By John Chalmers and Gabriela Baczynska
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union must only lift coronavirus restrictions slowly and gradually to avoid another wave of infections, the head of the bloc's executive said on Thursday.
Ursula von der Leyen spoke after the 27 national leaders discussed stepping up joint testing efforts in the bloc, doling out vaccines and coordinating easing lockdowns as a second wave of the pandemic weighs on Europe.
"We have all learned from the experience in the summer that the exit from a wave ... is very difficult and that ... lifting measures too hastily has had a very bad impact on the epidemiological situation in summer and fall," she said.
"Therefore, this time expectations have to be managed. We will make a proposal for a gradual and coordinated approach to lifting ... containment measures. This will be very important to avoid the risk of yet another wave."
Europe has had about 11.3 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and nearly 280,000 people have died, according to data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. The pandemic has also thrust the EU into its deepest recession.
"We need to learn past lessons and be cautious when we lift restrictions. It should be gradual and progressive. We all want to celebrate the end of the year holidays, but safely. Let's ring in the new year safely," said Charles Michel, chairman of the EU leaders' talks.
Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo said the bloc needed a joint strategy for winter travel to avoid "a third 'Christmas' wave".
Von der Leyen said her Commission was broadening its search of a vaccine through talks with Moderna and Novavax.
"And we are working on a vaccination campaign to support member states in the communication on the importance of vaccines. It is self-protection and it is solidarity," she added.
Michel said the number of people sceptical of vaccination was growing in the EU and that the bloc would launch a campaign to convince them to change their minds. He said he hoped the bloc would get vaccines in 2021.
"Vaccination priorities are similar in most member states, first medical staff, then vulnerable persons," German Chancellor Angela Merkel told journalists after the virtual EU leaders' gathering.
(Additional reporting by Reporting by Madeline Chambers, Thomas Escritt and Sabine Siebold, Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; editing by Grant McCool)