Worry is spreading around Europe after Malta decided this week to ban all but double-vaccinated visitors, opening the possibility that other countries would follow as the Covid Delta variant contagion infects the continent.
A few hours after Malta’s announcement, and following warnings from the European Commission that such measures were discriminatory, the island’s government eased the ban, opting instead for mandatory quarantine on arrival.
Malta’s changes are an example of the confusion throughout Europe after the continent decided to reopen to the world but now is suffering a worrisome spike of infections that is forcing new restrictions throwing vacation plans around the continent, into disarray.
More countries marked “Red”
The European Center For Decease Prevention has now put the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, Cyprus and parts of Greece and Denmark in the list of code red (high-risk) countries due to the high number of coronavirus infections.
“There has been a 64.3% increase of weekly COVID-19 cases compared to last week, according to ECDC’s epidemic intelligence and TESSy data reported by EU and EEA countries, as of 15 July 2021,” the institution warns.
Now each country will have to decide what restrictions they apply to travellers from “red marked” countries. This could include a quarantine obligation or an entry ban. Some might decide the “Malta way” and rule according to people having or not gotten the vaccine.
A country is labelled red if there are 200 to 499 infections per 100,000 inhabitants in the past 14 days, according to the EDCD. Dark red is if there are 500 or more infections per 100,000.
“An increasing trend is observed in 20 countries. In the most affected, the steepest increases and highest notification rates were reported among 15 to 24-year-olds, with limited increases in persons aged over 65 years.”
Here you can find the ECDC’s overview of the situation by country.
The paradox? What is happening is in large part the result of the region’s relaxation of restrictions and the opening of borders in anticipation of tourism, summer vacations and related events.
Changes to come
One thing is clear now: The reopening of Europe is complicated and will be subject to alterations and ongoing adjustments due to the nature of the Covid virus and the behavior of people in each country.
“Covid is still ‘troubling and dangerous’,” the World Health Organisation (WHO) warns in a recent analysis of the global situation released on July 13. “Globally, in the past week the number of new cases and deaths both increased when compared to the previous week.
Nearly three million new cases of Covid-19 were reported globally, with some 56,000 new deaths over the past week. Cumulative deaths have now surpassed four million. All regions apart from the Americas reported increases in new cases in the past week and the largest increase in new deaths was observed in the African Region.”
On the other hand, experts cited by the New York Times agree that the vaccines are working well against Delta and other variants:
“Those who have been inoculated against the coronavirus have little to worry about. Reports of infections with the Delta variant among fully immunized people in Israel may have alarmed people, but virtually all of the available data indicate that the vaccines are powerfully protective against severe illness, hospitalization and death from all existing variants of the coronavirus.”
Worn out from Covid, people yearn for summer freedom
The worrisome calls to a confusing reality come as the world is exhausted from the pandemic and the restrictive health and other measures imposed to control it.
Virtually everywhere, as the latest sports mega-events such as soccer’s recently-completed UEFA European Football Championship show, people are clamoring for restrictions to be lifted, even as the need to curb the virus has never been greater.
In Europe, Malta is in good company in reevaluating decisions related to “summer freedom.”
Spain and Greece are getting tough
Spain and Greece have announced the tightening of Covid restrictions after suffering significant increases in infections from new variants of the virus.
Both countries are among those most driven to open their economically-vital tourism industries and have been expecting a big influx of sun-seekers this summer.
Spain, whose case rate tripled over just two weeks, has reintroduced night curfews in more than 30 towns in the Mediterranean region, including the city of Valencia and other popular coastal destination.
Social gatherings of more than 10 people are also to be banned.
Spain and Greece have now been included on the U.K.’s “amber list,” with quarantine-free travel only for double-vaccinated holidaymakers starting July 19.
In Greece, new nationwide restrictions that include all islands comprise banning unvaccinated people from bars, cinemas and theaters.
The government attributes the latest wave of infections mainly to the unvaccinated.
“After a year and a half, no one can claim ignorance about the coronavirus anymore,” Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis said. “In the next two summer months, we have to convince every citizen who may have second thoughts to get the vaccine in order to reach the desired 70-75% immunity of the population in the fall.”
“Mitsotakis pointed out that the Delta variant has already been identified in Greece and it is a matter of time, as (the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control) estimates, that the prevailing mutation should take place here as well as in other countries,” the Greek City Times reports.
The ‘Salutory lesson’ of The Netherlands
In the Netherlands, the party is over. “Coronavirus infections have jumped by 500% after the country relaxed restrictions,” reports The Independent.
It’s been just a few weeks of unrestricted freedom. On June 26, Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced that people could abandon face masks and lifted limits on the numbers of people allowed in stores, bars and restaurants.
Then, he called it “a special moment.” Now he calls it a mistake.
“We had poor judgement, which we regret and for which we apologise,” he says in a very public mea culpa.
The “special moment” saw over 10,000 Covid-19 infections — despite the fact that three-quarters of the country’s adults are vaccinated.
The curve is clear: 806 cases a day on July 1, 3,646 on July 7 and 10,345 on July 10. That translates into 345 cases per million, closing in on Britain’s 477 and Cyprus’s 1,012, the highest infection rates in Europe.
According to statistics, around 1,260 infected people went to nightclubs over the past two weeks, thus spreading the virus. Over the same period, there were about 30 super-spreader events.
As a result, bars, restaurants and nightclubs have been closed once again to indoor service. Masks are back and social distancing strongly recommended.
“The Dutch experience is a salutory lesson for any country that feels confident enough to lift, wholesale, coronavirus restrictions,” concludes The Independent.
France restricting travelers and extending use of pass
France has announced stricter restrictions against non-vaccinated travellers from the U.K., Spain and Portugal, reports Schengenvisainfo.com.
“As the COVID Delta variant continues to spread rapidly within the European Union countries, the French authorities have announced that the country will introduce stringent rules against unvaccinated persons travelling from the United Kingdom, Spain, and Portugal,” said the country’s Secretary of State for European Affairs.
Only for essential purposes will France allow unvaccinated or not fully-vaccinated travellers to enter the country from Britain. And they must present a negative Covid–19 test result performed within 24 hours of entry.
Even travellers having received one of the vaccines authorised by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) must present a negative coronavirus test conducted within 72 hours of travel.
France does not recognise the Covishield AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured in India.
Although Spain and Portugal remain on France’s green list, travelers from those countries will be subject to reinforced surveillance. Unvaccinated visitors must present negative test results taken within 24 hours.
Fully vaccinated travellers will not be subject to any of the measures.
In a speech on July 12 that many analysts interpreted as the preamble to more general restrictions, President Emmanuel Macron announced the extension of the health pass — which is given to those fully vaccinated — to allow entry to restaurants, cafes, transportation and shopping centers.
Starting later in July, the pass also will be required at cultural venues hosting more than 50 people.
The president also announced that all workers in health care facilities, nursing homes and those caring for elderly or sick at home must be vaccinated or face potential sanctions or fines.
France lags behind some of its neighbors. Only 40% of the population has been fully vaccinated, according to Euronews.
The president spoke of “breaking measures” that could be taken by regions exceeding an incidence rate of 200 infections per day.
In Paris, the incidence rate is 85.8, and has tripled in the last two weeks.
A number of cities along the touristic Mediterranean rim and areas in the Pyrenees, such as in the Alpes-Maritimes, have already made masks compulsory again.
“The country is facing a strong resumption of the epidemic touching all our territory,” Macron said during the televised address.
Meanwhile, France’s Europe minister, Clément Beaune, warned residents to avoid holidaying in Spain and Portugal unless they had already booked, saying it was “better to remain in France or go to other countries.”
The recomendation has triggered strong criticism from those two countries’ governments.
The Scandinavian countries
Sweden has announced that in line with the country’s reopening plan, as of July 15, several measures that were introduced as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic will be lifted inside the country, SchengenVisaInfo.com reports.
Among those measures: operators of long-distance public transport will be able to operate at full capacity, different municipalities of the country will no longer ban the public from attending certain crowded places and the rule on the number of people allowed per square metre in museums, shopping centres, amusement parks, gyms, and several other outdoor and indoor places will be removed.
A ban on entry for non-essential travel for many countries outside the EU/EEA will remain in effect until 31 August 2021.
Following the EU’s recommendations, residents of several foreign coutries including the U. S are exempt from the entry ban, but since July 1 are required to show “a Covid certificate,” according to Visit Sweden.
Exempted travellers also need to show results from a negative Covid-19 test no more than 48 hours old before entry.
Currently exempt countries: Australia, New Zealand, Rwanda, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Israel, Japan, Albania, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Macao, North Macedonia, Serbia, Taiwan, and the USA.
Sweden nationals are discouraged to travel abroad.
Norway has reimpossed stricter entry restrictions for U.S. travelers.
“Among others, the changes in entry restrictions mean that boyfriends and girlfriends of Norwegian citizens will no longer be permitted to enter Norway starting from Monday, July 12,” reports Schengenvisainfo. “Grandparents of children who are Norwegian citizens will also be affected.”
“The pandemic has lasted a long time, and many had hoped to see their loved ones this summer” the Norwegian government said. “Unfortunately, the infection situation is changing rapidly in the world, and we have always been clear that there will be changes. Anyone planning to receive a visit from abroad should follow the situation closely.”
Norway advises Norwegian citizens to stay in-country due to the fragile Covid situation.
Finland has extended internal border controls with several Schengen area countries for another two weeks, the country’s Ministry of Interior announced.
The country has also prolonged until August 22 the ban on travel from third countries, according to SchengenVisainfo.com.
A changing panorama for travelers
“A number of countries are experiencing a surge in infections driven by the more contagious Delta strain, with the number of new daily cases in the tourist hotspots of Spain, Greece and Portugal all rising faster or broadly at the same rate as in the U.K.,” writes The Guardian.
It’s also a fact, as AP explains, that “millions of tourists arriving every year in Spain and Portugal are crucial for the Iberian countries’ economies and jobs. Both hope tourism will help drive an economic recovery after the pandemic.”
International Tourism organizations and governments in the area are still confident that popular European destinations will remain open.
Tourism-dependant economies including Spain’s, Portugal’s and Greece’s are making every effort to welcome holidaymakers in coming weeks — particularly the double-vaccinated.
Spain’s Foreign Minister, Arancha González, said the current surge is not translating into more hospitalizations and is urging people to be “proportionate” in their response to pandemic trends, AP reports.
“This is a time for prudence, not for panicking,” she said at a press conference in Madrid. “There is no reason at the moment to ask people to cancel their vacations.”
But stricter measures across Europe and new travel restrictions cannot be ruled out and “appear inevitable as governments try to contain the further spread of the virus, with tighter entry restrictions likely – especially in northern countries whose economies are not particularly reliant on tourism,” The Guardian predicts.
To help you plan your travel in Europe, Re-open EU, an official website of the European Union provides information on the various measures in place, including on quarantine and testing requirements for travellers, the EU Digital COVID certificate and mobile coronavirus contact tracing and warning apps. The information is updated frequently and available in 24 languages.