The EU is banning the “non-essential” entry of all foreign nationals, in the most dramatic crackdown yet to try to curb the continent’s coronavirus pandemic.
Only residents, family members and essential staff – healthcare workers and medical experts – will be exempt from the measures, to be imposed for 30 days initially.
Brussels has also announced plans to set up fast “green lanes” on major roads, to give priority to the transport of medical goods, food and the emergency services.
“We need to do more to reduce huge pressure on our healthcare system,” she said, emerging from a tele-conference with G7 leaders.
“We know that everything that reduces social interaction also reduces the spread of the virus. The less travel, the more we can contain the virus.”
The announcement came just hours before Boris Johnson urged UK citizens to work from home, avoid going to pubs and restaurants, and abandon their travel plans.
The government had previously stood at odds with many EU member states in imposing draconian restrictions on citizens, and the prime minister indicated he was not yet prepared to enforce the measures.
“When it comes to enforcement we have the powers if necessary, but I don’t believe it will be necessary to use those powers,” he said.
“UK citizens are European citizens,” Ms Von der Leyen said, “there are no restrictions for UK citizens to travel to the continent.”
People transporting goods would also be exempt, she said – “the flow of goods to the European Union must continue” – as would cross-border commuters.
Announcing the restriction for 30 days initially, Ms Von der Leyen added: “It can be prolonged as necessary.”
Brussels was forced to act after a sharp rise in cases of infection in Europe triggered a wave of unilateral decisions by member states to all but seal their borders.
It will apply to the Schengen area countries, which include 22 EU members as well as Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
The four EU states on the continent but not in Schengen – Cyprus, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria – are being urged to also implement the restrictions.
“These measures are effective only when they are coordinated,” Ms Von der Leyen stressed.
Later on Monday, French President Emmanuel Macron confirmed that the decision had been approved by national leaders.
“All trips between non-European countries and the EU and the Schengen zone will be suspended for 30 days,” he said in a televised address to the nation.
Just hours before, France announced its own 15-day lockdown, banning all public gatherings and social contact, with citizens urged to work from home wherever possible.
Only trips to supermarkets, pharmacies and places of work will be allowed.
“Never before in history has France had to take such exceptional measures in a time of peace,” Mr Macron said. “You will no longer be able to see your loved ones... or continue your daily routine.”
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