leaders worry about covid variants

Astypalea, Greece

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LONDON — Looking to holiday in Greece or Spain? You could be waiting some time.  

European leaders are expected to say on Thursday that all non-essential travel needs to remain restricted as the Covid health situation remains “serious” across the continent, according to a document seen by CNBC.

The European Union’s 27 heads of state will gather virtually on Thursday afternoon to discuss the current state of the pandemic in the region. The EU is still one of the worst hit parts of the world by the coronavirus, with a number of nations still in lockdown or with strict social restrictions in place. At the same time, vaccination efforts have faced a bumpy start and some question whether the EU will reach its target of vaccinating 70% of its adult population by the summer.

“The epidemiological situation remains serious, and the new variants pose additional challenges. We must therefore uphold tight restrictions while stepping up efforts to accelerate the provision of vaccines,” European leaders are expected to say, according to the draft document.

There have been more than 21 million cases and over 515,000 deaths from Covid-19 in Europe so far, according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. Since late 2020, health authorities have identified a number of new variants of the virus, deemed more spreadable and infectious.

The new variants have become the dominant strains in many member states.

Charles Michel

European Council President

The ongoing health emergency is particularly acute in the Czech Republic and parts of Latvia, Sweden, Spain and Portugal.

Speaking ahead of the meeting, European Council President Charles Michel, who chairs the summits, said: “The new variants have become the dominant strains in many member states. This implies enhancing our sequencing capacity, and preparing the groundwork for vaccine updates.”

Given the health crisis, European leaders are not yet inclined to ease travel restrictions.

“For the time being, non-essential travel needs to be restricted,” they are expected to say, according to the document.

This will come as bad news for countries heavily dependent on tourism. Greece, for example, has pushed the EU to agree on some sort of vaccine passport so it can more easily reopen its tourism industry in time for the summer season.

However, leaders seem far from agreeing to this idea for now. Some heads of state believe it is too early to consider a vaccination passport as the deployment of vaccines is still at such an early phase.

Rickard Gustafson, CEO of Scandinavian Airlines, told CNBC’s Squawk Box Europe on Thursday that vaccine passports or similar identifications “could help reopening the world, however … I am concerned that this cannot be a national standard, it needs to be an international standard.”

In addition, for this idea to work, Gustafson said that it needs to be applied to “all other transportation means.”

“This is not just an aviation issue. This needs to be deployed at the same extent to all other transportation means because if you cross a border, it doesn’t really matter if you cross it by air, by train, by car, by bus,” he said.

Implementing something like vaccine passports in Europe would be particularly challenging given its free movement policy.

European citizens often use trains, buses and other methods of transportation to travel between EU countries and during these journeys their passports are not checked. As such, having to verify vaccination certificates at the border would cause significant logistical problems, and could deter some potential tourists from taking trips abroad.