Lifting coronavirus restrictions
The key to tackling the coronavirus pandemic is a combination of safe and readily available vaccines
that provide everyone with immunity, as well as effective treatments that work to cure the disease
in all infected people. Short of this, the ongoing public health crisis requires a mix of non-
pharmaceutical measures aimed at reducing the spread of the virus, including identifying and
isolating cases, testing, contact tracing and broader containment measures.
With the number of Covid-19 cases in the EU falling steadily since the beginning of May, most
Member States have begun to ease restrictions on free movement and social gatherings. However,
lifting restrictions in the absence of vaccines and treatments requires enhanced monitoring
measures, such as an expanded testing cap acity and improved contact tracing, including through
the use of appropriate digital technologies.
There is the hope that the impressive mobilisation of resources and expertise will soon lead to
breakthroughs in the quest for safe vaccines and effective treatments for Covid-19. However, it may
take a while before such therapeutics are made available to everyone that needs them. Beyond
dealing with challenges relating to scientific knowledge and a cumbersome development process,
there is a need to address questions regarding mass manufacturing and fair distribution. Given the
uncertainties and challenges associated with Covid-19 therapeutics, it may be wise to moderate
expectations in order to foster resilience and preserve public trust.
Expanding testing capacity and updating testing strategies to support disease monitoring at
population level is crucial for minimising the risk of new outbreaks in the context of relaxing
containment measures. Using antibody tests to monitor the disease is a promising avenue, though
more evidence is needed to demonstrate the reliability of these tests, in particular given current
knowledge gaps regarding people's immunity to the virus. Moreover, linking antibody testing to
relaxing restrictions for individuals, as suggested by the idea of establishing 'immunity passports',
raises additional concerns about non-discrimination, fairness and mass surveillance.
Together with identifying and isolating new cases (through testing), the rapid and efficient tracing
of people who have recently been in contact with infected people is essential for reducing the
spread of the virus. Automating, at least partially, the laborious task of contact tracing with the help
of contact-tracing apps has been advocated as a key measure to enable the gradual lifting of
restrictions. The ongoing debate on contact-tracing apps in the EU seems to be converging towards
a preference for voluntary contact-tracing apps that rely on proximity/bluetooth data (as opposed
to location data) and comply with EU rules on data protection and privacy. The debate continues on
the specific technical design of such apps (e.g. centralised versus decentralised systems), though
the majority of initiatives in Member States seem to rely on decentralised systems. There are
nevertheless a number of open questions regarding contact-tracing apps, in particular on their
reliability, usability, data protection and privacy, epidemiological value and broader social
There are very few certainties regarding the Covid-19 pandemic, but perhaps one certainty is that
no isolated measure or silver-bullet solution is likely to solve all aspects of the crisis. A flexible and
integrated strategy, in terms of complementary tools and measures, as well as a coordinated
approach across the EU, will be crucial in enabling the gradual lifting of restrictions and a return to
the (new) normal.