Italy reopened its borders to European travellers, and other EU member states look set to follow suit by mid-June. Yet confusion remains over which will welcome visitors from countries with higher infection rates, including Britain.
As the UK home secretary, Priti Patel, confirmed on Wednesday that Britain would enforce a 14-day quarantine period on almost all overseas arrivals from 8 June, Italy said its borders were no longer closed to most travellers from Europe.
A foreign ministry spokesman said, however, that the government had not yet spoken to the UK about trying to establish an “air bridge” between the two countries, so that Britons would not have to self-isolate on their return.
Despite the EU’s call for a coordinated reopening of the continent’s key travel and tourism sector from 15 June, other member states seem reluctant to welcome travellers from Italy, which has suffered Europe’s second-highest Covid-19 death toll after the UK.
Austria’s foreign minister, Alexander Schallenberg, said on Wednesday its border restrictions, including quarantines, would be lifted on Thursday for all the country’s eight neighbours except Italy.
“We will lift all the coronavirus-related border and health checks with Germany, Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Hungary,” Schallenberg said. Unfortunately, he added, “for Italy the pandemic figures do not yet allow such a step”.
It follows Germany’s announcement on Wednesday that it would lift a blanket travel ban to all 27 EU member states plus Iceland, Norway, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Britain from 15 June, providing there were no entry bans or large-scale lockdowns in those countries.
The foreign minister, Heiko Maas, told a press conference that the ban would be replaced with daily advice on travel to individual countries, and warned that Berlin would continue to warn against all non-essential travel to Britain while the UK maintains its 14-day quarantine rules.
The French foreign ministry also said that France and the UK had not started bilateral talks on a possible quarantine exception for travel between the two countries, saying that for the time being it would be applying a principle of strict reciprocity.
The Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, is expected to announce later on Wednesday the lifting of restrictions on travel from European countries bar those imposing quarantine restrictions, including Denmark and the UK.
Portugal’s foreign minister, Augusto Santos Silva, told the BBC on Wednesday that talks were under way with London on establishing an “air bridge” between the two countries, saying quarantine was “an enemy of tourism” and anyone wanting a holiday in Portugal this summer would be “most welcome”.
Spain, meanwhile, said on Wednesday it was working on plans to gradually open its borders to tourists from countries with relatively low infection rates, possibly starting on 22 June, a day after the country’s state of emergency is due to be lifted.
A tourism ministry spokesman told Reuters that Madrid had spoken to tour operators and airlines in several European countries and wanted “to reactivate and accelerate international mobility – but starting with areas in similar epidemiological situations”.
Spain has previously said it is keen for travel protocols to be agreed at the European level. However, concerns are now being voiced in Brussels at a lack of coordination by European governments in the reopening of the EU’s borders.
The EU set out plans in May for a phased restart of travel this summer from 15 June. A European commission spokesman said it was crucial EU member states had a “strictly coordinated approach”, but said it accepted that governments might wish to bar those coming from countries with higher rates of infection.
“We don’t comment on specific measures taken by the member states, but what we have done is to produce a number of guidelines as to how they should go about lifting restrictions at the internal borders,” the spokesman said.
“In this respect the very important principle is non-discrimination – non-discrimination in terms of nationality – and that regions of similar epidemiology benefit from the same treatment.”
Greece said at the weekend that it would resume flights to the country’s two main airports, Athens and Thessaloniki, from 15 June for an interim period before direct flights to other mainland and island destinations restart on 1 July.
During that fortnight, passengers from countries classified as high risk must undergo a coronavirus test and be prepared to self-isolate for seven or 14 days depending on the result.
The risks of opening up to foreign tourists were underlined on Wednesday, however, when 12 out of 91 passengers on a Qatar Airlines flight to Athens tested positive. “We’ve now seen what can happen this summer,” an infectious diseases expert and government adviser on the pandemic, Nikolaos Sypsas, said.
“The safest would be not to open up to tourism, but that would mean huge economic destruction,” he said. “The first thing we have to do is divide countries of origin into safe and unsafe. That creates certain diplomatic pressures, but for us the first priority is public health.”