European vacationers had hoped this year’s northern hemisphere summer would see unhindered movement and be largely free of travel restrictions, but countries across southern Europe are now scrambling to re-impose pandemic curbs amid alarm at rising cases of the delta variant, a highly contagious coronavirus strain first detected in India.
Spain, Portugal, Greece, Cyprus and Malta were among the first countries to start reopening earlier this year but now they are tightening entry restrictions on vacationers who have not received both jabs of the most used vaccines — Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
France and Germany are cautioning citizens against vacationing in Spain and Portugal. And Germany has added Cyprus to its list of “countries of concern” — unvaccinated Germans who do visit the island will have to self-isolate on their return home.
The piecemeal moves by national governments mirrors what unfolded last year when national governments shunned pleas from Brussels to act collectively and tested the Schengen arrangement of freedom of movement.
Abruptly announced restrictions are also adding to the woes to the continent’s airline, tourist and hospitality industries. They had been harboring hopes of a strong business rebound the next couple of months, enough to start repairing the severe economic damage the pandemic has inflicted on them.
They fear a patchwork of constantly changing restrictions, dampening demand, spelling doom for many tour operators and hotels that have managed to hang on and stay in business. But the national governments’ re-imposing entry rules are unrepentant about the tightening not long after deciding to relax measures and encourage travel.
"We all want to go on holidays but health protection is fundamental,” French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a news conference in Madrid Friday.
French officials, like their counterparts in neighboring countries, fear a delta wave even though coronavirus numbers currently across much of the continent are low, dreading a massive jump in numbers much as Britain has experienced the past few weeks.
Rising infection rates
“This variant is dangerous and quick and wherever it is present, it can ruin the summer,” Gabriel Attal, a French government spokesman, told reporters Friday. Infections in Paris have almost doubled in a week.
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control has issued a string of warnings, saying the Delta variant is 60% more transmissible than other variants.
“Based on available scientific evidence, the Delta variant is more transmissible than other circulating variants, and we estimate that by the end of August, it will represent 90% of all SARS-CoV-2 viruses circulating in the European Union,” ECDC’s Director Andrea Ammon said in a statement recently.
The fear is that the delta variant could quickly spread among the unvaccinated. According to ECDC around 40% of adult populations in EU countries have not been fully immunized. According to national health authorities, the delta variant already accounts for more than half of new cases in Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium.
Italian health authorities have reported a slight increase in new confirmed cases. Italy’s health ministry reckons the delta variant accounts for around a third of the new cases. “After 15 consecutive weeks of descent, there is an increase of 5% in new cases compared to the previous week,” according to Dr. Nino Cartabellotta of the Fondazione GIMBE, an independent medical think tank.
Writing in a monitoring report issued Friday, Cartabellotta stressed, though, that the amount of testing being conducted is “too low,” leading, he suspects, to an “underestimation of new cases”. The health ministry reported 1,390 new coronavirus cases Friday.
Brussels and the ECDC are urging national governments to spend up their vaccination programs.
On Saturday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the EU had delivered enough coronavirus vaccines to cover 70% of the bloc’s adult population. But she said that with Delta now accounting for over 40% of new cases in France, 70% in Portugal, and more than 30% in Spain, there is no room for complacency.
“COVID-19 is not yet defeated. But we are prepared to continue supplying vaccines,” Von der Leyen said in a video statement.
Last week, Lithuania announced the reintroduction of restrictions for arrivals from overseas. Arrivals from countries deemed “high risk,” EU or otherwise, will now have to follow stringent testing and quarantine procedures. Slovakia is also tightening entry rules, not based on the coronavirus risk of countries but on whether travelers have been vaccinated or not.
Belgium plans this week to announce new measures for arrivals from Portugal, involving testing ten-day quarantines for the unvaccinated.
Aside from Portugal, north European alarm is increasingly focused on Spain, among the first countries in Europe to reopen to tourists earlier this year. The country’s 14-day case rate has soared to 215 cases per 100,000 people. In response, authorities in the north-east region of Catalonia ordered nightclubs and discos to close again, weeks after allowing them to resume business.