BRUSSELS — European Union leaders assessed more measures to counter the spread of coronavirus variants during a video summit Thursday as the bloc’s top disease control official said urgent action was needed to stave off a new wave of hospitalizations and deaths.
Expressing great concern about the virus’ mutations, the 27 leaders looked at further border restrictions like limits on all non-essential travel, better tracking of mutations and improving coordination of lockdowns, worried that another surge of deaths across the EU was imminent.
But they could not immediately agree on a decision.
“It is of great importance not to travel, but you cannot immediately enforce this legally,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said after the conference call.
The head of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, Andrea Ammon, said that “an increasing number of infections will lead to higher hospitalization and death rates across all age groups, particularly for those in older age groups.”
Some 400,000 EU citizens have died from COVID-19-related causes since the start of the pandemic.
In a study published just before the summit, the ECDC warned of the high dangers of the new variants, like those initiating in Britain, Brazil and South Africa, and Ammon said that “member states are also encouraged to accelerate vaccination of high-risk groups, and prepare the health care system for high demand.”
Some EU countries have already strengthened restrictions by imposing stricter curfews and more stringent mask requirements on public transport and in shops. Among the measures the ECDC recommends is a ban on nonessential travel and a speeding up of vaccinations.
“We must do everything in order to prevent the introduction of further mutations like the Brazilian one,” said Austria’s Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz. “We need clear and uniform standards at the borders and regarding the entire travel sector.”
He also called for the European Medicines Agency to speed up work so the candidate vaccine of AstraZeneca can be quickly approved and distributed. Kurz said many other leaders agreed with him that EMA “needs to work night and day.”
“A quick and unbureaucratic decision is needed,” he said, adding that “there’s nothing standing in the way of an approval.”
The EU’s executive Commission believes that the health situation is at a critical point and has urged member states to step up the pace of vaccination, to ensure that at least 80% of those over age 80 are vaccinated by March, and that 70% of the adult population across the bloc is protected by the end of the summer.
But since the EU doesn’t expect vaccines to be ready for mass distribution before April, leaders should in the meantime find efficient ways to contain the new variants. The commission believes that better tracking the virus’ mutations with genomic sequencing, coupled with an increased use of rapid antigen tests, will be crucial.
The EU Commission said several EU nations are testing under 1% of samples. It has proposed to “urgently” increase genome sequencing to at least 5% of positive test results and would ideally see that figure reach 10% to detect the variants.
Member states unanimously agreed Thursday on a common framework for the use of rapid antigen tests and the mutual recognition of PCR test results across the bloc of 450 million inhabitants, in a bid to facilitate cross-border movement, tracing of the virus and treatment.
“This is a central tool to help mitigate the spread of the virus and contribute to the smooth functioning of the internal market,” the EU Council said in a statement.
The coordination of lockdown measures is trickier, with a myriad of initiatives coming from members states. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned that new border checks might be needed if they don’t coordinate.
Echoing the ECDC advice, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo had proposed a temporary ban on nonessential travel during the February school break.
“It is important to be clear that this does not mean that we close the borders,” De Croo said. “Non-essential travel, which we can do without now, such as tourism, clearly we can no longer take that risk.”
Discussions also focused on the disruption of vaccine deliveries after Pfizer last week announced a temporary reduction that has affected all EU countries. The EU has sealed six vaccine contracts for more than 2 billion doses, but only the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have been approved for use so far.
The EU now expects Pfizer to keep the drop in deliveries limited to this week, while resuming full distribution again next week, with the resulting backlog made up during February.
Leaders also weighed a Greek proposal to issue vaccination certificates to ease travel. But with doubts about whether the people vaccinated could still be contagious, and only a small fraction of the EU population already vaccinated, several member states have expressed reservations. At this stage, vaccination proof certificates should only be considered for medical purposes and not as travel document, an EU official said.