EU wants travellers from China to take pre-departure Covid tests | Coronavirus

EU wants travellers from China to take pre-departure Covid tests | Coronavirus

The European Union wants all travellers from China to take pre-departure Covid tests, in response to surging levels of the virus after Beijing hastily abandoned strict controls.

EU officials meeting on Wednesday in the “integrated political crisis response” format said there should be a requirement for a negative Covid test from all travellers from China, despite warnings from Beijing of retaliation.

“The member states are strongly encouraged to introduce, from all passengers departing from China to member states, the requirement for a negative Covid-19 test taken not more than 48 hours prior to departure from China,” said a statement from Sweden, the current holder of the EU council’s rotating presidency.

The officials – from the EU’s 27 member states and four non-EU states that are in the passport-free Schengen zone (Switzerland, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland) – also said passengers on flights to and from China should wear FFP2 or other medical masks.

Member states are also “encouraged” to carry out random tests of passengers arriving from China and to sequence all positive results to strengthen surveillance in the EU, the Swedish presidency statement added. Other recommendations include tests of wastewater from airports with flights arriving from China, as well as campaigns to promote vaccines in Europe.

The EU-member states agreed to review the measures in mid January.

The European recommendation reverses a decision against pre-departure Covid tests from last week, and had been expected after a separate group of EU national experts spoke out in favour of the plans on Tuesday.

Stella Kyriakides, the European commissioner for health, said experts meeting in the EU’s health security committee on Tuesday had “converged on action” including pre-departure testing, intensified monitoring of plane wastewater and increased surveillance of Covid-19 in the EU. “Unity remains our strongest tool against Covid,” she wrote on Twitter.

A commission spokesperson said “the overwhelming majority of countries” were in favour of pre-departure testing, adding: “These measures would need to be targeted at the most appropriate flights and airports and carried out in a coordinated way to ensure their effectiveness.”

The EU-wide approach – a recommendation to member state governments – follows similar measures in more than a dozen countries, including the US, the UK, India, Australia and Japan.

China’s government has warned of unspecified “countermeasures” in response to the entry restrictions, which it says lack scientific basis. “We are firmly opposed to attempts to manipulate the Covid measures for political purposes and will take countermeasures based on the principle of reciprocity,” said a foreign ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning.

The EU’s tougher entry requirements on travellers from China comes despite the conclusions of the bloc’s disease control agency that a surge in the number cases in China was not expected to have a major impact on Covid in Europe.

In a statement on 3 January, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said the variants circulating in China were already in the EU and “as such are not challenging for the immune response” of citizens in the EU or broader European Economic Area, which includes Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. The ECDC said European populations were protected by higher population immunity and relatively high vaccination rates.

EU countries last week rejected calls from Italy to impose mandatory Covid tests on travellers from China entering the border-free Schengen zone. But the debate has shifted amid growing international concern about under-reporting of the virus in China.

China reported five new Covid deaths on Tuesday, bringing the official death toll to 5,258, very low by global standards.

The death toll is widely believed to be much higher. Researchers at the UK data firm Airfinity have said there are probably about 9,000 people a day dying from Covid in China. Cumulative deaths in China since 1 December were likely to have reached 100,000, with infections totalling 18.6m, Airfinity said last week.

The ECDC reported that cases reached a record peak in mainland China on 2 December, but added that the subsequent fall probably reflected reduced testing, resulting in fewer infections being detected. “There continues to be a lack of reliable data on Covid-19 cases, hospital admissions, deaths, as well as intensive care unit capacity and occupancy in China,” the EU agency said.

The World Health Organization has called on Chinese scientists to share detailed data on viral sequencing and hospitalisations, deaths and vaccines.

The EU has offered China free Covid vaccines, an offer that appears to have been rejected. Mao did not give a direct reply, but told Reuters China’s vaccination rate and treatment capacity continued to rise and its supplies were “adequate”.