A thousand police officers were deployed to ensure strict border checks, a reminder of the much-criticized early days of the pandemic when EU countries hastily closed their borders to one another. At the Kiefersfelden crossing in southern Bavaria, masked officers in yellow high-visibility jackets came out in sub-zero temperatures, stopping every vehicle arriving from Austria. Under the new rules, only German or non-German citizens are allowed to enter. Exceptions were made for essential workers in sectors such as health and transportation, as well as for urgent humanitarian reasons, the German interior ministry said. Everyone should be able to give a negative coronavirus test recently. Among those who returned was Austrian driver Irene, who said she now had to turn around for hours. “I just wanted to drive through Germany to go to Vienna,” he told AFP. “This is catastrophe, I have a dog in the car who is 15 years old … I don’t know the way and I don’t have a GPS.” The restrictions aim to slow the spread of the more infectious variant that first appeared in Britain and South Africa, and have created new virus hotspots along the Czech border and in Austria’s Tyrol region. At the German-Czech border crossing in Bad Gottleuba, a police spokesman said the check led to a waiting time of about one hour. Traffic is expected to be heavier starting Monday, he added. As of Sunday afternoon, German police had searched more than 1,700 vehicles and refused entry to more than 500.
The European Commission, eager to avoid a return to the go-it-alone pandemic response, has condemned Germany’s border restrictions. “The fear of coronavirus mutation is understandable,” EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told Germany’s Augsburger Allgemeine newspaper on Sunday. “But the reality is that the virus cannot be stopped with closed borders,” he said, adding that vaccines and hygiene precautions were “the only thing that worked”. “I think it’s wrong to return to Europe with closed borders like we had in March 2020,” he added. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer dismissed the criticism from Brussels. “That’s enough now,” he told the bestselling daily Bild. The European Union “has made quite a few mistakes” with the slow rollout of a vaccine, he said. “We are fighting a mutated virus,” he said. “The EU Commission should support us … rather than laying stones in our path.” German Health Minister Jens Spahn said he supported a “border-free Europe”. “But there are times of pandemics when you have to make these decisions for the safety and health of everyone,” he told Sueddeutsche newspaper. German rail company Deutsche Bahn has suspended service to and from the affected areas. At Frankfurt airport, the country’s largest federal police are checking passengers arriving from Vienna and Prague.
More than two months of a tough shutdown have significantly lowered Germany’s number of infections, but Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government recently decided to extend the partial lockdown to March 7 because of the risks posed by the variant. In the Czech Republic, one of Europe’s hardest-hit countries, three cantons including two on the German border have been locked down because of the prevalence of British tensions. In Austria, anyone leaving the mountainous Tyrol region now needs to test negative following a cluster of Covid-19 cases linked to the South African variant. Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Soeder, who visited a checkpoint with the Czech border, said Germany could not risk squandering the progress made in the battle against the pandemic. “For everyone who does not live in the hotspots, it is reassuring to know that those in the border areas are working hard to prevent the spread of the virus,” he said.
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