As millions of European citizens gear up for the festive season, the European Union's executive commission urged member countries to keep strong anti-Covid-19 restrictions in place to avoid a post-holiday surge of coronavirus cases and deaths but stopped short of advising against travel.
The European Commission said in non-binding recommendations published Wednesday that easing pandemic-containment measures this month would jeopardize the efforts that have helped slow infections across the EU in recent weeks.
According to predictions made by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, lifting all anti-coronavirus restrictions on Dec. 21 would result in "a subsequent increase in Covid-19 hospital admissions...as early as the first week of January 2021."
New confirmed cases are falling steadily across Europe, where more than 300,000 people with Covid-19 have died. Until vaccines against the virus are rolled out, the EU commission is recommending prudence.
"Every 17 seconds a person loses their life due to Covid-19 in Europe," EU health commissioner Stella Kyriakides said. "The situation may be stabilizing, but it remains delicate. Like everything else this year, end of the year festivities will be different. This year, saving lives must come before celebrations."
EU health ministers discussed the European Commission's strategy Wednesday as European countries famous for their skiing resorts struggled to find a common approach.
Restrictions to slow the spread of the virus have kept ski lifts closed in Italy, France and Germany but other nations have expressed concerns about the decision, which has a big economic impact. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, supports a common approach.
Earlier this year, ski resorts in France, Italy and Austria were the sites of several superspreading events that helped seed Covid-19 outbreaks across the continent.
The commission, however, did not discourage tourism and cross-border traveling.
"Whilst travel itself is a risk factor, the generalized widespread transmission of Covid-19 across member states means that at present, intra-EU cross-border travel does not present a significant added risk," it said.
Still, the commission "strongly discouraged" people with coronavirus symptoms from traveling and recommended vaccination against the season flu for travelers.
"Where possible, public transport options and capacities should be increased to reduce crowding, particularly on days or at times expected to be relatively busier to ensure social distancing," it said. "The use of masks should be compulsory in public transport, and all vehicles should be well ventilated."
To keep outbreaks in check, the EU's executive arm also invited member nations to consider night time curfews, to ban mass gatherings to issue clear guidelines for small private reunions, and to consider extending school breaks or introducing a period of online teaching to prevent students from bringing the virus back to schools.
For EU members considering a temporary holiday-time loosening of their infection-control rules, the commission promoted the use of "household bubbles, which means that people are encouraged to spend the days of the festivities with the same people and to reduce further social contacts."
The commission also recommended avoiding large religious services and for churches, synagogues and mosques to use online, TV or radio broadcasts instead.