European Union nations will try to build a coordinated approach to incoming airline passengers from China as the world’s most populous country is hit by a wave of COVID-19 infections and as several EU member nations announced individual efforts over the past week.
China’s abrupt U-turn on COVID controls in early December and the accuracy of its official COVID data have come under scrutiny at home and overseas, prompting a number of countries to impose travel curbs on travellers from China out of fear of introducing new variants.
Some international health experts have predicted that more than one million deaths are possible as the virus is now spreading unchecked since Beijing dropped its strict “zero-COVID” policies last month.
Sweden, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said officials from the member states will hold an Integrated Political Crisis Response meeting on Wednesday to see if entry requirements throughout the bloc are necessary for visitors from China.
“It is important that we get the necessary measures in place quickly,” Swedish Health Minister Jakob Forssmed said on Monday.
Belgium said late on Monday that it would be checking wastewater from planes arriving in from China to see if tests revealed new clues about any potentially dangerous variants among incoming passengers. It added that it would urge visitors from China who feel unwell to take a COVID test.
Belgian health minister Frank Vandenbroucke said more needed to be done, but only in a coordinated approach among the EU’s 27 member states.
“It would be a good signal toward China if all EU nations would say together: ‘If you come to Europe you have to be tested first,’” he told VRT network.
France, Spain and Italy have already announced independently that they will be implementing tougher COVID measures for passengers from China.
France’s government is requiring negative tests, is urging French citizens to avoid nonessential travel to China and is reintroducing mask requirements on flights from China to France.
Spain’s government said it would require all air passengers coming from China to have negative tests or proof of vaccination.
Italy was the first EU member to require COVID tests for airline passengers coming from China, but several others say such measures might not be the best way to protect local populations since variants now coming from China have already been around in Europe, often for months.
The United States announced new COVID testing requirements last week for all travellers from China, joining some Asian nations that had imposed restrictions because of a surge of infections.
China’s state media slams Europe’s ‘political logic’
The World Health Organization on Friday urged China’s health officials to regularly share specific and real-time information on the COVID situation, including hospitalisations, deaths and vaccinations.
It invited Chinese scientists to present detailed data on viral sequencing at a meeting of a technical advisory group scheduled for Tuesday.
China reported three new COVID deaths for Monday, up from one on Sunday. Its official death toll since the pandemic began now stands at 5,253.
China has rejected criticism of its COVID data and said that while new mutations may be more infectious, they are less harmful.
“According to the political logic of some people in Europe and the United States, whether China opens or does not open is equally the wrong thing to do,” state-run CCTV said in a commentary late on Monday.
In an article on Tuesday, People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, cited several Chinese experts as saying the illness caused by the virus was relatively mild for most people.
“Severe and critical illnesses account for 3% to 4% of infected patients currently admitted to designated hospitals in Beijing,” Tong Zhaohui, Vice President of Beijing Chaoyang Hospital, told the newspaper.
Despite the upbeat tone of China’s state media, others were warning that the worst is yet to come.
“China is entering the most dangerous weeks of the pandemic,” warned analysts at Capital Economics.
“The authorities are making almost no efforts now to slow the spread of infections and, with the migration ahead of Lunar New Year getting started, any parts of the country not currently in a major COVID wave will be soon,” they said.