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Euro notes

Here’s an interesting thought. Imagine Australia’s state premiers were put in charge of Europe. How would our politicians who’ve responded to handfuls of cases with fiercely-policed lockdowns, outdoor mask rules and Cold War borders react to Europe’s – on the face of it – much more alarming Covid figures ?
Luxembourg in territory and population is roughly comparable to the ACT, so if our leaders were each allocated a European country, it would make sense for Chief Minister Andrew Barr – who recently locked down Canberra over one Covid case – to get the Grand Duchy. Luxembourg’s Covid figures, proportionately similar to most of Europe, would send the Bush Capital’s zero-risk health apparatchiks into meltdown. It’s had 77,552 cases (ACT: 817), with new ones recently averaging about 80 a day, i.e. about 10 per cent of Canberra’s total cases every day. There’ve been 835 deaths, compared to Canberra’s three (all early last year.)

If Canberra can be shut down over one case and three deaths, what would the Barr regime in Luxembourg look like? Double-masking plus face-screens and haz-mat suits for everyone everywhere? No one allowed outdoors at all? As in the ACT, a short ‘circuit-breaker’ would no doubt stretch to months – and, as they say, the toughest part of a one-week lockdown is week four. With its borders closed and people imprisoned, Europe’s richest country would shudder to a halt.

As part of this correspondent’s selfless commitment to keeping Spectator Australia readers up to date on Europe’s Covid-related travel conditions, I recently embarked on part two of a motoring Grand Tour (part one was recounted in ‘Travels with my App’), taking in the UK, France, Ireland, Germany and Austria.

Most of Europe decided several months ago to relax lockdown restrictions, even though at that stage they were all well short of the 70-80 per cent threshold Australia is aiming for. They sensibly judged that with vaccination rates rising, the link between cases and deaths was steadily weakening and that the huge economic and social damage of lockdowns couldn’t continue.

European countries’ rules differ, but everywhere they’re much less rigid than in Australia : no recent lockdowns, nowhere requiring the absurdity of masks outdoors; no heavy-handed policing and, within Europe, largely open borders and, where policed, open to the vaccinated. What’s often not understood outside Europe is that the travel rules differ dramatically depending on whether you arrive from outside or you’re crossing borders once you’re in. The former requires often complex and varying rules on tests and vaccinations. The latter, especially crossing land borders, usually involves nothing more than passing a sign, as was until recently the case travelling between NSW and Victoria.

Regarding Covid rules, easily Europe’s most liberal country, in our experience, is Hungary, which abolished all mask and Covid passport rules for entry into enclosed spaces – except health facilities – in June. Next comes the UK, which similarly abolished mask rules in July. Britain remains full of signs outside enclosed places including public transport directing that you be masked.

But these directives aren’t enforced and are largely ignored – although Covid Project Fear has left many nervously masked. Also ignored are signs outside enclosed places encouraging scanning of the NHS track and tracing app (except by those who’d like to get ‘pinged’ to get time off work). Earlier UK plans for vaccination passports for night clubs and major events, for the moment at least, have been dropped.

By contrast, in much of the rest of Europe, Covid app-artheid is consolidating. In France we weren’t able to sit down in a restaurant or café – even outdoors – without proving we’d been vaxxed. This proof was also required to board our ferry from France to Ireland and on arrival in Dublin. Irish pubs and restaurants similarly required the Covid passport, if less consistently than in France. Surprisingly in neither country did hotels ask us if we’d been vaccinated. But they did in Germany and Austria. German hotels also revealed a neurotic worry that breakfast buffets are Covid super-spreaders. At one, we were barked at if we didn’t put on a slightly creepy plastic glove supplied by them before tucking into the rye bread and Leberwurst. France, Germany and Ireland all required masks if moving in indoor public spaces, with German churches going one step further and requiring not just any old masks, but surgical-grade FFP2 ones.

Driving towards Britain across the EU’s Schengen Area, as in pre-Covid days, we didn’t have to show passports at any of the borders between Budapest and the English Channel. But then there was the fun and games of entering the UK, which unlike most European countries still largely insists on arrivals undergoing multiple expensive tests (unless, of course, they turn up by boat on the Kent coast).

Had we crossed directly from France, we would have had to put up with these rules. But this recently became avoidable when Ireland opened its border to vaccinated travellers from other parts of the EU. It’s within the rules to cross the (unpoliced) border from Ireland into the UK ten days after arrival. So rather than pay for tests, we spent ten days enjoying the delights of south-west Ireland before taking another ferry from Dublin to Holyhead in Wales.

The only certainty travelling around Europe in the age of Covid is that regulations are rarely applied according to official guidance or consistently. So French rules required that to enter from Britain we not only had to prove we’d been vaxxed but had to sign statements confirming we had no Covid symptoms (requiring a tedious hunt around Canterbury for a business which could print out two forms). In the event, the French border guard glanced at our passports and waved us through without asking for anything else. This recalled the old line about the Habsburg Empire: tyranny tempered by incompetence.

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