(EurActiv) — Germany partially closed its borders with the Czech Republic and Austria’s Tyrol on Sunday (14 February) over a troubling surge in coronavirus mutations, earning a swift rebuke from the European Union and criticism from the International Road Transport Union (IRU).
The restrictions are causing “chaos” in the transport of goods by road across Europe, said the IRU, who demanded that EU governments “respect their commitment to keep borders open”.
“Truck drivers, and the European citizens and businesses that depend on the goods they move, are once again set to pay a heavy price for misguided COVID restrictions that do not exempt transport workers,” said IRU secretary general Umberto de Pretto.
De Pretto argued the virus transmission risk posed by freight drivers is minimal as they spend long periods isolated in their truck cabin. “Letting drivers do their job and continue their journey across a border is the safest solution,” he added.
In a letter to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen last month, the road transport organisation warned of “devastating consequences” if mandatory COVID-19 testing was implemented for hauliers at borders.
“The virus cannot be stopped by closed borders”
The European Commission, eager to avoid a return to go-it-alone pandemic responses, condemned Germany’s border curbs.
“The fear of the coronavirus mutations is understandable,” Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told Germany’s Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper.
“But the truth is that the virus cannot be stopped by closed borders,” she said, adding that vaccines and following hygiene precautions were “the only things that work”.
“I think it’s wrong to return to a Europe with closed borders like we had in March 2020,” the Cypriot Commissioner added.
Henrik Hololei, the head of the EU’s transport directorate, sent last Thursday (11 February) a letter to the IRU reiterating the EU executive’s support for so-called ‘Green Lanes’ which allow freight drivers to pass borders with minimal, if any, checks.
“We all remember the situation in March when the uncoordinated border closing resulted in empty shelves, panic reactions, desperate consumers and businesses,” Hololei wrote.
German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer rebuffed the criticism.
“That’s enough now,” he told the top-selling Bild daily. The EU “has made enough mistakes” with its sluggish vaccine rollout, he said. “The Commission should support us… instead of putting obstacles in our path.”
German Health Minister Jens Spahn told the Sueddeutsche newspaper he backed a “border-free Europe” but stressed that “there are times in a pandemic when you must make these decisions for everyone’s safety and health”.
German rail company Deutsche Bahn has suspended services to and from the affected areas.
At Frankfurt airport, the country’s largest, federal police were checking passengers arriving from Vienna and Prague.
Strict border checks
At the Kiefersfelden crossing in southern Bavaria, masked officers in yellow high-visibility jackets were out in sub-zero temperatures, stopping each vehicle coming from Austria.
A thousand police officers were mobilised to ensure strict border checks, a reminder of the much-criticised early days of the pandemic when EU countries hastily closed their frontiers to each other.
Under the new rules, only Germans or non-German residents are allowed through, with exceptions for essential workers in sectors such as health and transport, as well as for urgent humanitarian reasons. Everyone must be able to provide a recent negative coronavirus test.
Austrian Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said it was “absolutely unacceptable” that drivers were barred from using a shortcut through Germany to travel from one Austrian region to another.
Germany says the restrictions are aimed at slowing the spread of more contagious variants that first emerged in Britain and South Africa, and have created new virus hotspots along the Czech border and in Austria’s mountainous Tyrol region.
By Sunday afternoon, German police had checked more than 1,700 vehicles and denied entry to more than 500.
On Monday (15 February), Germany would not rule out expanding new travel controls to its French border with coronavirus variants surging in the Moselle region, although Paris urged against border closures.
Tackling the variants
More than two months of tough shutdowns have significantly reduced Germany’s infection numbers but Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government recently decided to extend a partial lockdown until 7 March because of the risks posed by the variants.
In the Czech Republic, one of the hardest-hit countries in Europe, three cantons including two on the German border have been placed under lockdown due to the prevalence of the British strain.
Within Austria, anyone leaving Tyrol now needs to produce a negative test following a cluster of COVID-19 cases linked to the South African variant.
Bavarian premier Markus Soeder, visiting a checkpoint with the Czech border, said Germany could not risk squandering the progress made in the battle against the pandemic.
“For everyone not living in a hotspot, it’s reassuring to know that those in border regions are working hard to prevent the spread of the virus,” he said.