European diplomats and officials were left in disbelief after President Donald Trump announced he was suspending travel from most of Europe to the US for at least 30 days as the coronavirus continues to spread around the world.
A senior EU official told BuzzFeed News that the measures were “unbelievable” and “very strange”. The official said that the ban was not driven by science because the coronavirus was already spreading in US communities. The current expert thinking in several countries, including the UK and Germany, is that closing borders and banning travel has limited effects.
After downplaying the outbreak for weeks and with American testing levels still lagging well behind other major nations, Trump announced the measures in an address from the Oval Office late on Wednesday night, saying that the US was “suspending all travel from Europe to the United States for the next 30 days”.
Trump appeared to blame the EU for the spread of the coronavirus by not, in his view, blocking travel from China sooner. “The European Union failed to take the same precautions and restrict travel from China and other hot spots,” the president said. “As a result, a large number of new clusters in the United States were seeded by travelers from Europe.”
The president said that Americans would be exempt from the ban and the prohibitions would “not only apply to the tremendous amount of trade and cargo, but various other things as we get approval”.
It later emerged that Trump was wrong about the detail of the measures. The presidential proclamation affects only people and not goods, the travel ban applies not to the whole of Europe but to the 26 countries that make up the European Schengen travel area in the previous two weeks.
Diplomats from four countries affected by the measures said their respective governments had not received advance notice of the ban. One of the diplomats told BuzzFeed News that US counterparts had been in contact to explain the order only after it’d been announced.
The European Commission and Council were also not informed, according to a joint statement issued by Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel on Thursday morning. The EU presidents said: “The Coronavirus is a global crisis, not limited to any continent and it requires cooperation rather than unilateral action.
“The European Union disapproves of the fact that the US decision to impose a travel ban was taken unilaterally and without consultation.”
Several diplomats took to Twitter to voice their displeasure with the ban. Italy’s deputy head of mission to the UK said Trump was using an emergency as another opportunity to attack China and the EU. “That says everything,” Alessandro Motta wrote.
Finland’s former prime minister said the measures were irresponsible.
Trump’s travel ban came on the same day that the World Health Organization declared the worldwide outbreak a pandemic, as countries around the world battle to contain the coronavirus. Italy, the worst-hit country in Europe by the coronavirus, announced a further tightening to its lockdown measures on Wednesday, shutting all restaurants, bars, and most stores. Essential services, such as pharmacies and grocers, will remain open.
There have so far been nearly 125,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, worldwide, with 4,607 recorded deaths. The coronavirus has reached 118 countries. The US has had about 1,000 cases so far, although medical experts believe the figures could be significantly higher due to a lack of testing in the country.