Green zones: Turning Europe’s strategy into a success
The current state of the Covid-19 pandemic in Europe urgently calls for a convincing exit strategy. While vaccination may be a cornerstone in ending the pandemic, we need to control the virus in the coming months to reduce hardship and the occurrence of new variants. To this end, ‘green zoning’ is designed to halt the spread of the virus, avoid the repeated lockdowns experienced over the past year, and minimise economic and social damage by restoring mobility when it is safe to do so (Oliu-Barton et al. 2020, Oliu-Barton and Pradelski 2020). The idea is simple: identify green zones – regions where the virus is under control based on a uniform set of conditions – and allow free movement between them while limiting travel to and from all other regions. This strategy has been successfully used during the second wave in various countries, such as China and Australia. In the latter, by limiting travel to and from the states of Victoria and Queensland (two red zones) and thus avoiding re-importations of the virus, the other four states have been spared from the second wave.
In this column, we discuss the European green zoning strategy and argue that the unconditional protection of green zones must become its focus.
The EU’s green zoning strategy
In Europe, green zoning was adopted by France and Spain as early as April 2020, but, as the summer approached, travel restrictions were lifted as the EU strongly advocated for free movement. The EU thus failed to propose a gradual exit strategy and missed its chance to foster a fast and lasting recovery. As such, the resurgence of the virus after a summer of unlimited European travel was foreseeable.
After this shortsighted choice, the EU eventually adopted a green zoning strategy on 9 October (Council of the European Union 2020). Since then, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has published a weekly map differentiating regions by colour (see Figure 1):
- Green: the 14-day notification rate is lower than 25 cases per 100,000, and the test positivity rate is below 4%;
- Orange: the 14-day notification rate is lower than 50 cases per 100,000, but the test positivity rate is 4% or higher, or the 14-day notification rate is between 25 and 150 cases per 100,000 and the test positivity rate is below 4%;
- Red: the 14-day notification rate is 50 cases per 100,000 or higher and the test positivity rate is 4% or higher, or the 14-day notification rate is higher than 150 cases per 100,000;
- Grey: there is insufficient information or testing.
Member states agreed that there would be no restrictions, such as quarantine or testing, on travelers coming from ‘green’ regions, but the joint action fell short of defining travel restrictions for non-green zones.
On 28 January 2021, the Council of the European Union (2021) agreed on adding a new label for the most severely affected regions:
- Dark red: the 14-day notification rate is above 500 cases per 100,000.
Together with this new label, the EU agreed on common travel restrictions for the first time – travel to and from dark red zones would require a negative test prior to departure and quarantine on arrival, which could be shortened by a second negative test.
Figure 1 The ECDC coloured map indicating the varying epidemiological situation of European regions (status on 4 February 2021)
How to render EU green zoning successful
It is commendable that the EU is supporting its member states in controlling the virus, but a shift of focus from red to green zones is urgently needed. To this end, travel restrictions need to be stringently implemented in order to successfully protect green zones (point 4 of the green zoning strategy).
The protection of green zones
Green zoning relies on the protection of green zones from reimportations, so that they can progressively and safely return to normal. To this end, the fourth key principle calls for harmonised travel restrictions to apply to incoming travelers from or transiting through any non-green zone, and not only dark red zones (as is currently recommended). In practice, restrictions, such as the requirement of a negative test and/or quarantine, should be enforced through controls along travel routes (highways, train stations, airports) and deterring fines.
The definition of green zones
Another key factor for successful green zoning is the definition of what ‘green’ means – the ‘EU green label’. The threshold of 25 cases per 100,000 in 14 days is appropriate as long as the respective region has a functional test-and-trace system that is able to identify any remaining community transmission. These criteria are supported by the recently formed NoCovid alliance (Baumann et al. 2020), a multidisciplinary group of German academics who are advising their government.
A joint international plan with a commitment to enforce it by member states is the best option to control the currently raging European pandemic. As the EU has taken leadership in green zoning, it would be a mistake to return to national measures. The virus does not respect national borders, and thus a renewed closure of inner-European borders would do more political and social harm than it would to actually curb the virus.
All member states should be allowed to adopt green zoning, even if others do not opt in. Some countries could implement travel restrictions supported by the EU, who in turn should offer support to protect green zones (e.g. testing on entry points to zones). The perspective of becoming and remaining a ‘green’ zone will create communal incentives and counter the currently observed behavioral fatigue towards strict public health measures. As such, the presence of protected green zones will foster renewed energy among other zones.
A path towards normality
After one year of a raging pandemic, we renew our call for joint action to implement green zoning in Europe. With the backing of increased scientific evidence, and the growing support among the population led by groups such as NoCovid and by political leaders, the time is ripe for decisive action. Green zoning – implemented correctly – can be the key to ensure a safe return to normality before summer, when the impact of vaccination may still be limited. Let us not miss the opportunity twice.
Baumann, M, M Beier, M Brinkmann, H Bude, C Fuest, D Feldner, M Hallek, I Kickbusch, M Mayer, M Meyer-Hermann, A Peichl, E Rosert, M Schneider (2021), “A proactive approach to fight SARS-CoV-2 in Germany and Europe”.
Council of the European Union (2020), “A coordinated approach to the restriction of free movement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic”, Interinstitutional File: 2020/0256(NLE), 13 October.
Council of the European Union (2021), “amending Council Recommendation (EU) 2020/1475 of 13 October 2020 on a coordinated approach to the restriction of free movement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic”, Interinstitutional File: 2021/0021(NLE), 28 January.
Oliu-Barton, M, B Pradelski and L Attia (2020), “Green zones: A proposal to exit the COVID-19 lockdown”, VoxEU.org, 25 April.
Oliu-Barton, M, B Pradelski (2020), “Green-zone travelling: A pan-European strategy to save tourism”, Esade Centre for Economic Policy & Political Economy, Policy insight No. 10, 4 May.
Editors’ note: Update published 22 October 2020
Editors’ note: This is an update of a VoxEU column originally published on 30 April 2020 (jump to the original column here)
Is Europe finally rising to the challenge of Covid-19? On 13 October, EU member states agreed on common criteria to determine the epidemiological situation of each region and to implement non-discriminatory travel restrictions (Council of the European Union 2020). The plan, which agrees in its key aspects with the green-zoning proposal we circulated to the European Commission and several member states in early May (Oliu-Barton and Pradelski 2020a), is an important step. First, it harmonises the widespread use of colour codes on a regional, rather than national, level. A green label indicates that the virus is under control. Second, travel between green zones is allowed, while travel to and from red zones may be restricted by, for example, a negative test or a quarantine. The latter has been agreed to be non-discriminatory between regions or states. Nevertheless, the plan fails to define common mobility restrictions to and from red zones and thus may not protect green zones sufficiently.
The lack of a joint European response to the Covid-19 pandemic has led to widespread criticism, questioning two fundamental values of the European project: the freedom of movement and the principle of non-discrimination. At the outset of the pandemic, most countries closed their borders without warning or cooperation, ultimately leading to the halt of almost all cross-border movement. Subsequently, the EU implemented its first common action on 15 June, restoring free movement across the continent. As the resurgence of the virus became apparent, unilateral actions again dominated policies, with several countries introducing quarantines for incoming travellers. The latter have often been perceived to be as much politically and economically motivated as based on objective epidemiological criteria. In July, we reiterated our message to the Commission: the uncontrolled restoration of free movement has neglected the reality that the virus was still actively circulating in several European regions; green-zoning would control the spread of the virus while gradually restoring social and economic activity. This strategy is non-discriminatory and restores free movement without endangering public health.
With European green-zoning finally being adopted, it is urgent to recall that zoning is not just about stringent measures in red zones, but also about harmonised mobility restrictions between red and green zones. Without the latter, the distinction between zones becomes a weak policy tool. The dramatic experience from the summer of 2020 has shown us how going from green to red is just a matter of time as the virus literally rolled across the continent. The reintroduction of the virus to green zones has put the progress made into jeopardy and ultimately risks renewed nationwide lockdowns.
To illustrate the impact of mobility during the pandemic, consider regions with opposing epidemiological situations: red zones with a particularly high incidence of the virus (for example, London, Paris, or Madrid), and green zones (for example, Crete, Calabria, or Kiel). In the absence of restrictions, a predictable number of importations can be expected as travellers move from the former to the latter. Complicating the situation, people from many places may get infected while travelling to a green zone and thus export the virus to yet other green zones. Consequently, all of Europe might become red.
Figure 1 The ECDC coloured map indicating the varying epidemiological situation of European regions (status on 16 October 2020)
To avoid this catastrophic scenario, reducing the mobility from red to green zones is a powerful measure if effectively implemented. Our increased understanding of how the virus spreads allows for targeted restrictions rather than blanket travel bans, thus reducing the overall economic and personal hardship from such restrictions. Consequently, red zones and disproportionately affected industries, notably the tourism and transport sectors, should be compensated. Some Länder in Germany, for example, have recently introduced a rule that travellers from red zones are not allowed to stay in hotels in other zones across the country.
Reducing mobility from red to green zones has been successfully used during the second wave in various countries, such as China and Australia. In the latter, by limiting travel to and from the states of Victoria and Queensland (two red zones), the other four states have been spared from the second wave. This is the case as minimising mobility reduces the overall number of re-importations into green zones, and thus the likelihood that community transmission starts over again – that is, virus transmission that cannot be traced back to a new importation. This is particularly true for SARS-CoV-2, which has a high clustering coefficient – while around 75% of infected individuals do not transmit the virus to anybody, 10% of virus carriers are responsible for 80% of total transmissions, the so-called super-spreaders (Liu et al. 2020). Thus, most infections do not lead to large transmission chains. Next to local public health measures to avoid super-spreading events, minimising the number of re-importations is the key to achieve close to zero community transmission. Protecting green zones keeps the most vulnerable people who live in these zones safe. Further, allowing green zones to return to economic and social activity is essential to ensure social cohesion and economic stability. Finally, zoning can also provide the framework for future policy measures, notably for vaccination (Oliu-Barton and Pradelski, 2020b). To minimise the impact of the virus, the epidemiological situation of a zone should factor in prioritising the distribution of vaccine between and within zones.
We remain firmly of the belief that a European green-zoning strategy is a unique opportunity for the EU to show its strength by creating a win-win situation for all countries. If implemented in conjunction with other public health measures, zoning can curb the spread of the virus while allowing for lasting economic recovery. This would be in contrast to the short-lived easing of restrictions during summer 2020. The EU has awoken from its paralysis. What remains to be seen is whether its member states will act and operationalise the joint plan.
Council of the European Union (2020), “A coordinated approach to the restriction of free movement in response to the COVID-19 pandemic”, Interinstitutional File: 2020/0256(NLE), 13 October.
Liu, Y, R M Eggo and A J Kucharski (2020), “Secondary attack rate and superspreading events for SARS-CoV-2”, Lancet 395(10227): e47.
Oliu-Barton, M, B Pradelski (2020a), “Green-zone travelling: A pan-European strategy to save tourism”, Esade Centre for Economic Policy & Political Economy, Policy insight No. 10, 4 May.
Oliu-Barton, M, B Pradelski (2020b), “A vaccination policy for green zones”, VoxEU.org, 2 October.
Original column (published on 30 April 2020)
Original teaser: The tourism industry has already been heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and a ‘cancellation’ of the summer season would further push many European countries towards an unprecedented economic crisis. This column proposes to elevate the authors’ recently proposed zoning approach to the pan-European level. Allowing ‘green bridges’ to exist between regions where the virus is under control – regardless of whether the latter are in the same country – could help save the tourism sector, the economic viability of several European countries, and probably also the balance within the European Union.
The tourism industry has already been heavily impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, and a literal cancellation of the summer season would further push many European countries towards an unprecedented economic crisis. As most countries are still struggling to contain the virus, as well as with their respective exit strategies, we are heading towards a summer during which international travel might be, if not forbidden, highly discouraged. Such travel restrictions will additionally damage the already weakened economies of Europe’s southern countries, such as Croatia, Spain, or Italy, because they rely on tourism more heavily than the northern countries. Beyond the direct effects on their GDP, this could also serve to weaken the balance within the EU and endanger its future.
How to exit from the Covid-19 lockdown measures is the most pressing question on the policy agendas of all major European countries. France, Italy, and Spain have already announced a regional approach whereby policies may vary from one territory to another, depending on their current situation with respect to Covid-19. Their exit strategy relies on disconnecting regions by forbidding unnecessary travel between them. This approach – which, in France and Spain was partly based on our proposal (Oliu-Barton et al. 2020) – labels each region as either red (virus not under control) or green (virus under control) in order to (1) avoid the spread of the virus throughout the territory, and (2) allow economic activity to restart on a more local level as soon as it is safe to do so (Philippe 2020, Government of Spain 2020). In addition, some European countries have started to discuss bilateral corridors to allow for limited tourist travel between two countries during the holiday season (Harper 2020).
We propose that the zoning approach is elevated to the pan-European level. Suppose, for example, that Bavaria, a German state, and Crete, a Greek island, are deemed safe (i.e. that they receive the green label from a common EU authority). We argue that it is safe to travel between two such green zones, just as it is safe to travel between two green zones in the same country. Allowing ‘bridges’ to exist between green zones (or regions), regardless of whether the zones are in the same country, may help save the tourism sector and, most likely, the wider economic viability of several European countries.
Building on our work in Oliu-Barton et al. (2020b), we propose the following strategy which should be orchestrated on the European level:
1. Divide each country into geographic areas (e.g. regions, provinces, or departments).
2. Label each of these areas as either red or green depending on whether the virus is under control or not.
3. Gradually add ‘green bridges’ between pairs of green areas so that travelling between them would be allowed.
Our proposed strategy has the following sanitary, economic, and political advantages:
Controlling the virus
By differentiating between red and green zones, the spread of the virus across the entire territory is minimised. This is the case because travel to and from red zones would be limited to necessary travel only – such as that by key workers – and rigid testing routines would be implemented at borders between red and green zones.
Reducing the economic burden
We focus on the tourism sector as it likely would benefit the most from green bridging. It is the largest sector in several European countries, accounting for 26% of employment and 25-30% of GDP in Greece, 13% of employment and more than 20% of GDP in Croatia, and 11% of employment and 14% of GDP in Spain. Furthermore, tourism activity is highest over summer months, which are upcoming – the intra-EU inbound tourism trips from June to October account for 79% of the annual flow in Croatia, 78% in Greece, and 60% in Italy (Eurostat 2019). Consequently, enabling pan-European tourism over the summer months is probably the single most important determinant for the economic survival of several European countries. In addition, Baldwin and Evenett (2020) argue that insular policies will fail to foster economic recovery across sectors. Finally, returning to a more regional scale, we note that tourism accounts for 47% of Crete’s economy and 45% of the Spanish island of Mallorca’s economy.1 This highlights the importance of green-bridging between regions.
Fostering community and the European identity
Giving the opportunity for regions to ‘determine their own fortunes’ would create a stronger incentive for communities to follow regulations and actively contribute to the control of the Covid-19 outbreak. Nationalistic considerations thus become less important and people’s identification with the European project has the potential to increase, as green bridges are built between regions irrespective of which country they belong to.
The role of the European Union
The role of the EU during the Covid-19 pandemic has repeatedly been questioned as a result of slow reactions and little coordination in the early stage of the outbreak (Georgiou 2020). By showing definitive leadership, the European Commission should rise to this opportunity. Its action could define the future of several European countries and prevent the entire European project from failing. Our ‘green-zoning’ approach can only be orchestrated on a pan-European level. This is not a slogan but an important legal predicament because it entitles the Commission to take action under the Treaty of the European Union, Article 5 §3:
Under the principle of subsidiarity, in areas which do not fall within its exclusive competence, the Union shall act only if and in so far as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States, either at central level or at regional and local level, but can rather, by reason of the scale or effects of the proposed action, be better achieved at Union level.
With this competence, the Commission should lead the implementation of steps 1–3 outlined above. In particular, we foresee the importance of:
- Zoning. The delimitation of the zones should not pose a major political obstacle because our approach builds on divisions that have already been implemented in several European countries, including France, Italy, and Spain.
- Testing. To ensure a consistent implementation of the red and green labelling, a workforce attached to the European Commission should execute independent testing. In particular, this independent testing should focus on areas that have recently applied for a green label and special effort should be put into areas that heavily rely on summer tourism.
- Green labels. Green labels must be administered by a common EU authority in order to ensure that the meaning of this label does not vary from country to country. Otherwise, an imbalance in health risks and economic benefits may arise.
- Green bridges. To maximise the economic impact while also distributing benefits between different countries and regions, the allocation of bridges needs to be led by the Commission.
A prosperous future in a unified Europe
In summary, we believe that the green-zoning approach – which has already been implemented at the sovereign level by many European countries – could reap even greater benefits when used on a pan-European scale. By focusing on the tourism industry, we outline the importance of elevating the exit strategy from the Covid-19 pandemic to the European level. We firmly believe that pan-European green-zoning is a unique opportunity for the EU to show its strength by creating a win-win situation for all countries and not allowing the summer season to fall victim to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Baldwin, R, and S J Evenett (2020), COVID-19 and Trade Policy: Why Turning Inward Won’t Work, a VoxEU.org eBook, CEPR Press.
Eurostat (2019), “Tourism statistics – intra-EU tourism flows”.
Georgiou A (2020), “Is the European Union failing the viability test?”, VoxEU.org, 23 April.
Harper J (2020), “Czechs float ‘corona corridor’ lifeline for Croatian tourism”, Deutsche Welle, 22 April.
Ikkos A and S Koutsos (2019) “The contribution of Tourism in the Greek economy in 2018”, Institute of the Greek Tourism Confederation.
Oliu-Barton, M, B S R Pradelski and L Attia (2020a), “Green zones: A proposal to exit the COVID-19 lockdown”, VoxEU.org, 25 April.
Oliu-Barton, M, B S R Pradelski and L Attia (2020b), “Exit strategy: from self-confinement to green zones”, ESADE—Centre for Economic Policy & Political Economy, Policy insight No. 6, April.
Orsini K and V Ostojić (2018), “Croatia’s Tourism Industry: Beyond the Sun and Sea”, European Commission, Economic Brief 36, March.
Philipp, E (2020), “Premier ministre Présentation de la stratégie nationale de déconfinement”, 30 April.
Government of Spain (2020), “Plan de desescalada”, 28 April (in Spanish).
WTTC – World Travel & Tourism Council (2020), “Travel & Tourism: Economic impact 2020”, 30 April.
1 Employment data from Eurostat (2019). GDP data for direct and indirect contribution to tourism from Ikkos and Koutsos (2019) for Greece, (Orsini and Ostojić (2018) for Croatia, and WTTC (2019) for Spain.