Leaders refrained from approving a specific border plan. But Germany – which, as the EU’s richest and most populous member, often holds discussions – has proposed strict temporary bans on travel to the EU from countries where mutated forms of the coronavirus already predominate, including Britain. The proposal will restrict EU citizens from returning to their home countries if they are currently in the country concerned, and will therefore be stricter than previous border measures.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Thursday that sharp action was needed in the face of the more transmissible strain, first established in Britain.
Leaders also agreed to start distributing doses of the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine across Europe, so that distribution could begin as soon as the vaccine is approved, probably around mid-February. Although the UK is already using inoculations against AstraZeneca, European and US regulators have questioned whether there is enough evidence to prove that the vaccine is effective in the elderly.
So far, the EU has focused on a rapid but unrecorded medical process to build public confidence in vaccine safety. But some countries are urging the bloc’s medical regulator to move faster.
“We are working with other EU countries for the fastest, most unbureaucratic approval of @AstraZeneca and other vaccines,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz wrote on Twitter during the leaders’ summit.
Earlier this week, the European Commission set a goal of vaccinating 70% of EU citizens by the summer, an ambitious effort that, despite efforts to remain united, could ultimately highlight differences between member states.
The rate of vaccinations now varies sharply between countries, although they all gained access to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines at the same time. Denmark administered 3.2 doses per 100 inhabitants. The Netherlands has given only 0.6 doses for the same number.
The 70 per cent target was considered by some public health experts to be too ambitious.
In France, “we will have to vaccinate at least twice as fast as we do now,” said Odile Lonet, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Paris and a member of the committee advising the French authorities on the vaccination strategy. “And the other question: Will 70 percent of the population want to be vaccinated?”
Hours ahead of Thursday’s meeting, Hungary announced it was breaking with the other 26 EU members to allow AstraZeneca and Russian-made Sputnik vaccines within its borders. The country’s national regulator has said it will maintain careful testing of the Sputnik vaccine, but since the AstraZeneca vaccine has already been approved in the UK, no further testing is needed.
The EU approves vaccines as a block, but some countries can offer emergency authorizations. The Hungarian move could put pressure on other countries to follow suit, although many EU leaders have said the single strategy will be most effective, as it will build the most confidence in the union of 450 million people.
Birnbaum reports from Riga, Latvia. Quentin Ariès from Brussels contributed to this report.