CORONAVIRUS

As EU prepares to reopen borders, Spanish experts stress importance of coronavirus safety measures

Epidemiologists share their recommendations to minimize the risk of contagion as the European Union agrees to allow visitors from 15 countries – but not the United States

Travelers arrive in Barcelona‘s El Prat airport on June 21.
Travelers arrive in Barcelona‘s El Prat airport on June 21.Joan Sanchez / EL PAÍS

The European Union agreed on Monday to open its borders to a list of 15 countries, which have reciprocal deals with the EU and are considered safe due to their epidemiological situation.

Under the agreement, which needs to be approved by a majority of the 27-member bloc, travel to and from the following countries will be permitted from July 1: Algeria, Australia, Canada, Japan, Georgia, Morocco, Montenegro, New Zealand, Rwanda, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand, Tunisia and Uruguay. The list also includes China, but only if visitors from the EU receive reciprocal treatment, given that is one of the conditions for reopening.

The selection has been made based on the epidemiological situation in each country, which must have a similar or lower contagion rate than the European average for every 100,000 inhabitants for 14 days. The approved list leaves out 150 nations, including the United States, Brazil, Mexico, Russia and India. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the EU allowed citizens from 105 countries and territories into the Schengen Area, which comprises 26 countries, including most EU members. The number of nationalities allowed into the Schengen space has now been cut to 15.

But while the countries on the list are considered safe, epidemiologists consulted by EL PAÍS warn that travelers must maintain safety measures and practice social distancing in these destinations.

“If the epidemiological situation is the same or better than Spain’s, one can certainly travel. Like in Spain, there is a lot of variability within other countries: Madrid and Barcelona, with the highest incidence [of the virus] are not the same as other Spanish regions,” explains Jesús Molina Cabrilllana, the spokesperson for the Spanish Association of Preventive Medicine, Public Health and Hygiene (Sempshp).

But countries that initially had a good epidemiological situation, like Portugal and Germany, have recently recorded new outbreaks of the coronavirus. In Portugal, residents in 19 districts of Greater Lisbon have been confined once again in their homes. And in Germany, the Gütersloh community remains under lockdown after an outbreak was detected at a meat-processing plant. On this issue, Cabrillana is firm: “When it comes to making decisions, we should not be guided by whether there are active outbreaks, but rather whether these are controlled.”

Toni Trilla, the head of preventive medicine at Barcelona’s Clínic Hospital, warns that there is no such thing as “zero risk.” He insists: “The circumstances that have to be taken into account are: [what happens] if the situation in the country changes and they close their borders: what guarantees do you have that the country will allow you to return to Spain, or if something happens to you there, what healthcare system or insurance coverage do you have, or for repatriation, to address this situation?”

Another factor to take into account when assessing the risk of reopening borders is a country’s capacity for contact tracing, says Trilla. “The capacity we have to follow the trail of any tourist is very important. They [tourists] need to know that if they feel unwell, they have to alert the healthcare system, and the system has to be able to monitor them, to have an address and telephone number to locate them,” he explains.

Magda Campins, the head of preventive medicine at the Vall d’Hebron Hospital in Barcelona, agrees: “If each country meets the epidemiological criteria, the issue of tourists is not that risky.” She warns: “I am more worried about those that arrive in great numbers, like seasonal workers, whose location has not been recorded. If you have to do a trace, the situation is much more complicated. We have to be stricter, and it is crucial to know where travelers are coming from, what they are coming for and where they can be located.”

In Spain’s northwestern region of Aragón, a coronavirus outbreak among fruit pickers has forced four comarcas – administrative divisions smaller than provinces – to return to Phase 2 of the central government’s deescalation plan. These workers, most of whom are migrants, have few resources and live in overcrowded conditions favorable for the spread of Covid-19. Similar outbreaks have also been detected in the Catalan province of Lleida and the region of Murcia.

All of the epidemiologists consulted by EL PAÍS recommended that travelers take care when en route to their destination. “The three basic measures, hygiene, face masks and distance, are always recommended. And when traveling to places where there is overcrowding, I would recommend avoiding these types of areas entirely,” says Campins.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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