October 26, 2020

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Just Do Travel

Europe’s New COVID Travel Rules, Explained

5 min read

As residents of many countries (including the United States) remain banned from traveling to much of Europe, travel within Europe has not proven to be much easier in many instances.

Travelers coming from the United Kingdom can enter France without restrictions, but those going in the opposite direction have to quarantine for 14 days. Those heading to Germany from regions within certain European countries must quarantine until they provide negative COVID-19 test results. Travelers to Italy coming from EU countries must fill out a health form, unless they’re coming from Croatia, Greece, Malta, or Spain (then they must provide proof of a negative test). It goes on and on.

The patchwork of rules and regulations for travel within Europe is dizzying and has only become more so as European countries continue to relax and tighten their border controls on a country-by-country (and even sometimes province-by-province or regional) basis in response to surges and declines of coronavirus cases.

The resulting confusion and chaos are precisely what the European Commission and the European travel industry want to end by proposing a more unified approach.

The European Commission’s proposal: fewer quarantines, more tests

In early September, the European Commission adopted a proposal that recommends a coordinated response to travel within Europe during the pandemic. Because it’s just a recommendation, independent countries can continue to do as they please, but the hope is that some uniformity will emerge.

The European Commission has estabished a set of criteria that countries should follow to determine how and whether to restrict arrivals. They include:

  • Coronavirus cases—Member states should not restrict travel from other countries with fewer than 50 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people over the last 14 days.
  • Test positivity rates—Member states should not restrict travel from other countries with a COVID-19 test positivity rate of less than 3 percent provided that the weekly testing rate exceeds 250 tests per 100,000 people.
  • Reporting—Member states should supply the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) with their coronavirus case and testing data on a weekly basis to create a common database.

As countries furnish their coronavirus data, the ECDC would be able to produce a color-coded map that will allow for more informed and consistent decisions about travel restrictions across Europe.

A color-coded map of Europe with COVID-19 travel data would be as follows: 

  • Green—if the new case rate is less than 25 per 100,000 and the test positivity rate is less than 3 percent
  • Orange—if the new case rate is less than 50 per 100,000 but the test positivity rate is 3 percent or greater, or if the new case rate ranges from 25 to 150 per 100,000 but the test positivity rate is less than 3 percent
  • Red—if the new case rate is 50 or more per 100,000 and the test positivity rate is 3 percent or more
  • Gray—if there is not sufficient data or testing available

Each week, ECDC should publish an updated version of the map, the European Commission advised. Countries would then be able to implement either a quarantine or a mandatory COVID-19 test for travelers coming from countries coded as red or gray.

However, the European Commission recommends testing over quarantines.

“Wherever possible, the possibility to undergo tests for COVID-19 infection instead of quarantine should be the preferred option,” the European Commission stated.

Whether and when European countries will adopt the coordinated response proposed by the European Commission remains unclear. But in a September 8 manifesto, Europe’s travel and tourism sector urged European leaders to act swiftly on the matter.

“We call on national governments to urgently approve the European Commission’s proposal,” stated the European Tourism Manifesto alliance, a group of 60 public and private travel and tourism organizations in Europe.

The group said that hotel occupancy rates in Europe were 26.5 percent in July 2020, a 66.4 percent drop compared to July 2019. Europe’s leading tourism destinations, such as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Netherlands saw just 40 percent of 2019’s volumes for intra-European travel.

“While many Europeans were keen to travel again during the summer, the inconsistent and ever-changing border restrictions along with confusion about quarantine and test requirements, caused frustration for both businesses and travelers,” the manifesto stated.

The group’s hope is to see a more uniform response to intra-Europe travel that could repair some of the severe damages to Europe’s travel and tourism industry.

It is also hoping to encourage actions that would ultimately see transatlantic travel return soon.

“International coordination to re-establish transatlantic travel would provide a vital boost to the travel and tourism sector,” the European Tourism Manifesto alliance stated.

What intra-Europe travel looks like now

Until European countries decide whether to unilaterally adopt the new measures, the existing situation for intra-European travel is a bit of an ever-evolving puzzle. Here is a brief summary of how some countries are approaching it as of September 21:

  • United Kingdom: The United Kingdom continues to update its list of countries and territories that are exempted from its otherwise required 14-day quarantine. European countries that are notably absent from the list as of September 19 include Austria, Belgium, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, and Switzerland. Travelers from any of those countries must quarantine until the country is added to the “safe list.”
  • France: Those who enter France from the European Union, Iceland, Norway, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom can do so without any COVID-19-related restrictions or paperwork, according to the French government. Travelers who are not from the exempted countries may not enter unless they are French citizens or permanent residents or fall into a number of categories of exceptions (such as those in transit and traveling for business).
  • Germany: Germany maintains a list of countries—and even specific counties and regions within countries—that it deems as “international risk areas.” Travelers from these risk areas must quarantine until they produce a negative coronavirus test result. In the September 16 incarnation of the list, counties and provinces within Croatia, the Netherlands, Austria, Romania, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary had been added to the list.
  • Italy: Travelers coming to Italy from EU countries must simply fill out a health form, unless they are coming from Croatia, Greece, Malta, or Spain—then they must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test. Those arriving from Bulgaria and Romania must quarantine.
  • Ireland: Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe that is actually following the European Commission’s guidance. It has identified a list of countries deemed lower risk based on data provided by the ECDC, and travelers from those countries do not need to quarantine (all other arrivals do). Effective September 21, those countries are Cyprus, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland.
  • Greece: Residents of European Union countries, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, Norway, Lichtenstein, and Iceland can enter Greece, but those coming from Sweden, Belgium, Spain, Albania, North Macedonia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Malta must provide proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test procured within 72 hours prior to travel.

This is far from an exhaustive list, but it serves as an example of just how different all the rules and regulations are within Europe. It remains vital that travelers crossing borders within Europe are up to date on the latest coronavirus-related travel restrictions as they are constantly changing.

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