No panic but European virus response can be a bit confusing

No panic but European virus response can be a bit confusing
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)

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

A thousand tourists locked down in a Spanish hotel resort over virus fears. Buses halted in France while passengers are screened. Rail services delayed by Austria for a precautionary sweep. Major European soccer matches postponed. Paris Fashion Week and other cultural events under a cloud.

As the numberof casesin Italy mounts, andnew onesare identified in Austria and Croatia, authorities across Europe are struggling to strike the right balance between addressing concern that the new coronavirus outbreak can cross borders without fueling panic. A big fear — at least on the economic front — is that the open borders that exist across much of continental Europe might be closed.

However, the vastly different responses in Europe have sewn some confusion and stoked concerns that a failure to co-ordinate could worsen the outbreak. The EU’s executive commission, which enforces the open borders area rule book, is urging countries to react in a proportionate manner, based on scientific evidence and to inform their partners.

“The situation is a dynamic one, it may be evolving,” said commission spokeswoman Dana Spinant.

She added that any measures taken in response to the virus “are more effective if they are taken in coordination and not in a fragmented way.”

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 of the outbreak in Europe.

In France, police barricaded a bus that arrived in thecentralcity 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 negativefor 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.

However, in what appears to be a more relaxed approach, Frenchsoccer 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.

Given the speed with which the virus has spread in parts of northern Italy, authorities are taking strict measures. Schools, theaters and museums have been closed — and many top matches in Italy’s Serie A soccer league were postponed over the weekend with more set to be called off.

Authorities in Italy reported Tuesday a 27% increase in the number of coronavirus cases from 222 to 283, including in regions outside the north. Seven people have died, all of them elderly, suffering from other ailments, or both.

Italy has recorded the most coronavirus cases in Europe and countries across the continent are keeping a close watch on developments there.

Britain’s Health Secretary is advising 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 transport, 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 Olivier Veran also rejected such moves.

“With European borders open between countries, if I tell you: ‘the border between France and Italy is closed’, someone who wants to cross can go through Switzerland, Austria, Spain,” he said on French radio RTL Tuesday.

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.


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


Full AP coverage of the COVID-19 outbreak here: