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By DOUGLAS BUSVINE
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COMING AT YOU FAST: The breathtaking spread of Omicron, the newest strain of the coronavirus, is turning travel restrictions into so many stable doors slammed shut long after all the horses have bolted. Travel bans or quarantine orders that were reflexively slapped on high-risk countries, after Omicron was first detected in South Africa last month, are already under review. Instead, governments are tightening testing requirements — including requiring visitors to show negative PCR tests before departure. Traveling home to the U.K. for the holidays? That’ll cost you almost €1,000 for the tests you need in order to take your family of four on the Eurostar train to London, calculates one disgruntled Brussels expat.
Welcome back to POLITICO’S Pandemic Passport! As travel rules become increasingly hard to navigate, we’re pulling together everything you need to know about Europe’s evolving restrictions. We’ll land in your mailbox on Friday afternoon — if you’ve been forwarded this email, you can sign up for future editions here. It’s free!
We welcome your feedback, tips and horror stories about travel around Europe. Get in touch: [email protected] or tweet me @busvine.
WHERE CAN I GO? We’re updating the coronavirus travel tracker, your guide to visiting every EU country and the U.K. — whether from inside the bloc or from further afield. It includes links to passenger locator forms, guidance on proof of vaccination, whether and when you need to get a test, and the rules in force in your destination country. Look out for those new testing rules in the U.K. — France and Ireland have tightened too — you can click right through to your planned destination.
Denmark has announced new restrictions on bars, restaurants and nightclubs.
In the U.K., England has moved to Plan B to avoid overwhelming the NHS.
Greece is narrowing the window of COVID pass eligibility for over-60s.
In Germany, proof of vaccination or recovery is required for venues like cinemas, restaurants and cultural venues.
NEW U.K. TESTING REQUIREMENT: As of Tuesday, anyone aged 12 or above wishing to travel to the U.K. will need to show a negative test (lateral flow or PCR) no more than 48 hours before departure, marking a U-turn for the government under pressure to do more to slow the importation of Omicron.
Book early to avoid disappointment: The U.K. government also added Nigeria to its red list. British and Irish citizens, or those with residence rights, arriving in England are required to book a 10-day stay in a quarantine hotel ahead of time. Don’t even try boarding your flight if you haven’t done this.
FRANCE REOPENS BORDER, ADDS TESTS: France announced last weekend that all travelers arriving from non-European countries, vaccinated or not, will also have to provide a negative test on departure (antigen test within 24 hours or PCR test within 48 hours of travel).
Unvaxxed tests: In addition, all unvaccinated travelers from Europe must now demonstrate a negative test of less than 24 hours (antigen or PCR) on departure to enter France, according to the Prime Minister’s office. There’s a chance this could be extended to vaccinated people, if EU countries agree to a standardized approach.
IRELAND TIGHTENS TESTING: Ireland has announced similar measures: All visitors must show a negative test prior to departure. Both lateral flow and PCR tests can be used for vaccinated or recovered people, while unvaccinated people must get a negative PCR test, the health ministry said a week ago.
SWITZERLAND LIFTS QUARANTINE: The Alpine republic has lifted its requirement for visitors from high-risk countries to go into quarantine. At the same time, it has tightened testing for visitors including those who are vaccinated or have recovered from COVID-19. In addition to taking a PCR or rapid antigen test before traveling, a second test is now required between the fourth and seventh day after arrival. Additional social distancing measures, including requiring COVID certificates and mask wearing in a wider range of settings, are aimed at saving the winter ski season.
PORTUGUESE DISPROPORTION? The European Commission is looking into Portugal’s requirement for all passengers flying into Portugal to show a negative test before boarding, with airlines facing a fine of €20,000 per passenger for failing to check. “It remains crucial to ensure the proportionality of any measures taken and we will continue to monitor the situation closely,” a Commission spokesman said.
DESTINATION OF THE WEEK — HONG KONG
COUNTING THE DAYS: Hong Kong is not a recommended destination for anyone who wants to spend Christmas outside of a tiny quarantine hotel room. Since the emergence of Omicron, it is not even possible for anyone apart from residents or citizens to travel from most European countries to the territory.
Don’t step outside: With probably the strictest quarantine requirements in the world, the Hong Kong authorities have promised to prosecute anyone who steps outside their hotel room during their three weeks of incarceration, with penalties of up to six months in prison and a HK$25,000 fine.
POLITICO Europe’s Editor-in-chief, Jamil Anderlini, is one week in to his three-week stint in mandatory hotel quarantine and claims to be in good spirits. Of the 40 designated quarantine hotels, he recommends choosing one that provides good internet, a good view, allows windows to be opened and permits external deliveries. For less than €100, inmates/guests can have a basic exercise bike delivered. A skipping rope and body-weight exercise regimen should hopefully cancel out the delicious dim sum dinner deliveries.
Government medical staff in full hazmat suits conduct regular COVID-19 tests at the hotel door and anyone who tests positive will be sent into hospital isolation. Perhaps an even worse fate awaits if anyone else in the quarantine hotel tests positive, in which case everyone in the building is likely to be sent to live in a shipping container in the notorious Penny’s Bay government quarantine camp!
WHAT’S COMING NEXT
MOVING TOWARD MANDATORY TESTING? A proposal to require a negative coronavirus test from all incoming travelers from outside the EU — even those who are already vaccinated — was floated at last week’s meeting of the European Council’s Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR), according to diplomats.
Travel bans seen as effective: The IPCR has found travel bans effective in slowing the spread of the new variant — suggesting that, for now at least, the existing ban on southern African countries will not be lifted. According to one EU diplomat, there was still no consensus in favor of mandatory testing at Thursday’s follow-up meeting. Much will depend on how effective Omicron turns out to be at side-stepping the protection gained from existing vaccines or prior infection.
Nine months: EU countries are expected to agree to limit to nine months the duration of COVID-19 certificates for travel around the bloc, Reuters reported citing EU sources, although some states were concerned that this time limit could hinder travel.
First studies suggest Omicron can evade vaccine protection, boosters needed — The variant of concern is spreading rapidly with case numbers doubling every three days or less. That means it could supplant the older Delta variant as the dominant strain by the end of the year.
Denmark tightens up as Omicron spreads ‘extremely fast’ — Situation described as very serious as ‘new and unpleasant’ coronavirus strain advances.
Omicron plunges travel industry back into COVID uncertainty — Airlines worry that new variant will end the short-lived industry revival.
How will the Omicron variant affect Europe this winter? — Scientists worry that the B.1.1.529 mutation could bypass immunity from both vaccination or prior infection.
BEFORE YOU GO …
If you’re booking a stay in a U.K. quarantine hotel, don’t count on a five-star experience. “I need to isolate in my room for 10 days and 11 nights,” teacher Carla Stout, visiting from South Africa, writes in the Guardian. “It is, to put it mildly, a bit of a dump: a tired, chipped Formica table, sagging curtains, freezing cold. For this, I paid £2,285,” Stout wrote on Day One. We look forward to updates.
MANY THANKS: Jamil Anderlini and the entire POLITICO Europe reporting team.
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