Europe discusses tougher Covid restrictions as half of Chinese arrivals test positive

Beijing Passengers – NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images

Half of Chinese visitors arriving in Italy by plane have tested positive for Covid, Italian authorities said on Thursday, as Europe debated tightening entry restrictions.

The alarming proportion of Chinese tourists found to be infected with the virus has prompted Italy to urge other European countries to follow suit, announced Wednesday, of mandatory Covid tests for flights from China.

The scale of the outbreak in China and doubts about official data have prompted countries including the US, India and Japan to impose new restrictions on Chinese travelers since Beijing suddenly eased its lockdown rules.

Up to half of Chinese visitors who arrived at Milan Malpensa airport on two flights on Dec. 26 have tested positive for Covid-19, officials said.

On the first flight, about 38% of passengers tested positive and on the second, 52% tested positive, according to Guido Bertolaso, a senior official from the Lombardy region.

Italian authorities said they would use swabs taken from passengers to try to identify any new variants arriving from China.

Compulsory test

Experts from the Spallanzani Institute, Italy’s main hospital for infectious diseases, said the measures implemented by Italian authorities should be replicated in the rest of Europe.

“It would be better if surveillance coordination took place at a European level,” the institute said.

“The fear is that in a country (China) with a high percentage of unvaccinated people, where ineffective vaccines have been used that give little protection to the population, such a strong exponential growth in infections could generate the selection of a new, very more immuno-evasive and transmissible”.

In her end-of-year speech on Thursday, Giorgia Meloni, the Italian prime minister, called for a decision on whether the rest of the EU should impose mandatory testing on arrivals from China be “made quickly”.

Matteo Salvini, Minister of Transport and Infrastructure, echoed calls for Europe-wide action targeting Chinese arrivals.

“Italy cannot be the only country to carry out anti-Covid checks at airports for those arriving from China. I have asked for controls and any limitations to be applied throughout Europe.

The British government has said it has no plans to bring back Covid tests for those arriving by plane, despite mounting pressure on Thursday for it to follow Italy’s lead.

No sign of worrying new variants

Meanwhile, EU health officials held talks on Thursday to try to coordinate widely differing views on how to respond to China’s decision to lift its Covid restrictions.

So far only Italy – the first Western country to be hit by the virus in March 2020 – has ordered the antigenic swabs for all travelers from China.

Other EU nations said they see no need to follow suit or are waiting for a common position among the 27 member states.

“From a scientific point of view, there is no reason at this stage to reinstate border controls,” Brigitte Autran, head of the French health risk assessment committee COVARS, told French radio.

Ms Autran, who advises the government on epidemiological risks, said the situation could change at any moment, but that for now the situation is under control and there are no signs of worrying new variants of Covid in China.

Germany on Wednesday said it sees no need to impose new travel restrictions, while Austria stressed the economic benefits of a return of Chinese tourists to Europe.

China’s borders have been nearly closed to foreigners since early 2020, soon after the coronavirus first emerged in its central city of Wuhan, but it has announced it will stop requiring inbound travelers to quarantine from the 8 January.

This will increase overseas travel by its citizens who will no longer have to spend time in quarantine upon returning home.

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