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Europe tries to stem coronavirus panic and keep borders open

World News | Published:

Health ministers from seven European nations met in Rome to discuss a coordinated response.

Spain coronavirus

Authorities across Europe are working to strike a balance between taking prudent public health measures and preventing panic.

As the coronavirus cases clustered in northern Italy kept climbing and European countries reported new ones with Italian travel ties on Tuesday, the big fear was that the open borders of more than two dozen countries that allow passport-free travel might be closed.

Authorities in Italy reported Tuesday night that the number of people infected in the country grew to 322, or 45% in 24 hours, and deaths of patients with the virus rose to 11.

Austria, Croatia and Switzerland reported their first cases, while Spain and France recorded new ones, involving people who had been to northern Italy.

Covid-19: affected areas in Italy
(PA Graphics)

Health ministers from seven European nations met in Rome to discuss a coordinated response.

French health minister Olivier Veran told broadcaster BFMTV that the officials signed a text laying out the “common principles” that include communicating daily to share epidemiological information and advising against the closing of borders.

The ministers agreed that as a prevention strategy, border closures are “not judicious… not proportional and it wouldn’t be effective”, Mr Veran said.

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They also agreed there was not a need to cancel all large cultural and sporting events, but instead to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis, he said.

In an illustration of such an approach, French football club Lyon said its sold-out Champions League home game against Juventus, from northern Italy, will go ahead as planned on Wednesday. Up to 3,000 Juventus fans are expected.

However, vastly different reactions in Europe, at least initially, created some confusion and stoked concerns that a failure to coordinate could worsen the outbreak.

Croatia Virus Outbreak
A health worker takes notes at the infectious disease clinic in Zagreb, Croatia (Darko Bandic/AP)

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The European Commission, which enforces the rule book for the open-border Schengen Area, encouraged countries to adopt measures based on scientific evidence and “in coordination and not in a fragmented way”, a spokeswoman said.

“The situation is a dynamic one. It may be evolving,” European Commission spokeswoman Dana Spinant said.

It appears that there are differences of approach across countries and within them too, notably over how to deal with Italy, which has seen the most cases outside Asia.

In France, police barricaded a bus that arrived in the central city of Lyon on Monday from northern Italy, keeping passengers on board for several hours.

The driver was taken to hospital as a “suspicious case” but ultimately tested negative for the virus that leads to the Covid-19 disease. The other 35 people were deemed to be virus-free and sent on their way.

But it was “recommended” that those who had stayed in Milan before boarding should follow precautions, including taking their temperatures twice and wearing a mask around other people.

Poland has not had a case, but 20 people are in hospital with unclear kinds of infection and 14 others are in quarantine.

People arriving by plane from Italy will have their temperature taken at the airport and will receive text messages with virus-related information and instructions.

Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok, who had just returned from Iran which itself is grappling with its own outbreak, showed Tuesday just how complicated things can be, even for public officials.

“I had contact with the foreign affairs minister, who previously had contact with (an official from) Tehran, who was known to be infected,” he told reporters in Brussels.

Mr Blok said an official Dutch doctor allowed him to enter the Netherlands, which at last report had no recorded cases.

“Their line is that if people don’t show symptoms, a test is not useful,” he said.

One thing most officials agree on is that borders probably should not be closed.

“The risk of the virus reaching our country is real,” Belgian health minister Maggie De Block told broadcaster VRT, but she ruled out checking people’s temperature on public transportation, saying “it’s worthless” because some people do not necessarily show symptoms.

“A virus does not stop at the border,” she added. Belgium has one recorded case so far.

Mr Veran also rejected such moves said the ministers who met in Rome came to the same conclusion.

They agreed to establish an expert committee and “we’ll go so far as to harmonise, uniformise” all messages concerning prevention for travellers crossing borders by air, sea or land, he said.

In a recent assessment, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said that the risk of an outbreak of clusters of the virus like those seen in Italy elsewhere in Europe is “moderate to high.”

European health authorities say there is no reason for panic.

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