Europe: Officials try to stem virus panic, keep borders open

International

Italian Army soldiers and police check transit to and from the cordoned areas near Turano Lodigiano, Northern Italy, Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. Civil protection officials on Tuesday reported a large jump of cases in Italy, from 222 to 283. Seven people have died, all of them elderly people suffering other pathologies. (Claudio Furlan/Lapresse via AP)

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BRUSSELS (AP) — At first glance, the response to the new virus outbreak in Europe appears to be all over the place.

A thousand tourists kept at their hotel on a Spanish island after a vacationing Italian couple tested positive. Buses halted in France to screen passengers at risk of falling ill. Major European soccer matches postponed. Fashion shows and other cultural events under a cloud.

As the coronavirus cases clustered in northern Italy kept climbing and European countries reported new ones with Italian travel ties Tuesday, authorities across the continent tried to strike a balance between taking prudent public health measures and preventing panic.

A big fear — at least on the economic front — is that the open borders of more than two dozen countries that allow passport-free travel in much of Europe might be closed.

Authorities in Italy reported Tuesday night that the number of people infected in the country grew to 322, or 45% in 24 hours, and deaths of patients with the virus rose to 11. Austria, Croatia and Switzerland reported their first cases, while Spain and France recorded new ones, involving people who had been to northern Italy.

Health ministers from seven European nations met in Rome to discuss a coordinated response. French Health Minister Olivier Veran told broadcaster BFMTV that the officials signed a text laying out the “common principles” that include communicating daily to share epidemiological information and advising against the closing of borders.

The ministers agreed that as a prevention strategy, border closures are “not judicious,… not proportional and it wouldn’t be effective,” Veran said. They also agreed there wasn’t a need to cancel all large cultural and sporting events but instead to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis, he said.

In an illustration of such an approach, French soccer club Lyon said its sold-out Champions League home game against Juventus, from northern Italy, will go ahead as planned on Wednesday. Up to 3,000 Juventus fans are expected.

However, vastly different reactions in Europe, at least initially, created some confusion and stoked concerns that a failure to coordinate could worsen the outbreak. The EU’s executive commission, which enforces the rule book for the open-border Schengen Area, encouraged countries to adopt measures based on scientific evidence and “in coordination and not in a fragmented way,” a spokeswoman said.

“The situation is a dynamic one. It may be evolving,” European Commission spokeswoman Dana Spinant said.

It appears that there are differences of approach across countries and within them too, notably over how to deal with Italy, which has seen the most cases outside of Asia.

In France, police barricaded a bus that arrived in the central city of Lyon on Monday from northern Italy, keeping passengers on board for several hours. The driver was hospitalized as a “suspicious case” but ultimately tested negative for the virus that leads to the COVID-19 disease. The other 35 people were deemed to be virus-free and sent on their way.

But it was “recommended” that those who had stayed in Milan before boarding should follow precautions, including taking their temperatures twice and wearing a mask around other people.

Britain’s health secretary advised travelers returning from virus-hit areas in northern Italy to “self-isolate” to prevent the spread of flu. But people who have traveled north of Pisa should only shut themselves away if they feel unwell.

“We are clear that, if you come back from northern Italy and you have symptoms, then you should self-isolate,” Matt Hancock told the BBC. Britain has had 13 people diagnosed with the new virus.

Poland has not had a case, but 20 people are hospitalized with unclear kinds of infection and 14 others are in quarantine. People arriving by plane from Italy will have their temperature taken at the airport and will receive text messages with virus-related information and instructions.

Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok, who just returned from Iran which itself is grappling with its own outbreak, showed Tuesday just how complicated things can be, even for public officials.

“I had contact with the foreign affairs minister, who previously had contact with (an official from) Tehran, who was known to be infected,” he told reporters in Brussels.

Blok said an official Dutch doctor allowed him to enter the Netherlands, which at last report had no recorded cases. “Their line is that if people don’t show symptoms, a test is not useful,” he said.

One thing most officials agree on is that borders probably should not be closed. Travel without ID checks is a key pillar of business and tourism in Europe. It keeps goods, services and people flowing between countries that share similar security standards.

“The risk of the virus reaching our country is real,” Belgian Health Minister Maggie De Block told broadcaster VRT, but she ruled out checking people’s temperature on public transportation, saying “it’s worthless” because some people don’t necessarily show symptoms.

“A virus does not stop at the border,” she added. Belgium has one recorded case so far.

French Health Minister Veran also rejected such moves said the ministers who met in Rome came to the same conclusion. They agreed to establish an expert committee and “we’ll go so far as to harmonize, uniformize” all messages concerning prevention for travelers crossing borders by air, sea or land, he said.

In a recent assessment, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said that the risk of an outbreak of clusters of the virus like those seen in Italy elsewhere in Europe is “moderate to high.” Still, European health authorities say there’s no reason for panic.

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Raf Casert and Sam Petrequin in Brussels, Danica Kirka in London, Sylvie Corbet, Elaine Ganley and Angela Charlton in Paris and Monika Scislowska in Warsaw contributed to this report.

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Full AP coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak here: https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak

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