens who are let in will be quarantined for 14 days.

Slovakia took similar action. An entry ban on foreign nationals in Cyprus only excepts European citizens if they live or work in the ethnically divided island nation. President Nicos Anastasiades said foreigners would also be prohibited from entering Cyprus’ internationally recognized south from the breakaway north.

More than 22,000 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed across Europe, and nearly 1,300 people with the virus have died on the continent.

A health official prepares to take samples for a coronavirus test from a journalist in Bucharest, Romania, March 13, 2020. (AP Photo/George Calin)

For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The EU’s executive commission recommended coordinated border health screenings as a way to address infections.

“We’ve seen travel bans and controls being put in place in a number of member states,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “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.”

To avoid a patchwork of national policies that cause economic harm and are ineffective in guarding public health, “any measure that is taken must be proportionate” and coordinated with Brussels, she 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.

Workers wearing protective suits spray disinfectant inside a vehicle at a bus depot in Athens, March 14, 2020. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

The ID check-free area, which includes many EU members but also non-members like Switzerland, Norway and Iceland, 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 zone.

“Member states, especially neighboring ones, need to work very closely together,” von der Leyen said. “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.”

The screening recommendations were put to the interior ministers of EU member nations Friday as they try 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.

The European Commission led by von der Leyen polices the Schengen Area’s rules, but 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. “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.

Patients lie on beds at one of the emergency structures that were set up to ease procedures at the Brescia hospital, northern Italy, March 12, 2020. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

Croatian Interior Minister Davor Bozinovic, who is chairing the talks because his country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said, “This crisis shows that as a European Union we need to have models to act in a more coordinated way.”

“If we are acting in one way, it would be much better for all of us,” he said.

The ministers were also expected to discuss the 30-day US travel ban on people coming from inside the Schengen Area. The measure announced by US President Donald Trump doesn’t apply to the United Kingdom, Ireland or any of the Balkan countries.

EU leaders expressed disapproval of the action, saying they should have been consulted and that a disease of pandemic proportions knows no borders.

“I hope Mr. Trump understands that you can’t make a deal with a virus,” said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency directed airlines across the EU to disinfect planes after each flight or within 24 hours after departure from “a high-risk airport.”

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