European Commission chief admits leaders 'underestimated coronavirus'

‘We underestimated coronavirus,’ EU admits: Ursula von der Leyen says ‘measures that seemed drastic two weeks ago need to be taken now’ as the bloc shuts its borders

  • European Commission chief said coronavirus ‘will keep us busy for a long time’
  • She said ‘those of us who are not experts’ had ‘underestimated’ virus’s impact
  • European leaders are banning travellers from outside the bloc for 30 days 
  • Coronavirus symptoms: what are they and should you see a doctor?

European leaders ‘underestimated’ the impact of coronavirus, the EU’s top official admitted today as the bloc agreed to shut its borders. 

Ursula von der Leyen said that ‘measures which seemed drastic two or three weeks ago need to be taken now’ as much of the continent goes into lockdown. 

The European Commission chief admitted that the virus ‘will keep us busy for a long time’, in an interview with Bild which was published today. 

European leaders are banning travellers from outside the bloc for 30 days to contain the spread of the virus and many governments are taking their own drastic measures.

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, pictured in Brussels yesterday, admitted that political leaders had ‘underestimated’ the impact of coronavirus 

Lithuanian border guards stand next to trucks on the border with Poland, with borders now being shut across Europe 

Trucks were tailing back for more than six miles on the A12 motorway from the German town of Frankfurt (Oder) – not the famous Frankfurt – towards the border with Poland

‘I think that all of us who are not experts initially underestimated the coronavirus,’ von der Leyen said.  

‘We understand that measures that seemed drastic two or three weeks ago, need to be taken now,’ she added. 

But she rejected the language of French president Emmanuel Macron, who likened the outbreak to war this week, and ordered almost the entire population to stay at home for at least two weeks.

‘I will not personally use that term but I understand the motivation of the French president as the coronavirus is a worrying enemy,’ she said. 

Germany’s economy minister Peter Altmaier said the United States under Donald Trump had taken the threat of the virus even more lightly.

‘The outbreak of the crisis was probably underestimated even more so in the US than in some countries in Europe,’ Peter Altmaier told regional press group Funke.

‘That is the reason we very much hope that the US will manage to control the situation, also in our own interest,’ he added.

‘No-one hopes that the US economy would fall into an uncontrolled recession.’

Lorries were stuck in queues of nearly 40 miles on the Lithuanian-Polish border yesterday

EU President of Council Charles Michel chaired the coronavirus meeting with leaders of EU member countries via teleconference on Tuesday evening

Foreign motorists were protesting at the Austrian border checkpoint in Hegyeshalom, northwestern Hungary on Tuesday after a 12 mile queue of cars sat waiting on the Austrian side of the border

The decision to close borders is the most significant emergency measure yet from the EU, which has scrambled to come up with a unified response to the epidemic. 

The 27 leaders met by video conference to agree the ban on non-essential travel to the bloc. 

The idea was strongly backed by France, hoping to persuade member states that they need not close doors to each other.

Von der Leyen had proposed the bloc’s Schengen passport-free zone impose the measure, a drastic and unprecedented move, and that fellow EU states outside the zone follow suit.

The ban will be in effect for an initial period of 30 days and will not affect Europeans returning home, social workers, cross-border workers, or citizens of former EU member Britain.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said states ‘agreed to impose an entry ban’ into the bloc.  

‘Germany will implement it immediately,’ added the leader of Europe’s biggest economy, which had initially closed its national borders.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, pictured at a press conference on Tuesday evening, said she had spoken with EU leaders and heads of state about closing the external borders of the 27-state bloc

‘This is an exceptional measure that shouldn’t last longer than necessary,’ Sweden’s interior minister Mikael Damberg told a Stockholm press conference. 

After the talks, French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said he had ‘firmly condemned uncoordinated measures to control internal EU borders, which are not helpful in terms of health and hurt the economy.’

Several EU countries have closed their frontiers or imposed new health screening controls that slow cross-border freight traffic, despite calls from Brussels for a single European plan. 

Italy, Spain, France and now Belgium have opted for widespread lockdowns, ordering citizens to stay at home for all but essential trips. 

The Netherlands has taken a looser stance, hoping to build collective immunity. Britain initially took a lighter touch but has ramped up its containment measures in recent days.  

A journalist is protected by a mask and gloves as he attends the EU press conference this evening. EU leaders announced they would be banning most travel into the bloc for the next 30 days with immediate effect

There were empty seats as the EU’s press conference got underway on Tuesday. Earlier in the day EU leaders had met with each other over teleconference to discuss a new travel ban to stop the spread of coronavirus

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