The European Commission has called for an end to blanket bans on travel to and from the United Kingdom imposed by member states of the European Union (EU).
The bans, imposed by some countries in light of reports of a new coronavirus (COVID-19) strain in southern England, are causing significant disruption to trade flows at Channel ports and have left some British and EU citizens stranded ahead of Christmas.
In making out a case for EU member states to relax restrictions on essential travel and freight but keep other restrictions, the EU Commission says it is imperative that “essential” movement can resume.
In a statement on Tuesday (December 22), the EU Commission praised what it called the “swift temporary precautionary action” of closing borders to the UK, but emphasised, “flight and train bans should be discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions”.
However, the EU Commission maintains that “non-essential travel to and from the UK should be discouraged” which means that holidays and leisure travel will likely remain off-limits.
In the statement the EU Commission said that while “all non-essential travel to and from the UK should be discouraged”, other “essential travel and transit of passengers should be facilitated”. As of now more than 50 countries have banned travel from the UK, including the vast majority of 27 EU member states.
Free movement rules still apply in the UK
The EU Commission stated that, “until the end of December, free movement rules still apply to the UK. This means that Member States should not in principle refuse the entry of persons travelling from the UK.”
Brussels argued that travel restrictions to prevent the spread of any new strain should have exemptions to prevent border disruption, which is wreaking havoc on trade flows. “Given the current uncertainties and in light of the precautionary principle, member states should take coordinated action to discourage non-essential travel between the UK and the EU,” noted Didier Reynders, the EU’s Justice Commissioner.
According to the EU Justice Commissioner, “blanket travel bans should not prevent thousands of EU and UK citizens from returning to their homes…While precautions are needed to contain the spread of the new coronavirus variant with today’s recommendation, we therefore ensure that the restrictions are coordinated and provide for the necessary exemptions for citizens and residents returning home and other essential travellers.”
France among the first to impose travel bans
On Sunday evening, France announced that it would be banning all but “unaccompanied freight” from the UK for 48 hours, stranding lorry drivers and other logistics workers on the other side of the channel. All ferry connections, as well as rail services through the Channel tunnel, were quickly halted.
French Prime Minister, Jean Castex has said the travel ban could be lifted for essential journeys, as long as mandatory Covid testing is carried out before departure. Such an approach is yet to be put in place. However, the Department for Transport said the situation was “under review” and that the UK was “in close contact with counterparts to find a solution”.