Travellers wearing protective masks stand at Delta Air Lines ticketing desk at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport.
Travellers wearing protective face masks stand at the Delta Air Lines ticketing desk inside Terminal 2E at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy, France, March 12, 2020.

WASHINGTON - Top European officials assailed U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday for unilaterally imposing a ban on most flights from the continent to the United States without consulting them first about his attempt to prevent the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

"The European Union disapproves of the fact that the U.S. decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation," Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, and Charles Michel, president of the European Council, said in a joint statement.

"The coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action," von der Leyen and Michel said. "The European Union is taking strong action to limit the spread of the virus."

Trump unveiled the travel ban in an address from the Oval Office in the White House Wednesday night, after in recent days suggesting that the coronavirus was far less a concern than the seasonal flu in the U.S.

The ban blocks flights from 26 countries Europe to the U.S. for 30 days starting at Friday midnight, while excepting flights from Britain and Ireland. It was not immediately clear what would prevent a passenger from flying into Britain or Ireland from a European country and then on to the U.S.  U.S. citizens are exempt from the restrictions.

All Americans returning from Europe will be asked to self-quarantine for 14 days upon arrival back in the U.S. to try to halt the spread of the coronavirus, Vice President Mike Pence told ABC's "Good Morning America" show.

People line up at the Delta Air Lines ticketing desk inside Terminal 2E at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport in Roissy, after the U.S. banned travel from Europe, as France grapples with an outbreak of coronavirus disease, March 12, 2020.

Pence said there has been "irresponsible rhetoric" that may have downplayed the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic, but did not blame Trump.

"The American people should know that President Trump has no higher priority than the health and safety and well being of the people of this country," he said.

Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, now the leading Democratic candidate to face Trump in next November's presidential election, attacked Trump's handling of the pandemic in the U.S., saying it showed “severe shortcomings” of his administration.

“The administration’s failure on testing is colossal, and it’s a failure of planning, leadership and execution,” Biden said in a speech in Wilmington, Delaware. “By next week, the number of tests should be in the millions, not the thousands.”

Biden called for free and widely available coronavirus testing, the development of a vaccine to combat the illness before it strikes, emergency paid leave for workers affected by the outbreak, and “an immediate set of ambitious and progressive economic measures and further decisive action to address the larger macroeconomic shock from this outbreak.”

Call for more test kits

Pence said Trump had asked two private laboratories, Lab Corp. and Quest Diagnostics, to increase their production of coronavirus test kits, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to approve their use. The U.S. has lagged far behind other countries in testing people who think they might have contracted the virus.

“We essentially want to stop the flow of people bringing the coronavirus here, but then continuing to surge resources” to U.S. states most impacted by the COVID-19 outbreak, Pence said.

"As we watched the epicenter of the coronavirus shift from China to Europe, the president thought it was proper for us to impose a 30-day suspension on all travel from continental Europe," Pence said.

"'The reality is just two weeks ago in Italy there were less than 500 [cases]. Now there's 12,000," he said.

The U.S. has totaled more than 1,300 coronavirus cases with 38 deaths.

But he said, "When we looked (Wednesday), 30 of the 35 states (with coronavirus cases) could be traced to contact to Europe."

'We want to stop the flow of people bringing the coronavirus here, but also surge resources in California, Washington and New York where we've seen the spread - it's a combination of efforts," the vice president said.

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