Germany and France reopen borders as Europe emerges from lockdown

By Sam Jones in Madrid, Kim Willsher in Paris and agencies

France and Germany became the latest European countries to reopen their borders as the continent emerges from its three-month Covid-19 lockdown.

Speaking on Sunday evening, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, said the country’s Schengen borders would be open from Monday and its non-EU borders from 1 July.

He said that while France could be proud of its response to the pandemic, it needed to reflect on the crisis.

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Epidemics of infectious diseases behave in different ways but the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed more than 50 million people is regarded as a key example of a pandemic that occurred in multiple waves, with the latter more severe than the first. It has been replicated – albeit more mildly – in subsequent flu pandemics.

How and why multiple-wave outbreaks occur, and how subsequent waves of infection can be prevented, has become a staple of epidemiological modelling studies and pandemic preparation, which have looked at everything from social behaviour and health policy to vaccination and the buildup of community immunity, also known as herd immunity.

This is being watched very carefully. Without a vaccine, and with no widespread immunity to the new disease, one alarm is being sounded by the experience of Singapore, which has seen a sudden resurgence in infections despite being lauded for its early handling of the outbreak.

Although Singapore instituted a strong contact tracing system for its general population, the disease re-emerged in cramped dormitory accommodation used by thousands of foreign workers with inadequate hygiene facilities and shared canteens.

Singapore’s experience, although very specific, has demonstrated the ability of the disease to come back strongly in places where people are in close proximity and its ability to exploit any weakness in public health regimes set up to counter it.

Conventional wisdom among scientists suggests second waves of resistant infections occur after the capacity for treatment and isolation becomes exhausted. In this case the concern is that the social and political consensus supporting lockdowns is being overtaken by public frustration and the urgent need to reopen economies.

The threat declines when susceptibility of the population to the disease falls below a certain threshold or when widespread vaccination becomes available.

In general terms the ratio of susceptible and immune individuals in a population at the end of one wave determines the potential magnitude of a subsequent wave. The worry right now is that with a vaccine still months away, and the real rate of infection only being guessed at, populations worldwide remain highly vulnerable to both resurgence and subsequent waves.

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“This challenge has also revealed weaknesses, fragilities, our dependence on other continents to procure certain products, our cumbersome organisation, our social and territorial inequalities,” he said. “I would like us to learn all the lessons from what we have been through.”

Germany also opened its borders to fellow European travellers, but the government – which helped fly 240,000 people home as the pandemic grew exponentially – warned people to be careful as they planned their summer holidays.

“My appeal to all those who travel: enjoy your summer vacation but enjoy it with caution and responsibility,” said the foreign minister, Heiko Maas. “Over the summer holidays, we want to make it as difficult as possible for the virus to spread again in Europe.”

The appeal came as 10,900 German tourists began arriving in the Balearic islands as part of a pilot scheme to help Spain reactivate its crucial tourist industry.

On Sunday, Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, announced the country would reopen its borders to visitors from the EU and the Schengen area from Sunday 21 June.

At the request of the Portuguese government, the land border with Spain will not open until 1 July, when Spain will open its border to travellers from other countries.

Sánchez also called for caution in his televised address. “As you know, the threat of the pandemic remains present,” he said. “The pandemic isn’t over – a quick look at what’s happening right now in North America and South America show us that it isn’t.”

Italy – one of the European countries hardest hit by the pandemic – reopened its borders on 3 June, but others are adopting a more targeted approach.

Greece’s two main airports - in Athens and Thessaloniki – reopened to arrivals on Monday and the country plans to reopen its borders to the majority of European tourists, as well as those from certain other parts of the world, including Australia, Japan and New Zealand.

However, anyone from a region particularly badly hit by the virus will have to undergo mandatory tests and spend their first night on Greek soil in a designated hotel. These include the Paris region, Madrid and Italy’s northern Lombardy region, among others.

Switzerland is keeping its border with Italy closed, and Norway is doing the same with Sweden, whose virus strategy avoided a lockdown but produced a relatively high per capita death rate.

On Tuesday, Austria – which has already opened its borders to most of its neighbours – will drop travel restrictions on a total of 31 countries, but has excluded Portugal, Spain, Sweden and the UK.

The Czech Republic is also allowing free travel with a number of European countries from Monday, but restrictions are still in place with those deemed a risk due to their levels of coronavirus infections.

Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia and Slovenia have also already begun to lift restrictions for foreigners entering their countries but excluded those from nations they deem as not safe – in many cases that list includes Sweden and the UK.

Britain, which left the EU in January but remains closely aligned with the bloc until the end of this year, only last week imposed a 14-day quarantine requirement for most arrivals, horrifying its tourism and aviation industries.

As a result, France is asking people coming from Britain to self-quarantine for two weeks and several other nations are not even letting British tourists come in during the first wave of reopenings.

With flights only gradually picking up, nervousness about fresh outbreaks abroad, uncertainty about social distancing at tourist venues and many people facing record unemployment or pay cuts, many Europeans may choose to stay home or explore their own countries.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her Austrian counterpart, Sebastian Kurz, are both planning to holiday in their homelands this year.

“If you want to be really safe, the recommendation is still a vacation in Austria,” the country’s foreign minister, Alexander Schallenberg, told ORF television. He reminded people of the scramble in March to bring home thousands of tourists as borders slammed shut.

“In Austria, you know that you don’t have to cross a border if you want to get home, and you know the infrastructure and the health system well.”

The Associated Press and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report