Whatever it takes – EU health measures to combat Coronavirus

Camilla Palla

Over the last week, the voices of those complaining about a lack of initiative by the EU have increased. The first economic measures were introduced during the week, but what strategy is the EU adopting to manage the coronavirus crisis in the health sector? Is it doing enough? Can it do more?  In the last few days the ‘whatever it takes’ formula has started to spread, also concerning the health side. But how does it really work? What is the European Union’s competence in health related matters?

The management of public health is essentially a national policy issue, especially regarding decision-making on the management of health systems. De facto, the EU can propose legislation, coordinate and facilitate the exchange of good practices among Member States and provide financial support. In addition, the EU may adopt acts in the field of health under Articles 114 (approximation of national legislation), 153 (social policy) and 168 (protection of public health) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). The latter states that “Union action shall respect the responsibilities of the Member States for the definition of their health policy and for the organisation and delivery of health services and medical care. The responsibilities of the Member States shall include the management of health services and medical care and the allocation of the resources assigned to them.”.

Since the first days of March, these health coordination actions have become more assertive, involving the whole EU institutional framework.

The first step undertaken by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was the creation of a Coronavirus Response Team, set up within the College of Commissioners. The team, made up of Commissioners Janez Lenarčič (crisis management), Stella Kyriakides (health issues), Ylva Johansson (border issues), Adina Vălean (mobility) and Paolo Gentiloni (macro-economic issues), aims to provide high level multi-sectoral coordination as a framework for all the more specific measures and intervention required at European and national level.

On 16 March, the Commission subsequently introduced guidelines for border management arrangements to protect health and ensure the availability of essential goods and services, complementing Decision 1082/2013/EU on serious cross-border threats to  health. In addition, so far, 26 countries have activated the Joint Procurement Mechanism for Medical Countermeasures provided by the above-mentioned decision, which provides for a more stable and secure management of supplies, as well as a fairer price trend for the countries involved. The mechanism refers not only to food and health supplies in general, but specifically regulates the availability of supplies of personal protective equipment, such as masks, protective visors, visors or face protection visors, nose and mouth protection equipment and protective clothing. It is foreseen that exports of such equipment outside the European Union are subject to a pre-export authorisation by Member States.

In addition, a number of bodies supporting the institutions in various areas have been introduced. On 16 March, the Commission set up an Advisory Panel on Covid, a group of experts to assist the Commission in the implementation of existing Union legislation, programmes and policies. The group’s activities will work in conjunction with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

From a scientific point of view, an advisory group on COVID-19 was introduced on 17 March. The group, made up of epidemiologists and virologists from several Member States, will be chaired by Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and co-chaired by Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the Emergency Response Coordination Centre (ERCC) will participate as observers.

On the research side, the efforts required from all Member States are high and there is still a long way to go. Recent international tensions involving the US, the EU, and in particular Germany, are one of the symptoms of the growing urgency surrounding the identification and subsequent distribution of a vaccine.

On 16 March, the Commission offered financial support of up to €80 million to CureVac, the vaccine developer company involved, to accelerate the development and production of a coronavirus vaccine in Europe.

And yesterday, 19 March, the Commission decided to introduce the rescEU stockpile, a strategic stockpile of medical equipment such as lung ventilators and personal protective equipment such as reusable masks, vaccines, therapies and laboratory supplies. Member States applying to host the stockpiles will be responsible for procurement and the distribution of equipment will be coordinated by the Emergency Response Coordination Centre. The Commission will cover 90% of the financial costs of the initiative, and the initial budget allocation is estimated at €50 million, of which €40 million is subject to approval by the budgetary authorities. In addition, the coordination ensured by the Joint Procurement Agreement gives Member States a strong position in negotiating with industry on the availability and price of the facilities. The proposal updates the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, in which all EU Member States participate, as well as Iceland, Norway, Serbia and Macedonia.

The next step will be the videoconference scheduled for 26 March, which will bring together the members of the European Council for the third time to take stock of the current crisis management. On 26 March, the European Parliament will also vote on the economic measures proposed by the institutions in recent days.

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