PARIS (AFP) – Europeans faced last-minute travel frustration on Saturday (July 17) as Britain and France overhauled Covid-19 border restrictions to combat surging infections that threaten plans to get life back to normal.
The challenge of charting a return to pre-pandemic lifestyles was highlighted by the first case of Covid-19 at the Tokyo Olympics Games Village, less than a week before the event is due to begin.
Britain is also facing a backlash over its decision to exempt France from its new looser entry policies – vaccinated returning British residents will still have to quarantine for 10 days, unlike in other “amber” countries.
“I’m a doctor so I understand the health issues very well, but this doesn’t make any sense,” said Dr Maud Lemoine, based in London and visiting France.
And France had an upwelling of anger to deal with after the government announced that unvaccinated visitors from Britain and several other European countries must show a negative Covid-19 test taken within the 24 hours of departure rather than 48 or 72 hours, as was the case previously.
The interior ministry said almost 114,000 demonstrators gathered across France on Saturday to protest against the government’s handling of the pandemic and continued restrictions on everyday life.
“It’s not that we think the Earth is flat, but we don’t know the long-term effects of these vaccines cobbled together in a hurry,” care assistant Rita, 39, said at a march in the city of Montpellier.
Elsewhere in Europe, Greek officials imposed curfews on the party island of Mykonos and Spanish authorities did likewise in Barcelona and other cities in the northeastern Catalonia region.
European governments are facing an uphill battle, with the European Union’s disease prevention agency warning that infections could rise fivefold across the bloc by Aug 1.
But the continent also had something to celebrate, with the proportion of people vaccinated topping the United States figure for the first time.
Around 55.5 per cent have now had a first dose following a sluggish start, compared with 55.4 per cent across the Atlantic.
EU Commissioner Thierry Breton said the achievement validated the EU’s strategy of “remaining open and exporting half of our production to 100+ countries”, vaunting the bloc’s solidarity compared with other vaccine makers.
Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said his country had reached the milestone of 50 million doses and promised that half of the population would be fully vaccinated by next week.
And in Britain, where most of the adult population has now had two jabs, the government is preparing to ease most restrictions on its citizens.
Quarantine for vaccinated Britons returning from “amber” list countries is due to end on Monday but at the last minute the government decided to retain the status quo for France because of the “persistent presence” of the Beta variant, first identified in South Africa.
While the rule applies only to England for now, the devolved governments in Scotland and Wales indicated they were likely to follow suit.
The new looser regime in England, with requirements to wear masks among the rules to be dropped, comes as Britain recorded more than 50,000 cases in a day last Friday and the government said that rate could double in the coming weeks.
However, officials said the high vaccination rate should prevent a spike in deaths and serious illness.
Among those testing positive was Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who announced on Saturday he had contracted the disease and was isolating.
“I’m grateful that I’ve had two jabs of the vaccine. And so far, my symptoms are very mild,” Mr Javid said via Twitter.
More than two-thirds of Britain’s adults are fully vaccinated, but with cases surging, critics say the government is making a reckless gamble.
“This is a threat not just to England but to the whole world – particularly low- and middle-income countries who have very limited access to vaccines,” a group of international scientists said in a joint statement last Friday.
Saudi Arabia is also allowing crowds to gather for the second downsized haj since the start of the pandemic.
The kingdom is allowing only 60,000 fully vaccinated residents to take part – a fraction of the pre-pandemic number – as it seeks to repeat last year’s success that saw no virus outbreak during the five-day ritual.