EU aims to open up to foreign tourists this summer amidst COVID-19

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) -The European Union’s executive has recommended easing COVID-19 travel restrictions next month to let foreign travelers from more countries enter the bloc, hoping to boost the stricken tourism industry this summer.

Under current restrictions, people from only seven countries, including Australia and Singapore, can enter the EU on holiday, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated but subject to tests or quarantine.

New proposals from the European Commission on Monday, but still requiring approval by the EU’s 27 member states, would allow in fully vaccinated foreign citizens and those from countries with a “good epidemiological situation”.

“Time to revive tourism industry and for cross-border friendships to rekindle – safely,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote on Twitter.

People arriving from Britain, Russia and a number of other countries would meet the new criteria, according to data provided by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). U.S. citizens would not currently do so.

“We want to have this done before the mass summer travel starts,” an EU official said.

EU member states are due to start discussing the proposal on Tuesday and the official hoped it would be approved this month.

BIG LOSSES

Travel restrictions because of COVID-19 have inflicted heavy losses on the tourism industry in the EU, which at times has struggled to agree a common response to the pandemic.

If the new proposals are agreed, specific EU countries would be expected – but not legally obliged – to follow the new joint approach. Greece has already agreed to welcome vaccinated tourists from Israel.

Other measures to support tourism this summer include a central EU register allowing free travel for the bloc’s citizens holding a so-called “green certificate” proving they have been vaccinated, have had a negative COVID-19 test or have immunity after recovering.

“The green certificate, for the Luxembourg government is one of the elements that would allow us to get back to normality as fast as possible,” Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said in separate comments on Monday.

The Commission recommended allowing people fully inoculated with EU-recognized vaccines to be able to enter from any country, and said other vaccines could be added if they are approved by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The European Medicines Agency has authorized the use of shots by Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca in the EU.

The WHO has also approved those vaccines for use and is expected to decide on the use of two Chinese vaccines this week. Both agencies are considering Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine.

The Commission said reciprocity should be considered when deciding to allow leisure travel from third countries.

To limit the risk of importing new coronavirus variants, the Commission also proposed a new “emergency brake” that would allow the swift introduction of travel restrictions from countries where the health situation deteriorates sharply.

EU countries would review the situation every two weeks.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Editing by John Chalmers, Timothy Heritage and Giles Elgood)

U.S. to ease COVID-19 travel restrictions for Chinese students

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration will ease travel restrictions allowing Chinese students to come to the United States for classes this fall and from other countries where most non-U.S. citizens are barred because of the coronavirus pandemic, government officials told Reuters.

The U.S. State Department is set to announce later on Tuesday it is expanding its national interest exemptions to cover students and academics around the world starting on Aug. 1 after it made the change in March for European students, officials said.

The United States has barred most non-U.S. citizens from the United States who have been in China, Brazil, South Africa, Iran and most of Europe within the prior two weeks. Now students from all those countries will be eligible to enter the United States in a few months’ time.

The largest number of international students in the United States are from China. About 35% of international students in the United States in the 2019-20 school year were from China, according to the International Education Exchange (IEE), nearly twice as high as the second highest, India.

In the 2019-20 academic year 372,000 Chinese nationals attended universities and colleges in the United States, the IEE said in a November 2020 report.

In January 2020 then President Donald Trump first imposed the restrictions barring nearly all non-U.S. citizens who were in China from entering the United States.

U.S. colleges and universities have been urging the State Department to take the step before international students had to make enrollment decisions.

The American Council on Education had pressed the administration of President Joe Biden to act quickly, saying in a letter last month the administration could “deliver a welcoming message to current and prospective international students, which can help restore the U.S. as a destination of choice, as well as supporting an important economic activity as the U.S. economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Another big issue has been the requirement that first-time student visa applicants have in-person interviews at U.S. embassies and consulates.

The group cited a study that the overall economic impact generated by international students had declined by $1.8 billion during the 2019-2020 academic year, from $40.5 billion in the prior year.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool)

Toronto area to close some workplaces amid COVID-19 surge

By Anna Mehler Paperny

TORONTO (Reuters) – Canada’s biggest city Toronto and neighboring Peel, both of which are in the midst of a third wave of COVID-19 infections, on Tuesday said they would order businesses to close if they had outbreaks involving five or more people, medical officials said.

The closures would be for a minimum of 10 days if workers “could have reasonably acquired their infection at work,” according to a release from Peel Public Health.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he is sending federal healthcare workers to help Ontario, the country’s most populous province, which includes Toronto and Peel.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford stopped short of closing workplaces like warehouses or manufacturers when he imposed a stay-at-home order over the weekend.

On Tuesday, Ontario’s science advisory table, which offers advice to the provincial government, called for paid sick leave, the closure of non-essential workplaces, and “public health guidance that works.”

“Our case counts are at an all-time high. Our hospitals are buckling. Younger people are getting sicker. The disease is ripping through whole families,” the science advisors said in the brief.

On Tuesday, Ford’s government appeared to open the door to implementing paid sick leave after months of refusing to do so.

Canada has been ramping up its vaccination campaign, but still has a smaller percentage of its population inoculated than dozens of wealthy countries, including the United States and Britain. On Tuesday, Canada extended travel restrictions.

There were 3,469 new cases in Ontario on Tuesday. Nationally, Canada has recorded an average of 8,680 new infections over the past week, a 7% increase from the previous seven days.

To accelerate vaccinations, Ontario, Alberta, Manitoba and British Columbia lowered the minimum age for recipients of the AstraZeneca Plc vaccine to 40 from 55. Quebec said on Tuesday it would lower the minimum age to 45.

Separately, the U.S. state of North Dakota will administer COVID-19 vaccines to Manitoba-based truckers transporting goods to and from the United States.

“With adequate vaccine supplies and all North Dakotans having access to vaccine … we want to do our part to ensure essential workers from Canada who are frequently traveling through our state are vaccinated,” North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum said in a statement.

(Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny in Toronto, additional reporting by Allison Lampert in Montreal, writing by Steve Scherer Editing by Alistair Bell)

U.S. extends travel restrictions at land borders with Canada, Mexico through March 21

By David Shepardson and Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. land borders with Canada and Mexico will remain closed to non-essential travel until at least March 21, the one-year anniversary of the restrictions to address COVID-19 transmission concerns, the U.S. government said Friday.

The new 30-day extension is the first announced under President Joe Biden and comes as the White House has been holding meetings about potentially tightening requirements for crossing at U.S. land borders in North America, officials said.

Canada has shown little interest in lifting the restrictions and recently imposed new COVID-19 testing requirements for some Canadians returning by land crossings.

On Jan. 26, the U.S. government began requiring nearly all international air travelers to get negative COVID-19 test results within three days of travel, but has no similar requirements for land border crossings.

In an executive order issued last month, Biden directed U.S. officials to “immediately commence diplomatic outreach to the governments of Canada and Mexico regarding public health protocols for land ports of entry.”

It added U.S. agencies should submit a plan to Biden within 14 days “to implement appropriate public health measures at land ports of entry.”

“The plan should implement CDC (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines, consistent with applicable law, and take into account the operational considerations relevant to the different populations who enter the United States by land,” it said.

Biden also directed a similar review of sea travel and to “implement appropriate public health measures at sea ports.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson and Ted Hesson, Editing by Franklin Paul and Bill Berkrot)

Britain tightens travel restrictions with hotel quarantine and prison threat

By Sarah Young

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain will require passengers arriving from countries where worrying coronavirus variants are spreading to pay for 10 days of quarantine in hotels, while rule-breakers will face heavy fines or jail terms, under tighter restrictions from next week.

The new travel rules add to restrictions that already ban travel abroad for holidays. The government said the stronger measures were needed to prevent new variants of the virus from thwarting Britain’s rapid vaccination program.

Airlines and travel companies called for more government aid, saying the new rules would deepen a crisis that has seen them lose nearly all their revenue.

Health secretary Matt Hancock said people could be sent to prison and fined up to 10,000 pounds ($14,000) if they break the rules which come into force on Feb. 15.

“Anyone who lies on the passenger locator form and tries to conceal that they’ve been in a country on the ‘red list’ in the 10 days before arrival here, will face a prison sentence of up to 10 years,” Hancock told parliament.

British and Irish nationals arriving in England who have been in high risk countries in the last 10 days would be required to pay 1,750 pounds ($2,400) to cover the cost of a minimum 10-day quarantine in a designated hotel, Hancock said.

All arrivals into the UK will also have to take further COVID-19 tests on day 2 and day 8 of their quarantines, he said, on top of a pre-departure test already required.

Britain has rolled out the fastest vaccination program of any large country. But there has been alarm in recent days after reports that the vaccines it is using may be less effective against some new variants of the virus, such as one that has spread rapidly in South Africa.

NO END IN SIGHT

The government, criticized in recent weeks for being slow to bring in tougher border measures, said the stricter rules could stay in place until it is sure vaccines work against new variants, or booster shots become available.

“Strong protections at the border are part of defending and safely allowing the domestic opening up,” Hancock said.

British airlines and airports issued a new cry for help, the latest of many, urging the government to provide more support to make sure the sector makes it through the year, and to issue a roadmap on how it will ease restrictions.

“Airports and airlines are battling to survive with almost zero revenue and a huge cost base, and practically every week a further blow lands,” aviation trade bodies said.

Hancock said the measures could not be in place permanently and would be replaced “over time with a system of safe and free international travel”.

The government said it had contracted 16 hotels for an initial 4,600 rooms for hotel quarantine and would secure more as needed, with further details due to be published on Thursday.

Quarantines in hotels have been used by Australia and New Zealand as a strategy to sharply limit the spread of the coronavirus.

($1 = 0.7259 pounds)

(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton, additional reporting by Andrew MacAskill, Editing by Paul Sandle, Michael Holden, Giles Elgood, Peter Graff)

Norway to close borders to all but essential visits, says PM

OSLO (Reuters) – Norway will close its borders to all but essential visitors, Prime Minister Erna Solberg said on Wednesday, tightening further some of the toughest travel restrictions in Europe.

“In practice, the border will be closed to anyone not living in Norway,” Solberg told a news conference.

While exceptions will apply to a few groups, including health workers from some countries, most migrant labor will be prevented from coming, she said.

“What we see is that the mutated virus has spread significantly in many countries that do not monitor the extent of mutations in the same way as Norway, Denmark and Britain do,” said Solberg of the reasons why the latest measures were introduced.

The non-EU country on Saturday announced a lockdown of its capital region after an outbreak of a more contagious coronavirus variant, first identified in Britain.

Among the measures introduced on Jan 23., non-essential stores in and around Oslo are currently closed for the first time in the pandemic.

Norway is seeing declining levels of infections by the coronavirus however, said Solberg. The county’s reproduction rate, which indicates how many people on average an infected person transmits the virus to, stands at 0.6, she added.

Norway has one of the lowest rates of new infections in Europe per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

While sailors on merchant ships are still permitted to travel, the Norwegian Shipowners’ Association (NSA) questioned the prime minister’s plan.

“This will be very challenging,” NSA Chief Executive Harald Solberg said.

“We need rapid decisions on, and improvements to, compensations for all those who will now face the consequences,” he said.

(Reporting by Gwladys Fouche and Terje Solsvik; Editing by Aurora Ellis)

U.S. travel restrictions at Canada, Mexico borders set to be extended until Dec. 21 — official

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States’ land borders with Canada and Mexico are expected to remain closed to non-essential travel until Dec. 21 at the earliest amid a rising number of U.S. coronavirus cases, a Homeland Security Department official told Reuters.

The current restrictions expire on Saturday and the three countries are expected to approve another 30-day extension, the official said on Wednesday. The United States leads the world in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

The restrictions were first put in place in March to control the spread of COVID-19.

Canada’s CTV News also reported that the travel restrictions in place at the Canada-U.S. land border were expected to remain in effect for at least another month.

The DHS official told Reuters the agency was “continuing to look at appropriate public health criteria for a future re-evaluation of existing restrictions.”

The restrictions are particularly painful for U.S. and Canadian towns along the border that are tightly intertwined.

Statistics Canada said earlier that U.S. visits to Canada by automobile had plummeted by more than 95% in August from August 2019.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Peter Cooney)

Travel restrictions challenge vaccine rollout, airlines warn

PARIS (Reuters) – Air cargo operators may struggle to distribute new COVID-19 vaccines effectively unless pandemic travel restrictions are eased, global airlines cautioned on Monday.

The warning came in vaccine transport guidelines issued by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which is pushing governments to replace travel curbs and quarantines with testing.

“If borders remain closed, travel curtailed, fleets grounded and employees furloughed, the capacity to deliver life-saving vaccines will be very much compromised,” the IATA document said.

Moderna Inc. said on Monday its experimental COVID-19 vaccine had proved 94.5% effective in a clinical trial, a week after rival drugmaker Pfizer reported 90% efficacy findings for its vaccine. Once approved, both vaccines are likely to require transport and storage well below freezing, posing logistical hurdles.

Widespread grounding of passenger flights that normally carry 45% of global cargo in their holds has taken out capacity, thinning the air freight network and driving up prices.

Existing immunization campaigns have struggled with the partial shutdown. The World Health Organization and UNICEF “have already reported severe difficulties in maintaining their planned vaccine programs during the COVID-19 crisis due, in part, to limited air connectivity,” IATA said.

Vaccines will need to be shipped to developing countries reliant on passenger services for cargo, IATA’s head of cargo Glyn Hughes told Reuters. Even in industrialized states, vaccine dispersal may be a tighter bottleneck than production, requiring shipments to secondary airports on passenger jets.

In preparation for the challenge of mass vaccine distribution, governments should move to reopen key passenger routes backed by robust testing, the airline body argues.

“There are several more months for governments to go through the planning cycle,” Hughes said, leaving enough time to “get passenger networks safely resumed, looking at safe travel corridors (and) mutual acceptance of testing procedures.”

(Reporting by Laurence Frost; editing by David Evans)

In COVID-19 clampdown, China bars travelers from Britain, France, India

BEIJING (Reuters) – China has barred non-Chinese travelers from Britain, France, Belgium, the Philippines and India, imposing some of the most stringent entry curbs of any country as coronavirus cases surge around the world.

The restrictions, which cover those with valid visas and residence permits and take effect in conjunction with a more restrictive testing regime for arrivals from several other countries, drew a frosty response from Britain.

“We are concerned by the abruptness of the announcement and the blanket ban on entry, and await further clarification on when it will be lifted,” said the British Chamber of Commerce in China as the blanket bans were announced by the five countries’ Chinese embassies.

England started a month-long lockdown on Thursday. Britain’s virus death toll is the highest in Europe, and it is grappling with more than 20,000 new cases a day.

Belgium has Europe’s highest per capita number of new confirmed cases, while France and India are among the top five countries in the world with the most infections.

The suspensions were a partial reversal of an easing on Sept. 28, when China allowed all foreigners with valid residence permits to enter. In March, China had banned entry of foreigners in response to the epidemic.

‘SOLD OUT IN SECONDS’

Meanwhile, many people planning November visits to China scrambled to book earlier flights to circumvent potentially disruptive restrictions due to come into force for other countries from Friday.

Linyi Li, a Chinese national, had planned to fly from Seattle to China in mid-November but switched her flight to Nov. 6 even though fares had tripled.

“The tickets were sold out in seconds, as people were all scrambling to beat the deadline,” said Li, 30. “I’ve been rushing to sell many of my family belongings in the past days in case I can’t get back to the States.”

From Friday, all passengers from the United States, France, Germany and Thailand bound for mainland China must take a nucleic acid test and a blood test for antibodies against the coronavirus no more than 48 hours before boarding.

Flights scheduled for Friday are not covered by the new rule, since passengers would have done their tests before that day under previous requirements.

China also plans to impose dual-test requirements on travelers from Australia, Singapore and Japan from Nov. 8.

The European Union Chamber of Commerce in China said the antibody test was not widely available in many countries.

“(So) unfortunately, while technically leaving the door open, these changes imply a de facto ban on anyone trying to get back to their lives, work and families in China,” said the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China.

On Tuesday, China Southern Airlines, the country’s biggest carrier by passenger load, said it would suspend transit services for passengers embarking from 21 countries, mostly African and Asian countries and including India and the Philippines.

The number of weekly international passenger flights serving mainland China from late October through March is set to slump 96.8% from a year earlier to 592, the latest schedules show.

(Reporting by Ryan Woo, Lusha Zhang, Dominique Patton, Stella Qiu, Gabriel Crossley, Martin Pollard and Shivani Singh; Editing by Jacqueline Wong and John Stonestreet)

Travel bans cannot be indefinite, countries must fight virus at home: WHO

By Michael Shields and Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Bans on international travel cannot stay in place indefinitely, and countries are going to have to do more to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus within their borders, the World Health Organization said on Monday.

A surge of infections has prompted countries to reimpose some travel restrictions in recent days, with Britain throwing the reopening of Europe’s tourism industry into disarray by ordering a quarantine on travelers returning from Spain.

Only with strict adherence to health measures, from wearing masks to avoiding crowds, would the world manage to beat the COVID-19 pandemic, the World Health Organization’s director-general, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said at a virtual news briefing.

“Where these measures are followed, cases go down. Where they are not, cases go up,” he said, praising Canada, China, Germany and South Korea for controlling outbreaks.

WHO emergencies program head Mike Ryan said it was impossible for countries to keep borders shut for the foreseeable future.

“…It is going to be almost impossible for individual countries to keep their borders shut for the foreseeable future. Economies have to open up, people have to work, trade has to resume,” he said.

“What is clear is pressure on the virus pushes the numbers down. Release that pressure and cases creep back up.”

Ryan praised Japan and Australia for having had “good success in containing the disease” but said that it was to be expected that the virus would re-surge in areas with active transmission if restrictions are lifted and mobility increased.

“And that is what has essentially occurred in many countries is that in nightclubs, other situations, dormitories, other environments in which people are close together can act as amplification points for the disease and then it can spread back into the community. We need to be hyper-alert on those.”

Measures must be consistent and kept in place long enough to ensure their effectiveness and public acceptance, Ryan said, adding that governments investigating clusters should be praised not criticized.

“What we need to worry about is situations where the problems aren’t being surfaced, where the problems are being glossed over, where everything looks good.”

Ryan said Spain’s current situation was nowhere near as bad as it had been at the pandemic’s peak there, and he expected clusters to be brought under control, though it would take days or weeks to discern the disease’s future pattern.

“The more we understand the disease, the more we have a microscope on the virus, the more precise we can be in surgically removing it from our communities,” he added.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, Emma Farge, Michael Shields; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Peter Graff)