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June 18, 2021

American travelers will be welcome across the European Union Friday as the bloc lifts its ban on U.S. visitors whether or not they have been vaccinated, though individual EU governments are free to decide on their own regulations and restrictions as they grapple with the new Covid-19 surges driven by the highly contagious Delta variant threatening to take over the region. 

 

Portugal’s capital region of Lisbon is set to go into lockdown over the weekend as officials try to stamp out soaring cases, around half of which officials say are linked to the Delta variant. 

Hans Kluge, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe, has warned the variant, which was first identified in India and is more transmissible and vaccine resistant than the Alpha (U.K.) strain, is “poised to take hold in the region,” especially among vulnerable and unvaccinated groups.  

 

Delta now accounts for the vast majority of new cases in the U.K., prompting the government to prolong pandemic restrictions until mid-July in an effort to contain cases involving the variant, which soared by as much as 78% in a single week and drove overall infections in England to double every 11 days.

The majority of English cases are among young and unvaccinated people and experts fear health services may soon be overwhelmed given Delta carrying a greater risk of hospitalization than the formerly dominant Alpha strain.

Cases are on the rise elsewhere in Europe, too, including France, where the Delta variant now makes up around 2-4% of cases in the country, a much higher figure than previously admitted and around where the U.K. was three or four weeks ago, according to the health minister.

The variant prompted officials in Germany—where it made up around 6% of cases in early June—to urge continued pandemic vigilance, especially given reports of children testing positive for Delta, and Spain hastened its vaccination campaign after the country’s health chief predicted Delta would be the dominant strain in six to seven weeks.

The EU added the U.S. to its “white list” of countries Friday, joining the likes of Australia, New Zealand and Israel whose residents are permitted to enter regardless of vaccination status. North Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Lebanon and Taiwan also joined the list as new additions. The U.K. remains off the list despite its residents being allowed into numerous EU countries, a consequence of rising cases and the Delta. The variant is already responsible for around 10% of new infections across the U.S., according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though this figure rises as high as 26% for states including Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Wyoming. The situation is somewhat similar to the U.K., where Delta overtook the Alpha variant that is currently dominant in the U.S. Some experts believe it is likely Delta will come to be America’s most common strain, including former FDA head Scott Gottlieb, who points to the variant’s rapid growth—Gottlieb said it’s doubling every two weeks—as evidence of this. Areas of the U.S. with persistently low vaccination rates are most at risk from new outbreaks and even those with partial vaccination are much less protected against symptomatic disease (around 30%, depending on the vaccine).  

WHAT WE DON’T KNOW

A number of countries, such as the tourism reliant Cyprus and Greece, alongside others like Spain and France, have already opened up to U.S. travel while the bloc hashed out EU-wide rules. Friday’s development is a recommendation for member states to permit American travelers to the European Union and individual states do not have to abide by it and are free to set their own rules. Vaccination is likely to be a common requirement, facilitated by the bloc’s digital certificate.