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EU ‘surprised’ at Belgium extending virus travel ban

The European Commission said Monday it was “surprised” that Belgium has extended a blanket travel ban to fight Covid-19, despite warning against limits on Europeans’ freedom of movement.

“We were surprised to read in the press about the new extension of the travel ban,” commission spokesman Christian Wigand told journalists, after Belgium announced the measure would stay in place until at least April 18.

He added that the decision ran contrary to an official letter Belgium’s government had sent to the commission stating that the travel ban, in place since January 27, would end on April 1.

The spokesman said all 27 EU member states had to make sure travel restrictions to curb the spread of the coronavirus were “proportionate,” but “we don’t believe that a ban on travel is in compliance with that principle”.

He added that “we have asked Belgium to replace that with more targeted measures,” without going into detail.

Belgium’s capital hosts most of the EU institutions and the bulk of their 43,000 employees, all of whom are subject to the national travel ban, which prohibits non-essential trips in and out of the country.

Two weeks ago, the commission sent letters to Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary and Sweden warning them that virus-related border curbs they have imposed risked undermining the EU’s cherished freedom of movement within the bloc.

Those countries have until the end of Monday to reply to the letter. Wigand said that, thus far, Belgium, Germany and Finland had done so and responses from the others were awaited so they could all be analysed.

“Our aim is still to find solutions as soon as possible in order to ensure the functioning of the single market and respect for Europeans’ rights when it comes to freedom of movement,” he said.

Germany’s reply, sent last week, said it would maintain its border curbs with Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia because of the “acute risk” posed by the virus and highly contagious variants.

– Vaccine deliveries –

The strains on the EU’s internal open borders policy is running apace with revised deliveries of coronavirus vaccine doses for the bloc.

The commission — which has been criticised by EU member states for a stuttering early supply of doses — continues to have problems in getting its hands on doses promised by the pharmaceutical companies producing the vaccines, including the Anglo-Swedish group AstraZeneca.

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on Monday told a German newspaper, Stuttgarter Nachrichten, that the bloc expects to receive 100 million doses per month between April and June.

That would provide a total of 300 million doses — double the amount expected to have been received in the first three months of this year.

Her spokesman said that figure covers doses of the three vaccines authorised in the EU — from BioNTech/Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca — as well as others likely to be approved, such as one from Johnson & Johnson.

Just two weeks ago, von der Leyen’s Vice President Maros Sefcovic said the 300 million doses would be of the three authorised vaccines — not counting the candidate jabs — but the commission declined to detail which suppliers were facing problems with their delivery schedules.

The EU has a total population of 450 million people, of which 365 million are adults. It plans to immunise 70 percent of those aged over 18 before September 22 — meaning 255 million people.

The bloc has received 51.5 million doses of vaccines as of February 26, according to official data posted on the EU’s website, and administered 29.2 million jabs.