The European Union has “strongly encouraged” its member states to introduce pre-departure COVID-19 tests for all passengers flying in from China.
The recommendation on Wednesday came as Beijing plans to ease travel restrictions for its residents on January 8 despite a wave of new infections that has overwhelmed Chinese hospitals and funeral houses.
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Among EU countries, France, Italy and Spain already require travellers from China to present negative test results before boarding but the European Council – after a week of talks between health experts – stopped short of agreeing that all 27 member states impose such curbs.
Instead, the EU presidency said European countries “are strongly encouraged to introduce, for all passengers departing from China to Member States, the requirement for a negative COVID-19 test taken not more than 48 hours prior to departure from China”.
The bloc said it took its approach “considering the need for sufficient, reliable data” and also recommended face masks for all passengers travelling to and from China.
Member states were also “encouraged” to carry out random testing of passengers and test wastewater from planes arriving from China to check for dangerous variants that are not common in Europe.
Italy and France are already testing Chinese passengers on arrival, while Austria said it will test wastewater from all flights from China as of next week.
The EU’s recommendations are likely to upset China, which has warned the EU of “countermeasures” if the bloc imposes travel restrictions across all member states.
Government officials in Beijing as well as health experts in Europe have said there is no pressing need for any blanket restrictions on travel since the coronavirus variants emerging from China are already prevalent in Europe.
The European Centre for Disease Control also said EU citizens had relatively high vaccination levels and the potential for imported infections was low compared with daily infections in the EU, with healthcare systems currently coping.
On Wednesday, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents some 300 airlines worldwide, lent its powerful voice to criticism of countries that already require negative COVID-19 tests for travellers from China.
“It is extremely disappointing to see this knee-jerk reinstatement of measures that have proven ineffective over the last three years,” IATA Director General Willie Walsh said.
“Research undertaken around the arrival of the Omicron variant concluded that putting barriers in the way of travel made no difference to the peak spread of infections. At most, restrictions delayed that peak by a few days,” he said.
World Health Organization (WHO) chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday that he understood why numerous countries have recently taken measures against travellers coming from China, given the lack of outbreak data from the Chinese government.
China reported five new COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday, bringing the official death toll from COVID to 5,258 in the world’s most populous country, which is very low by global standards.
Mike Ryan, the WHO’s emergencies director, told a media briefing that current published numbers from China underrepresented hospital admissions, intensive care unit patients and, “particularly”, deaths.
The United Kingdom-based health data firm Airfinity has estimated about 9,000 people in China are probably dying each day from COVID-19.