Lifting restrictions

EU Member States adopted a Council Recommendation on a coordinated approach to the restriction of free movement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Recommendation sets out 4 key areas where EU countries will coordinate their efforts:

  • a common mapping system based on a colour code (green, orange, red, grey)
  • common criteria for Member States when deciding whether to introduce travel restrictions
  • more clarity on the measures applied to travellers from higher-risk areas (testing and self-quarantine)
  • providing clear and timely information to the public

The Commission calls on Member States to fully implement the Recommendation. 

On 25 January 2021, the Commission proposed an update to the Recommendation on a coordinated approach to travel measures. It proposed to add ‘dark red’ to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s mapping of high-risk areas.

The Commission proposed further recommendations on a coordinated approach to lifting coronavirus measures in a communication on 17 March 2021. It points to what needs to be done so that we can recover our European way of life, and do so in a safe and sustainable way with control over the virus.

Common passenger locator form and data protection

Data exchange between Member States' contact tracing authorities can be particularly important when travellers are crossing borders in close proximity to each other, such as in airplanes or trains. Digital Passenger Locator Forms can be used by Member States to collect data from cross-border travellers entering their territory. In order for Member States to exchange relevant data through the exchange platform developed by the Commission and EASA, the Commission published draft measures on 17 March 2021 which establish the necessary legal conditions for processing such personal data. These measures should be adopted by the time of the summer holiday season.

Measures for travellers coming from third countries

On 2 February 2021, the Council of the European Union updated its recommendation on travel restrictions from third countries into the EU. EU countries should require persons travelling for any essential or non-essential reason, with the exception of transport and frontier workers, to have a negative PCR test taken at the earliest 72 hours before departure.

In addition, they may require self-isolation, quarantine and contact tracing for a period of up to 14 days, as well as further COVID-19 testing as needed during the same period. Quarantine and additional testing upon or after arrival should be imposed in particular to those travellers arriving from a third country where a variant of concern of the virus has been detected.

As regards essential travel, EU countries may decide, in a coordinated way, to waive some of the above measures in those cases where they would impede the very purpose of the travel. For transport personnel, seafarers and frontier workers, member states should not require more than a negative rapid antigen test on arrival. For transport personnel coming from a country where a high incidence of variants of concern is detected, EU countries may require a negative rapid antigen tests before departure.

On 31 May 2021, the European Commission proposed an update to the Council Recommendation. As the epidemiological situation is improving and vaccination campaigns are speeding up all over the EU, the Commission is proposing that Member States gradually ease travel measures, including most importantly for the holders of the EU Digital COVID Certificate. The Commission has also proposed to update the common criteria for risk areas and to introduce an ‘emergency brake mechanism, to address the prevalence of new variants of concern or interest. The proposal also includes specific provisions on children to ensure unity of travelling families and a standard validity period for tests.

Common approach to travel measures: key areas

To limit the spread of the coronavirus outbreak, the EU’s 27 Member States have adopted various measures, some of which have had an impact on citizens’ right to move freely across the European Union, such as requirements to undergo quarantine or take a coronavirus test.

While the measures are intended to safeguard the health and well being of citizens, they have had serious consequences for the economy and citizens’ rights. The right of European citizens to move and reside freely within the European Union is one of the most cherished achievements of the European Union, as well as an important driver of its economy.

A well-coordinated, predictable and transparent approach to the adoption of restrictions on freedom of movement is necessary to prevent the spread of the virus, safeguard the health of citizens as well as maintain free movement within the Union, under safe conditions. This is important for the millions of citizens who rely on cross-border travel every day, and crucial for our efforts to start safely re-building the economy.

The Council Recommendation sets out key areas where Member States will coordinate their efforts:

1. Common criteria

Member States will take the following key criteria into account when considering to restrict free movement in response to the coronavirus pandemic:

  • the notification rate (the total number of newly notified COVID-19 cases per 100 000 population in the last 14 days at regional level)
  • the test positivity rate (the percentage of positive tests among all tests for COVID-19 infection carried out during the last week)
  • the testing rate (the number of tests for COVID-19 infection per 100 000 population carried out during the last week)

To ensure that comprehensive and comparable data is available, Member States will provide the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control with the necessary data on a weekly basis.

2. A common map

Based on data provided by the Member States, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control will publish a map of EU Member States, broken down by regions, which will show the risk levels across the regions in Europe using a traffic light system. Regions will be indicated in the colours ‘green’, ‘orange’, ‘red’, ‘dark red’ and ‘grey’ (if not enough information is available).

This map will also include data from Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway.

In this map, an area should be marked in the following colours:

  • green, if the notification rate is less than 25 and the test positivity rate is less than 4%;
  • orange, if the notification rate is less than 50 but the test positivity rate is 4% or more, or, if the notification rate ranges from 25 to 150 but the test positivity rate is less than 4%;
  • red, if the notification rate is 50 or more and the test positivity rate is 4% or more, or if the notification rate is more than 150;
  • dark red, if the notification rate is 500;
  • grey, if not sufficient information is available or if the testing rate is 300 or less.

The map will also provide travellers with general information as to the risk level at their destination. Together with the information made available on the ‘Re-open EU’ web platform, travellers should be able to tell whether they can expect to be subject to certain measures if they travel to another region in the EU.

3. A common approach for travellers

In view of the difficult epidemiological situation linked to more infectious coronavirus variants, Member States should strongly discourage all non-essential travel to and from ‘dark red’ and discourage all such travel to and from ‘red’ areas. This difference is due to the different measures applied to such travel, as explained below.

On the basis of the common map, Member States will then decide whether they introduce certain restrictions, such as quarantine or tests, on travellers coming from other areas. Member States have agreed that there will be no restrictions, such as quarantine or testing, on travellers coming from ‘green’ regions.

Member States that consider it necessary to introduce restrictions to free movement, based on their own decision-making processes, could require persons travelling from an area classified other than ‘green’ to:

  • undergo quarantine/self-quarantine; and/or
  • take a test for COVID-19 infection before or after arrival.

It is up to Member States to decide what measures to apply on people travelling from risk areas to their territories, and whether to require a RT-PCR or rapid antigen test. Member States can also require people entering their territory to submit passenger locator forms, in accordance with data protection requirements.

Measures must not be discriminatory, meaning that they will also apply to returning nationals of the Member State concerned.

Travellers with an essential function or need should not be required to undergo quarantine when arriving from an ‘orange’, ‘red’ or ‘grey’ area. While performing their duties, this applies to:

  • workers or self-employed persons exercising critical occupations including health care workers, frontier and posted workers as well as seasonal workers as referred to in the Guidelines concerning the exercise of the free movement of workers during the COVID-19 outbreak
  • transport workers or transport service providers, including drivers of freight vehicles carrying goods for use in the territory as well as those merely transiting
  • patients travelling for imperative medical reasons
  • pupils, students and trainees who travel abroad on a daily basis
  • persons travelling for imperative family or business reasons (including members of cross-border families travelling on a regular basis)
  • diplomats, staff of international organisations and people invited by international organisations whose physical presence is required for the well-functioning of these organisations, military personnel and police officers, and humanitarian aid workers and civil protection personnel in the exercise of their functions
  • passengers in transit
  • seafarers
  • journalists, when performing their duties

People living in border regions should also be exempted from some of the travel restrictions. If they frequently need to cross the border, for instance for family or work reasons, should not be required to undergo quarantine and the frequency of tests required should be proportionate. If the epidemiological situation on both sides of the border is similar, no testing requirement should be imposed.

4. Stricter measures for ‘dark red’ areas

Because of the particular risk in ‘dark red’ areas, all Member States should require persons travelling from such an area to do a pre-departure test and undergo quarantine/self-isolation.

This should also apply to essential travellers provided that this does not have a disproportionate impact on the exercise of their function or need. Transport workers, however, should in principle be exempted from testing and quarantine/self-isolation requirements.

5. Clear and timely information to the public about any restrictions

Member States will provide details of upcoming restrictions to free movement or the lifting of travel restrictions to Member States and the Commission. These changes will also be published on Re-open EU, which also includes the map published weekly by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

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