March 19 (UPI) — The European Union has closed its external borders to non-essential travel, and airline passengers around the world moved to return home Wednesday amid new coronavirus restrictions.
The EU announced after a video conference Tuesday that all member nations unanimously agreed to reinforce the bloc’s external borders by “applying a coordinated temporary restriction of non-essential travel to the EU for a period of 30 days.”
The pandemic’s epicenter has shifted from China to Europe, and the EU on Wednesday joined France, Spain and Italy in imposing border closures intended to stop the spread of the virus through social distancing.
EU officials ordered non-essential shops and open-air markets to close and urged citizens to work from home when at all possible.
“It is up to them now to implement. They said they will immediately do that. This is good in order to have an unanimous and united approach,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “There was a lot of approval.”
Meanwhile, the European Central Bank announced in a statement a $821 billion pandemic emergency purchase program late Wednesday to “counter the serious risks to the monetary policy transmission mechanism and the outlook for the euro areas posed by the outbreak.
The bank said the purchases will occur until the end of 2020.
Early Wednesday, the number of worldwide cases surpassed 200,000 for the first time, and more than 8,000 deaths were recorded by Johns Hopkins University, which is keeping a running tally. By the end of the day, it had counted 218,631 cases and 8,809 deaths attributed to the disease.
Italy, which has the second-highest number of cases after China, reported its largest single-day death toll Tuesday at 475. That brings the overall death toll in the country to 2,978, Emergency Commissioner and Civil Protection Chief Angelo Borrelli said Wednesday.
The EU restrictions are the latest in a series of new measures impacting travelers abroad.
Israel on Wednesday also announced, effective immediately, all foreign nationals will be barred from entering the country.
“Pursuant to recommendations from the Ministry of Health, as of today, entry into Israel by foreign nationals will not be permitted, even if they have proven the ability to stay in quarantine,” the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced in a statement.
Prior to the ban, Israel had allowed in non-citizens who could prove they could self-isolate. Exceptions to the ban will be made for those “whose lives are based in Israel,” the ministry said.
The country has 433 confirmed cases of COVID-19, according to the Ministry of Health.
Australia has updated its global travel advisory to a Level 4. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade urged Australians to return home as soon as possible or risk being stranded.
On Thursday, Qantas and its subsidiary Jetstar announced that they would be suspending international flights from late March, grounding some 150 aircraft. The company earlier announced that it was cutting some 90 percent of international flights and 60 percent of domestic travel.
“With the federal government now recommending against all overseas travel from Australia, regularly scheduled international flights will continue until late March to assist with repatriation and will then be suspended until at least the end of May 2020,” it said in a statement.
Ryanair, a budget carrier popular in Europe, said in a statement Wednesday it would cut more than 80 percent of its flights from now until Tuesday when it expects “most if not all” of its planes will be grounded.
And Air Canada, Canada’s national carrier, said Wednesday it will gradually be suspending the majority of its international and U.S. transborder flights by March 31.
Germany’s northern, western and southern borders were open only to those who have “valid reasons” for travel.
Russia also announced it would ban most foreign travelers from entry, and those who do enter will be required to self-isolate for 14 days.
In China, life was slowly returning to normal as the number of new cases continued to dwindle Wednesday. Hubei province, where the outbreak began, has reported one new case and 11 additional deaths.
Chinese officials have gradually relaxed lockdown measures imposed last month and local officials allowed schools to resume classes in “low-risk” provinces.