Italy will test all air passengers arriving from China for coronavirus, as it become the first western country to impose restrictions after the abrupt end of Beijing’s zero-Covid containment policy prompted a surge in cases in the world’s second-largest economy.
Orazio Schillaci, Italy’s health minister, announced the controls on Wednesday, saying it was “essential to ensure surveillance and detection of possible variants of the virus in order to protect the Italian population”.
Some Asian countries, including Japan and India, have also imposed new testing requirements for Chinese arrivals, in anticipation of a wave of visitors after president Xi Jinping’s government scrapped what was left of the zero-Covid regime that closed it off from the world for almost three years.
China is in the grip of an unprecedented wave of the virus, with tens of millions of people being infected daily. At the same time, the end of zero- Covid has prompted an increase in demand for international travel since Beijing said on Boxing Day it was lifting many measures from January 8. Travel booking site Trip.com said Chinese outbound bookings were up more than 250 per cent on Tuesday compared with a day earlier.
Italy is desperate to avoid a repeat of March 2020, when it became the first European country to face a serious outbreak of the virus that went on to sweep across the world and kill millions of people.
Although Italy lifted mandatory testing requirements this year, the prospect of an influx of tourists potentially carrying the virus — as well as possible future variants — have led to then being reinstated. Schillaci’s statement gave no details of what would happen to passengers who test positive, but said he would elaborate in a cabinet meeting expected later on Wednesday.
There have been calls for other countries to follow Rome’s lead. Juergen Hardt, foreign affairs spokesman for Germany’s opposition Christian Democrats, on Wednesday demanded a suspension of all flights from China to Germany.
The “exploding Covid numbers in China threaten the whole world with a new wave of infections”, he told media group RND. “Only when we’re sure that there’s no threat of a new, dangerous mutation out of China should we resume flight connections.”
Sebastian Gülde, spokesman for the German health ministry, said authorities were “keeping a very close eye on the situation in China”. “But so far we have no indication that a more dangerous mutation is emerging from this outbreak,” he said. That meant there was no reason to declare China a virus variant area, which would entail travel restrictions on those arriving from the country.
The UK also said it was not considering restrictions for travellers arriving there from China. “That is not something we are looking at,” Downing Street said.
Washington is weighing measures for travellers coming from China, according to media reports, which could include testing individuals arriving in the US or tracking passengers upon arrival. The White House and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did not immediately respond to requests for comment on reports that first appeared on Bloomberg.
Under former prime minister Mario Draghi, Italy had strict vaccination rules and required people to show proof of vaccination in order to enter most public places and businesses. Yet such controls, including requirements to mask on public transport, have been gradually phased out.
Members of Italy’s rightwing government, led by Giorgia Meloni, were highly critical of the former government’s strict vaccination and masking policies, calling them curbs on individual freedoms.
Additional reporting by Giuliana Ricozzi and Stefania Palma in Rome, Guy Chazan in Berlin and Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe in London