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Is the EU likely to reinstate Covid travel restrictions?

A meeting is scheduled for Wednesday in Brussels to discuss the latest Covid situation in China - so could this mark the return of vaccine passports and travel restrictions?

Is the EU likely to reinstate Covid travel restrictions?
COVID-19 preventive measures information document provided to the passengers of a flight from China at the Paris-Charles-de-Gaulle airport in Roissy, outside Paris, on January 1, 2023, as France reinforces health measures at the borders for travellers arriving from China. Photo by JULIEN DE ROSA / AFP

Several EU countries including France, Italy and Spain (as well as non-EU countries including the UK and USA) have already imposed travel restrictions on arrivals from China, over fears of new variants of Covid-19.

The countries announced their restrictions – mostly amounting to compulsory tests and masks – on a unilateral basis at the end of last week, but there have been calls for greater co-ordination at an EU level.

There is now a meeting scheduled for Wednesday of the EU Integrated Policy Response Capability to discuss coordinating measures, with an insider telling Politico: “The idea is to harmonise, but without being extremely prescriptive.”

The meeting has been called by Sweden, which now holds the rotating presidency of the EU. 

So what measures are likely?

At present the countries that have announced restrictions have only imposed testing and mask rules – there is no requirement to show proof of vaccination and no travel bans. All measures only apply only to travellers from China.

A meeting of the European Health Safety Committee last Thursday did not produce any concrete measures, with EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides merely urging member states to coordinate quickly. It was after this that some countries announced their own restrictions.

If anything more concrete comes out of Wednesday’s meeting, it is likely to refer to testing or mask rules only and like the previous EU Covid travel policies, will be advisory for countries to follow.

Because borders are a national competence, countries can impose their own measures without having to consult the EU.

Despite the introduction of the EU digital vaccine passport, countries never managed to entirely co-ordinate their travel rules during 2020 and 2021.

In most EU countries the health pass or vaccine pass apps remain active, and could be used again if necessary. 

Will there be travel bans?

At this stage more draconian restrictions – such as the ‘red lists’ or ‘essential travel only’ rules of 2021 seem unlikely.

Most EU countries have a high level of vaccine cover, so would probably only resort to travel restrictions if new variants – against which current Covid vaccines are not effective – emergence in China (or any other country).  

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How can Germany fix its patchy rural transport connections?

While German cities are some of the best connected in the world, inadequate infrastructure in the countryside can create headaches for public transport users. Could new 'transfer hubs' be the answer?

How can Germany fix its patchy rural transport connections?

Last year, a major survey conducted by city guides publisher Time Out crowned Berlin the city with the best public transport in the world. The extensive bus, tram and train network was praised by 97 percent of Berlin residents, who noted that transport in the German capital tended to be safe, comfortable and reliable.

But for those who travel a short distance out into Brandenburg, Berlin’s rural neighbour, the contrast couldn’t be more striking: trains stop running at 6pm, buses come every 2-3 hours and residents often face a lengthy trek to their nearest bus or train station. 

This divide was confirmed in a 2021 study by Deutsche Bahn subsidiary ioki that looked at public transport connections in Germany. Researchers found that while around 27 million people who lived in German cities had very good access to public transport, the 55 million who lived in suburban or rural areas were much more badly served.

READ ALSO: 55 million people in Germany have ‘inadequate public transport’

According to Transport Minister Volker Wissing (FDP), rural areas are in “urgent need” of solutions to these gaps in public transport. 

Speaking to DPA on Tuesday, the FDP politician set out his plans for local ‘transfer hubs’ that he said would encourage more car users to use public transport – even in non-urban areas.  

What exactly is a transfer hub?

A ‘transfer hub’ – or Umstiegs-Hub in German – is a place designed for travellers to switch from one mode of transport to another. As an example, Wissing mentioned easily accessible train stations with parking spaces, good bus connections, cycle paths and e-car charging ports where people could easily switch from their car to a quick commute by rail into the nearest city.

“We need more attractive transfer points in rural areas,” the Transport Minister told DPA. “The federal states could consider for themselves which locations in which regions would be best for such transfer hubs. From there, rail connections could then be offered to the metropolitan regions at regular intervals.” 

As opposed to taking “coercive” measures to force the switch from car to public transport, a “constructive approach” that considers both modes of transport would take the country further, Wissing said. 

“I believe that there is an urgent need in Germany to orientate the structures in rural areas towards more multimodal transport,” he explained. “The convenient flexibility of the car and the efficiency of the railway can be combined if the infrastructure is right.”

READ ALSO: Why (and where) Germans are choosing to go on holiday by car this year

What impact could this have?

With Germany’s transport sector repeatedly missing its climate targets, the ministry needs to find ways to reduce emissions and encourage a more widespread use of sustainable transport.

According to Wissing, this could have a much bigger impact in the countryside than it would in a city like Frankfurt or Berlin, since people in rural areas tend to travel longer distances. 

“We can achieve a situation where a commuter travels perhaps 20 or 25 kilometres to a transfer hub instead of 100 kilometres each way to work by car,” said Wissing. “That would be up to 150 kilometres less per day – a huge potential reduction in CO2.”

Bayerischer Oberlandbahn in Warngau

A regional train run by the Bayerischer Oberlandbahn stops near Warngau. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Lennart Preiss

But climate groups and transport companies have been pushing for a much more ambitious approach to expanding public transport in the countryside.

In its six-point plan for delivering good rural public transport, for example, the Association of German Transport Companies (VDV) calls for rail-bus connections that run at least hourly and flexible, on-demand public transport options. 

However, Wissing said that a lack of skilled labour and low demand on rural routes would make it difficult to offer the kind of bus and train services VDV is calling for. 

“If the bus used to come every three hours and in future it will come every two hours – what kind of improvement would that be? People would stay in their cars,” he said.

READ ALSO: What to know about Deutsche Bahn’s summer service changes

Where does the Deutschlandticket come into this? 

According to the VDV, the €49 monthly travel pass, which has been valid for more than a year on local and regional transport throughout Germany, has an average of 11.2 million subscribers per month.

So far, however, it is primarily a ticket that is used in urban regions, with only 21 percent of Deutschlandticket users coming from rural areas.

According to VDV surveys, around 16 percent of Deutschlandticket users have been travelling by car less often since taking out the subscription.

Nevertheless, the shift has not yet materialised to the extent the government hoped for.

Meanwhile, federal and state transport ministers have been discussing an expansion and modernisation pact for local public transport for some time. The federal states are also calling on the federal government to increase the billions in regionalisation funds, which are used to order services from regional public transport companies.

With reporting by DPA

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