EU Releases Border Guidelines as Member Nations Attempt to Slow COVID-19

The European Union is rethinking its approach to border crossings as the region deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.

As governments around the world reconsider travel and visa policies in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the European Union this week offered new guidelines for how its member states should police their borders in light of the new danger.

The guidelines are wide-ranging, encompassing everything from essential and non-essential human travel, as well as trade and the supply chains of food and medical supplies.

“We have to take exceptional measures to protect the health of our citizens,” said EU President Ursula von der Leyen, in a press release. “But let's make sure goods and essential services continue to flow in our internal market.”

The issue of travel is a particularly difficult one in the EU because the residents of most member states are used to traveling from 1 country to the next without the need to go through passport control. However, each country also has its own health care system, thus easy travel of patients could lead to the transmission of health care costs from 1 member nation to the next.

The guidelines state that while it is permissible in certain cases for member countries to reintroduce border checks at borders with other EU member states, persons trying to cross the border who are suspected of infection with SARS-CoV-2 ought not be refused entry, but instead ought to be provided with treatment. As needed, member states will also be allowed to quarantine people crossing their borders who are suspected of infection.

“Such controls should be applied in a proportionate manner and with due regard to the health of the individuals concerned,” the guidelines state. Controls should also be set up in such a way that they don’t create long lines that might endanger those waiting for checks.

The guidelines state that member nations cannot discriminate based on the country of origin.

This is a particularly pressing issue given that 2 member states—Italy and Spain–have become global hotspots in the COVID-19 crisis, while others, like Slovakia and Romania, have relatively few. Just this week, the total number of deaths in Italy surpassed the number in China, where the virus is believed to have originated.

The guidelines are stricter with regard to borders with countries outside of the passport-free zone. Those crossing external borders are subject to health checks, regardless of their nationality, and member countries have the right to refuse entry to persons from non-member countries who attempt to cross an external EU border.

Even as the new guidelines place limits on the movement of people, they also take pains not to restrict the movement of needed supplies. The guidelines call for the free circulation of food (including livestock) and medical supplies, as well as of truck drivers, air crews, and other workers involved in transporting those supplies.

Von der Leyen said the lack of economic limits is both practical and symbolic.

“It's not only an economic issue: our single market is a key instrument of European solidarity,” she said.

The full list of guidelines can be read on the EU Commission’s website.

On March 25, 2020, at 6PM ET, Contagion® is hosting a live CME webinar on what clinicians need to know amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Register here.