European nations grapple with a united plan to combat coronavirus

The European Union's top official on Monday proposed a 30-day ban on non-essential travel into the bloc to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, while insisting on the need to keep the internal borders between the 27 member states as open as possible.

Countries take individual measures, as EU chief proposes a 30-day ban on non-essential travel

Serbian army soldiers stand guard outside the Clinic for Infectious and Tropical Diseases in Belgrade on Monday. Serbian troops are being deployed to the country's borders and streets of its capital to enforce a nationwide state of emergency intended to try and stop the coronavirus outbreak. (Darko Vojinovic/The Associated Press)

The European Union's top official on Monday proposed a 30-day ban on non-essential travel into the bloc to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, while insisting on the need to keep the internal borders between the 27 member states as open as possible.

After the surge of COVID-19 cases in Europe led the Italian government to put the country on lockdown, other countries have implemented drastic measures and travel restrictions, including partially closing their borders.

Speaking after an extraordinary videoconference meeting of the leaders of the G7 countries, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said travel restrictions should be in place for an initial period of 30 days, which can be prolonged if necessary.

"The less travel, the more we can contain the virus," she said.

However, Von der Leyen said long-term residents in the European Union, frontier workers, family members of European Union nationals and diplomats would be exempted from the restrictions.

"Essential staff — such as doctors, nurses, care workers, researchers and experts that help address the coronavirus — should continue to be allowed in the EU," she said. "People transporting goods are exempted, too.… The flow of goods to the European Union must continue to secure the supply of goods, including essential items such as medicine, but also food and components that our factories need."

Von der Leyen also urged member states to co-ordinate on a Europe-wide level to ensure goods and essential services continue to flow in the internal market.

As it stands, various European countries are implementing their own measures to combat the spread of coronavirus.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen issued a call for a 30-day ban on non-essential travel in the EU on Monday. But many countries are making their own independent decisions about their borders, which is leading to confusion. (Johanna Geron/Reuters)

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control figures released Monday show that 51,771 coronavirus cases have been reported in Europe, most in Italy, Spain, France and Germany. A total of 2,316 people have died, the overwhelming majority in Italy.

Confirmed cases include the regional leader of Spain's Catalonia, Quim Torra, who said Monday he had tested positive for the coronavirus and was going into self-isolation in a government building.

Catalan deputy head of government, Pere Aragones, announced Sunday he had also tested positive.

Spain has become the fourth most virus-infected country in the world, surpassing South Korea with a sharp curve of contagion, and closing its borders is a "real possibility" being considered. Tourism has been suspended at the country's border with Portugal, but workers are currently allowed through.

Spanish Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said a total lockdown could be the next step, after deploying the army to the streets and to clean train stations, ordering 46 million to stay at home and taking control of private hospitals.

Meanwhile, Serbia's army troops are being deployed to that country's borders and the streets of its capital, Belgrade, to reinforce a nationwide state of emergency that has been introduced. 

A man wearing a protective face mask sits in an empty hall of the Igor Sikorsky Kyiv International Airport amid coronavirus concerns in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Monday. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Serbia has closed its borders to foreigners and demanded self-isolation for returning Serbian citizens to up to 28 days. Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said that if people continue to ignore the self-isolation orders, as they appear to be doing in Belgrade Monday, the government will introduce a police-enforced curfew. Serbia has 55 infected patients.

Greece is imposing a compulsory 14-day quarantine on anyone entering the country and extending shop closures.

The different approaches in different countries are raising concerns that vital medical equipment may be blocked. The EU is urging its members to put common health screening procedures in place at their borders to limit the spread of the virus, but not to block the transport of important medical equipment.

In a series of guidelines for border management measures, the Commission urged member states to facilitate the circulation of workers, to ensure an efficient movement of goods and to impose restrictions only when they are "duly motivated" and science-based.

"Member states should preserve the free circulation of all goods. In particular, they should guarantee the supply chain of essential products such as medicines, medical equipment, essential and perishable food products and livestock," the Commission said.

"Essential goods and medicines must be able to cross borders as smoothly as possible. This is a time for solidarity and co-operation," EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides tweeted, after hosting a separate virtual meeting of the bloc's health ministers Monday.

EU finance ministers were also set to hold coronavirus talks by computer later Monday, as the disease and the efforts to combat it take their toll on the bloc's economy.

Worth also noted that the EU's limited financial means were a major obstacle in the response to the crisis and that deploying the medical aid needed across the bloc with a very restricted budget was a tall order.

"The total British NHS budget is larger than the EU's total budget for everything per year," he said. "At EU level, you don't have the means to sort out this problem."

With files from Reuters and CBC News