Italy orders COVID tests for China arrivals, EU seeks common rule

Italy imposes mandatory testing for air passengers from China, but other EU countries seem reluctant to follow suit.

Masked travellers check their passports as they line up at the international flight check-in counter at the Beijing international airport
Masked travellers check their passports as they line up at the international flight check-in counter at the Beijing international airport [Andy Wong/AP Photo]

European Union health officials are holding talks as they attempt to coordinate a response to China’s decision to lift its COVID-19 restrictions amid a wave of infections there, with Italy having mandated tests on arrival for all travellers by air from the country.

The EU Health Security Committee’s discussions on Thursday come as the scale of the outbreak in China and doubts over official data have prompted countries including the United States, India, Taiwan and Japan to impose new travel rules on Chinese visitors.

In the EU, only Italy has done so, while others in the largely borderless bloc either said they saw no need to follow suit or were waiting for a common stance across the 27 member states.

It was unclear when the committee’s meeting would end and what decisions the body – which is composed of officials from health ministries across the bloc and chaired by the European Commission – could take.

“The EU Health Security Committee is meeting … to discuss the COVID-19 situation in China and possible measures to be taken in a coordinated way,” the European Commission’s health directorate general said on Twitter.

Any decision taken by the committee, which met frequently at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Europe to coordinate policies, would only be advisory. But its aim is for member states to agree to a common line and apply it across the bloc.

Divergent views within EU

There are currently different views within the EU over how to respond to the wave of infections that have gripped China after the country’s government recently relaxed its strict “zero-COVID” rules.

Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni said on Thursday that she “expects and hopes” the bloc will follow its lead on imposing mandatory COVID tests for all passengers flying in from China.

Addressing her end-of-year news conference, Meloni said Italy’s measures – which also subject transit passengers to compulsory testing – risked being ineffective if not extended across the EU.

She added that preliminary tests show that COVID-positive travellers from China had already known Omicron variants.

Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni
Meloni has called for other EU member states to mirror Italy’s measures for visitors from China [Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters]

But other European capitals appear unwilling for now to follow Rome’s lead.

Germany on Wednesday said it saw no need to impose new travel restrictions, while Austria stressed the economic benefits of the prospects of seeing a return of Chinese tourists to Europe.

The head of France’s health risks committee also spoke out against imposing border controls on arrivals from China.

“From a scientific point of view, there is no reason to bring back controls at the border … but that could change any day,” Brigitte Autran, head of the French health risk assessment committee COVARS, told French Radio Classique on Thursday.

Autran – who advises the government on epidemiological risks – said for now “the situation is under control” and that there are no signs of worrying new COVID variants in China.

China facing COVID surge

Having imposed the world’s strictest COVID regime of lockdowns and relentless testing for three years, China reversed course this month towards living with the virus, leaving its fragile health system overwhelmed.

The lifting of restrictions, following widespread protests against them, means COVID is spreading largely unchecked and likely infecting millions of people a day, according to some international health experts.

China officially reported one new COVID death for Wednesday, down from three on Tuesday, but foreign governments and many epidemiologists believe the numbers are much higher, and that more than one million people may die next year.

The country’s official death toll of 5,246 since the pandemic began compares with more than one million deaths in the US. Chinese-ruled Hong Kong has reported more than 11,000 deaths.

Beijing has rejected criticism of its statistics as groundless and politically motivated attempts to smear its policies. It has also played down the risk of new variants, saying it expects mutations to be more virulent but less severe.

A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday that any COVID-19 requirements being imposed on arrivals from the country should be grounded in “science”.

“COVID response measures need to be science-based and proportionate without affecting normal people-to-people exchange,” Wang Wenbin said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies