By Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS (Reuters) -EU health ministers discussed measures to try to halt the spread of the Omicron variant of the coronavirus on Tuesday, with the Netherlands calling for negative tests for incoming travellers from outside the bloc and France urging tests even for those arriving from EU states.
In line with many countries, EU members last month agreed to impose travel curbs on seven southern African nations after they reported several cases of the Omicron variant, which is considered highly infectious.
Despite widespread reports of the variant outside of those African countries, no minister at a regular meeting in Brussels suggested these restrictions should be lifted.
Dutch Health Minister Hugo de Jonge proposed negative PCR tests for all those travelling to the EU from outside the bloc.
"In addition, those not vaccinated or recovered should also be quarantined," he told ministers during a public session of their meeting.
In the fight against Omicron, French Health Minister Olivier Veran went as far as proposing tests for all travellers, including those coming from EU countries.
Portugal is among EU states that already require a negative test for all air travellers entering the country, even if vaccinated and from other EU states.
The lack of common ground makes it difficult for a coordinated decision to be adopted soon, two EU sources told Reuters.
One source said EU diplomats will discuss the matter on Friday with PCR tests for extra-EU travellers being the most likely option to prevail. However at this stage, there was no consensus and more data on Omicron was needed before a decision could be made, both sources said.
TRAVEL CURBS STILL USEFUL
EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said vaccination remains the main tool to halt the spread of virus variants. She also praised the quick and coordinated introduction of travel curbs soon after the emergence of Omicron.
"We must now focus on stronger testing and contact tracing measures for travellers coming from areas of high risk," she said during the public session, noting that any change to current measures should follow more data on Omicron.
As of Tuesday, 274 Omicron cases were recorded in European countries monitored by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the agency said.
Germany's outgoing health minister, Jens Spahn, said travel curbs that limit arrivals to the European Union were important until more information on the Omicron variant becomes available.
"Until we know more, we need to be careful and so travel restrictions are important to keep the entry in Europe and Germany as low as possible," he told reporters as he arrived at the meeting.
EU sources said on Monday there was no immediate plan to ease the restrictions, quashing a media report that cited a diplomat saying this could be the case.
Emer Cooke, head of the EU drugs regulator, told the meeting that vaccines remained the main tool to fight the virus, because they offered protection even against Omicron, although no conclusive evidence was yet available.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio; additional reporting by Philip BlenkinsopEditing by Gareth Jones, Nick Macfie and Bill Berkrot)