The leaders held back from approving a specific plan for boundaries. But Germany – which as the richest and most populous EU member often conducts its discussions – proposed strict, temporary bans on travel to the EU from countries where mutated forms of coronavirus are already widespread, including Britain. The proposal will restrict EU citizens from returning to their home countries if they are currently in a affected country and will therefore be stricter than previous border measures.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday that sharp action was needed in light of the more transferable strain first identified in Britain.
“I can not stress this strongly enough: we have to slow down the spread of this mutant virus, we must not wait until this virus flares up here and is reflected in new explosive figures,”
Leaders also agreed to start distributing doses of AstraZeneca’s coronavirus vaccine across Europe so that rollout can start as soon as the vaccine is approved, possibly around mid-February. Although the UK already administers AstraZeneca inoculation, European and US regulators have questioned whether there is sufficient data to show that the vaccine is effective in the elderly.
Until now, the EU has focused on a rapid but booked medical approval process to build public confidence in vaccine safety. But some countries are pushing the bloc’s medical regulator to move faster.
“We are working with other EU countries for the fastest possible, bureaucratic approval of @AstraZeneca and other vaccines,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz wrote on Twitter during the summit.
Earlier this week, the European Commission set a target that 70 percent of EU residents would be vaccinated by the summer – an ambitious effort that, despite efforts to remain united, could ultimately underscore the differences between Member States.
The vaccination rate has already varied widely between countries, although they all had access to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines at the same time. Denmark has administered 3.2 doses for every 100 inhabitants. The Netherlands has only given out 0.6 doses for the same number.
The 70 percent target hit some public health experts as overly ambitious.
In France, “we would need to vaccinate at least twice as fast as now,” said Odile Launay, a specialist in infectious diseases at the University of Paris and a member of the committee that advised French authorities on vaccine strategy. “And the second question: Will 70 percent of the population be vaccinated?”
Hours before Thursday’s meeting, Hungary announced it was breaking with the other 26 members of the EU to approve AstraZeneca and Russian-made Sputnik vaccines within its borders. The country’s national regulator said it would maintain careful testing of the Sputnik vaccine, but that because the AstraZeneca vaccine was already approved in the UK, no further testing was needed for one.
The EU approves vaccines as a block, but individual countries can offer emergency permits. The Hungarian move could put pressure on other countries to follow suit, although many EU leaders have said an overall strategy will be the most effective because it will create the most confidence across a union of 450 million people.
Birnbaum reported from Riga, Latvia. Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.