EU urges border health checks as virus case count mounts

BRUSSELS (AP) – The European Union (EU) urged member countries on Friday to put health screening procedures in place at their borders to slow down the spread of COVID-19 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 the country’s borders with all its neighbours 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 recognised 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. Earlier on Friday, 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 (WHO).

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.

A poster on the gate of Ireland’s National Gallery in Dublin. Ireland has announced the closure of all schools and colleges, and recommended the cancellation of mass gatherings as part of measures to combat the spread of the coronavirus. PHOTO: AFP