Italy’s links to the outside world shrink as neighbours tighten borders and airlines scrap flights

Italy's transport links with the outside were thrown into chaos Tuesday -- but not shut down totally -- in the wake of the government's drastic restrictions on travel to contain the coronavirus as well as the decision by neighbouring countries to tighten their borders.

Italy's links to the outside world shrink as neighbours tighten borders and airlines scrap flights
French gendarmes control vehicles arriving from Italy at the France-Italy border on March 10, 2020 in Menton. AFP

Austria and Slovenia announced Tuesday they would severely restrict travel from neighbouring Italy,

Austria — which is also banning big gatherings — ordered a halt to flights and trains from Italy, while Slovenia said it would close its 232-kilometre (144-miles)-long border with the country.

Separately British Airways cancelled all its Italian flights Tuesday while low-cost carriers Ryanair and Wizz Air said that they would be scrapping flights from Italian airports until early April. Air France made a similar move.

The Spanish government said Tuesday that it was suspending all air traffic from Italy for two weeks while Austria said it would be introducing new restrictions on arrivals from Italy.

Australia then announced a ban on people arriving from Italy.


However, at Rome's main Fiumicino airport there were still services running to destinations in Europe and beyond on Tuesday afternoon, as well as to domestic Italian destinations.

Flights were also still taking off from the smaller Ciampino airport, used mostly by low-cost carriers.

Tourists welcomed the remaining opportunities to leave, although they were facing longer stays than anticipated.

“We are going to be able to go back because we got a text from our flight,” Mina, a 58-year-old Indian national, told AFP next to Rome's deserted Colosseum.

She and her family were awaiting further information from their airline, she said.

The ADR company which runs Rome's airports said that all arriving passengers and all those heading for destinations outside the Schengen zone “will undergo health checks” and have to go through thermal scanners to try to detect any potential fever.

'You're foreign? Go, go!'

As for rail travel, mask-wearing police at Rome's main Termini train station were checking passengers' reasons for travel and making sure everybody was keeping the recommended distance of one metre away from each other.

But the departures board was showing no sign of any cancellations.

Klemen Gartner, a 22-year-old seminarian from Slovenia, said that he was trying to get back home, “somewhere I can understand the language”.

He said that when station staff realised he wasn't Italian, he was told: “You're foreign? Go, go!” and waved through.

The service for Venice via Florence was only sparsely occupied but running nonetheless, with no checks for passengers on disembarkation at Florence, an AFP journalist reported.

The picture shows cars exiting and entering Slovenia at one of the former border crossings in Nova Gorica, on the Slovenian-Italian border. AFP

Italy's rail links with neighbouring countries are under more strain, with the Thello company cancelling its night services between Paris and Venice, as well as daytime trains between Milan and Marseille, until early April.

France's national train company SNCF said on Tuesday it was “waiting for advice” about how to proceed regarding its services to Italy.

Since late February French staff on cross-border SNCF trains have been getting off before the Italian border and being replaced by Italian colleagues. 

Austria's national OeBB company has implementing similar measures for its staff. 

OeBB has already cancelled its night trains to several Italian cities and said that further changes to its daytime schedules may come in the following days.

A spokeswoman for Germany's Deutsche Bahn said that the only service it had linking it to Italy, between Munich and Venice, has also been suspended.

On Italy's road borders the situation seemed more relaxed on Tuesday afternoon.

Cars were crossing the frontier with neighbouring Slovenia in both directions on Tuesday afternoon, an AFP journalist reported.

Italians in the area around the city of Trieste often make the short journey into Slovenia to do their shopping and take advantage of cheaper fuel.

But late Tuesday, Slovenia's government announced it would close its border with Italy.

Austria said it was putting tough new restrictions on passengers arriving from Italy. On the land border between both countries, Austrian police were reported to be stopping people crossing from Italy to take their temperatures.

The wave of cancelled trips is raising fears for Italy's tourism sector, which accounts for 13 percent of GDP.

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Is the EU likely to reinstate Covid travel restrictions?

A meeting is scheduled for Wednesday in Brussels to discuss the latest Covid situation in China - so could this mark the return of vaccine passports and travel restrictions?

Is the EU likely to reinstate Covid travel restrictions?

Several EU countries including France, Italy and Spain (as well as non-EU countries including the UK and USA) have already imposed travel restrictions on arrivals from China, over fears of new variants of Covid-19.

The countries announced their restrictions – mostly amounting to compulsory tests and masks – on a unilateral basis at the end of last week, but there have been calls for greater co-ordination at an EU level.

There is now a meeting scheduled for Wednesday of the EU Integrated Policy Response Capability to discuss coordinating measures, with an insider telling Politico: “The idea is to harmonise, but without being extremely prescriptive.”

The meeting has been called by Sweden, which now holds the rotating presidency of the EU. 

So what measures are likely?

At present the countries that have announced restrictions have only imposed testing and mask rules – there is no requirement to show proof of vaccination and no travel bans. All measures only apply only to travellers from China.

A meeting of the European Health Safety Committee last Thursday did not produce any concrete measures, with EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides merely urging member states to coordinate quickly. It was after this that some countries announced their own restrictions.

If anything more concrete comes out of Wednesday’s meeting, it is likely to refer to testing or mask rules only and like the previous EU Covid travel policies, will be advisory for countries to follow.

Because borders are a national competence, countries can impose their own measures without having to consult the EU.

Despite the introduction of the EU digital vaccine passport, countries never managed to entirely co-ordinate their travel rules during 2020 and 2021.

In most EU countries the health pass or vaccine pass apps remain active, and could be used again if necessary. 

Will there be travel bans?

At this stage more draconian restrictions – such as the ‘red lists’ or ‘essential travel only’ rules of 2021 seem unlikely.

Most EU countries have a high level of vaccine cover, so would probably only resort to travel restrictions if new variants – against which current Covid vaccines are not effective – emergence in China (or any other country).