German border police
German border police check vehicles arriving from Austria's Tyrol province, after a new law to combat COVID-19 comes into effect, requiring those leaving the region to show a negative test result in response to the EU's biggest outbreak of the so-called South African coronavirus variant, in Kiefersfelden. Image Credit: REUTERS

Kiefersfelden, Germany: Germany on Sunday implemented more measures to keep coronavirus variants at bay, banning travel from Czech border regions and Austria's Tyrol after a troubling surge in contagious mutations.

A thousand police officers have been mobilised to ensure strict border controls and state-owned rail company Deutsche Bahn suspended services to and from the affected areas.

Interior Minister Horst Seehofer announced Thursday that the states of Bavaria and Saxony had asked the government "to class Tyrol and border regions of the Czech Republic as virus mutation areas, and to implement border controls," and that Chancellor Angela Merkel had agreed to do so from Sunday.

Germany in late January banned most travellers from countries classed as so-called mutation areas or places hardest hit by new, more contagious coronavirus variants. These include Britain, South Africa, Brazil and Portugal.

Only a handful of exceptions are allowed to enter Germany from these countries, including returning Germans and essential workers such as doctors. Trade links will also be maintained.

But even those allowed to cross the restricted border "are likely to be turned away" if they can't provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test, warned Bavarian premier Markus Soeder, whose state borders the Tyrol.

Infection rate halved

Europe's biggest economy has halved its daily infections rate after more than two months of painful curbs that shuttered most shops, schools and restaurants.

But fears are growing that the positive trend could be compromised by travellers from border regions that are reporting sky-high case rates.

Merkel's government is in particular concerned by the South African variant circulating in Tyrol and the British variant in the Czech Republic.

On Saturday, motorists continued to cross the border into Germany before the new regulations took effect for at least 10 days.

"We are curious to know what will happen next because if we need to have a test every week, and pay for it, it would be a disaster," truck driver Milan Vaculka told AFP at the Rozvadov border post.

He was in a hurry to enter Germany and drive through to France with his cargo.

Three Czech cantons, including two on the German border, were placed under lockdown Thursday due to the prevalence of the COVID-19 variant first discovered in Britain.

In some Bavarian border towns the British variant now accounts for half of the new COVID-19-19 cases.

'Enough mistakes'

Slovakia, another country hard-hit by the COVID-19 variants, is also subject to restrictions from Sunday though it doesn't share a land border with Germany.

Controls could also soon be installed at the border with the Moselle region in eastern France, where the spread of coronavirus variants has been particularly active.

"Even though these virus variants are already circulating in Germany we need to prevent further intrusion as much as we can," said the interior minister of the Bade-Wurtemberg region, Bavaria's neighbour.

In Austria, anyone leaving the mountainous Tyrol region must show a negative coronavirus test result as worries grow over the presence there of the South African variant.

Bavarian premier Soeder said he feared that "a second Ischgl" was in the making - a reference to the Austrian ski area that became a coronavirus superspreader hotspot early on in the pandemic.

Tyrol "is not taking the development seriously," he said.

Austria's Tyrol region has allowed ski areas to remain open, supposedly for locals, but there has still been an influx of foreign skiers into the area.

Shops, museums and schools throughout Austria reopened Monday after weeks of shutdown, despite more than a thousand new coronavirus cases daily in the country.

For its part, the German government has decided to prolong partial lockdown measures until March 7. Schools will be allowed to reopen earlier with many regions planning to do so on February 22.

Interior Minister Seehofer on Friday responded strongly to European criticism of the German travel restrictions and to Brussel's request to facilitate worker's cross-border movement.

"Enough! The European Commission has made enough mistakes in purchasing vaccines in recent months," he told the Bild daily.