EU decides to activate emergency brake against new COVID-variant but stops short of flight ban

EU decides to activate emergency brake against new COVID-variant but stops short of flight ban

The new COVID variant detected in South Africa has put the EU on alert and prompted the Council’s Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR) to decide on Friday evening on the need to activate the emergency break in health crises and impose temporary restrictions on all travel into EU from southern Africa.

The Slovenian EU presidency tweeted that the IPCR meeting resulted in a call upon member states to test and quarantine all incoming passengers. More details about the decision are not known at the time of press. It is not known if stricter measures will be applied against travellers who recently visited South Africa but are entering the EU via another country.

According to another tweet by the deputy spokesperson of the Commission, member states “agreed to introduce rapidly restrictions on all travel into the EU from 7 countries in the Southern Africa region - Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe.”

This is also what apparently the European Commission has proposed in countermeasures against the new and dangerous COVID variant which can change into more mutations than previous variants.

In a statement on Friday afternoon, European President Ursula von der Leyen said that the Commission had proposed to the Member States to activate the "emergency brake" on travel from countries in southern African and other countries affected to limit the spread of the new variant.

“All air travel to these countries should be suspended until we have a clear understanding about the danger posed by this new variant. And travellers returning from this region should respect strict quarantine rules.”

However, in a previous tweet on Friday morning, she wrote that the Commission would “propose, in close coordination with Member States, to activate the emergency brake to stop air travel from the southern African region due to the variant of concern B.1.1.529”.

In fact, some member states have already, without waiting for the Council recommendation, decided on flight bans from South Africa and other countries in southern Africa.  Among them are Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, and Czech Republic. Other countries, such as the United Kingdom and Israel, decided immediately to impose travel restrictions.

The emergency brake mechanism is activated when the epidemiological situation of a third country or region worsens quickly, in particular if a variant of concern or of interest has been detected. In that case, member states should adopt an urgent, temporary restriction on all travel into the EU.

The emergency brake should not apply to EU citizens, long-term EU residents and certain categories of essential travellers, who should nevertheless be subject to appropriate testing and quarantine measures, even if fully vaccinated.

A source in the Council explained that a discussion about the emergency brake to place at the IPCR meeting but no formal decision was taken. The discussion resulted in a recommendation which is not a legally binding instrument. The member states remain responsible for implementing the content of the recommendation.

The IPCR is the Council's crisis response mechanism and is a "tool" in the hands of the Presidency to coordinate the political response to major cross sectoral and complex crises, including acts of terrorism. Its work is not transparent and the only statements issued after the meeting on Friday evening were the above tweets.

A document which has been seen by The Brussels Times sheds some light on the tweets and shows that the EU takes the new COVID variant more seriously than what was communicated in the tweets.

The temporary restrictions on all travel into EU from southern Africa include suspending passenger flights from affected countries. Testing and quarantining incoming passengers include incoming passengers arriving directly or indirectly from these countries.

At today’s press conference, a spokesperson of the Commission urged the EU member states to be vigilant and act rapidly, including suspending links and air travel to South Africa. “The mechanism is designed to allow member states to act very quickly, even before a decision is taken. It also allows member states to act individually.”

The intention however is to coordinate the response of the member states and implement a common European approach to a health crisis like this which affects all countries.

Only yesterday, the Commission announced a proposal to update the rules on coordination of safe and free movement in the EU in response to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic. This is still a proposal to be agreed by the member states by end December and enter into force on 10 January 2022.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has been discussing the new COVID situation all day and is expected to issue a statement later on Friday evening.

Note: The article has been updated to include a clarification of the tweets about IPCR's recommendation.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times`

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