Commission warns EU ‘will have to live with’ COVID-19 until vaccine found

Addressing a parliamentary committee on Tuesday, EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said, “Right now, we are in the middle of a war.”

European Commissioner Stella Kyriakides | Photo credit: European Commission Audiovisual

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

21 Apr 2020


Addressing a meeting of Parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee in an online discussion on the EU’s response to the COVID-19 crisis, Kyriakides told MEPs, “We could never have imagined the huge impact this would have on all our lives. It is the biggest public health crisis we have ever faced in Europe and the world.”

“This is not about the EU or the European Parliament or me. It is everyone being in it together. It is a life-changing crisis and the daily lives of all of us will be affected in many ways for the foreseeable future.”

Appearing via video link, Kyriakides said that now was not the time to mull over how the EU’s approach could have been better, adding, “We are in the middle of a huge crisis and we are not yet out of it. After we get out of it, we can then look back and see what we need to change.”


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She said there had been “some reassuring news” in the last two weeks, that suggested that the tough containment measures taken in Europe have started to curb the outbreak, with a levelling out of cases in some Member States.

“This is clearly important, but I say this with some reservations because we are still at an evolving stage of the pandemic. This is the sort of crisis that none of us have had to deal with before.”

“What is also clear is that Coronavirus will not be going away. We have got to learn to live with it until a vaccine is found. I must stress this.”

“Coronavirus will not be going away. We have got to learn to live with it until a vaccine is found. I must stress this” Commissioner Stella Kyriakides

Kyriakides told the committee that despite what one committee member called the EU’s initial “slow and confused” response to the crisis, there had recently been “extraordinary solidarity” between Member States.

As examples, she cited Coronavirus patients being taken from one Member State to another for treatment and medical staff being deployed from one EU country to another.

“Unfortunately,” she added, “these acts usually go unnoticed.”

She told MEPs, “We all now agree that a coordinated approach is essential. However, if we move too quickly on exiting the crisis and fail to communicate with citizens there is a risk of an increase in cases and we will end up wasting the sacrifices made by those on the health frontline and citizens.”

“In terms of the way forward we are now at what I would call an experimental phase but we are still basing our decisions on the latest scientific advice and the capacity of health systems to manage things.”

She told the committee that the EU’s “exit roadmap” outlined last week by Ursula von der Leyen, aims to “break the chain of infection.”

But she warned there “must be a coordinated response” among Member States in lifting containment measures “because it will be very difficult if we then have to go back and reinstate these measures.”

Janez Lenarčič, EU Commissioner for Crisis Management, also appeared via video link and admitted there had been “ups and downs” in the response to the crisis, including on meeting supply and demand for medical equipment.

He told the committee, “We are working hard on improving this and hope before long that there will be progress on this including through increased procurement.”

He also outlined EU efforts on the repatriation of EU citizens the cost of which, he said, had been met by both the EU and Member States.

Up to Monday, he said, some 48,000 EU citizens had been repatriated from all over world on 200 flights.

“If we move too quickly on exiting the crisis and fail to communicate with citizens there is a risk of an increase in cases and we will end up wasting the sacrifices made by those on the health frontline and citizens” Commissioner Stella Kyriakides

These flights were also  being used to deliver humanitarian aid to those countries most in need of it, including flights from Denmark to Mali and Dena and from Belgium to the DMC.

He said, “These planes did not fly empty but carried aid and, on the way back, brought back EU citizens stranded in those countries.”

French RE member Pascal Canfin, who chairs the committee, appealed for a “common methodology” in the way data is collected by Member States on Coronavirus victims, including whose die from the disease.

“At present, we do not count the ‘statistics’ in the same way and this can lead to misunderstanding.”

“For instance, Belgium, according to the data, has the world record for Corona victims but this is because it has a different accounting methodology.”

Belgium, unlike most countries, includes deaths suspected as being caused by Coronavirus, in its care homes among its overall figures. The UK is among those that does not include care home deaths in its Coronavirus data.

Canfin said, “This different approach from one country to another though can lead to different perceptions and public awareness.”

He added, “I am asking the OECD and also the European Commission to come up with a common methodology so that we can avoid any such differences.”

This, Canfin, told the meeting, was one of three “key messages” he wanted to convey, which also include ensuring the availability of medicines, masks and respirators, and, thirdly, the need for coordinated exit strategies.

“We need to come progressively out of lockdown in a coordinated way.”

German EPP member Peter Liese warned that unless counties worked together “the virus will kill the EU.”

Liese, a medical doctor, added, “If we work together it will make us stronger.”

He also asked about vaccines, saying, “How can vaccines developed in another part of the world help us in Europe? If, for example, a vaccine is developed in the US and Donald Trump wants to exercise his ‘US First” approach, what will our answer be?”

Further comment came from Swedish Socialist member Jytte Guteland, who agreed with Canfin in the need for “better coordination” in collecting data about infection rates and deaths from the virus.

She said, “We cannot go on comparing each country’s figures when they are collated differently. We need to push Member States to cooperate more on this.”

She added, “The crisis has also shown the need for a better response to such health threats in the future.”

French RE member Véronique Trillet-Lenoir, meanwhile, called for a “full-time leader” to head up the EU’s response to the crisis.

She also pointed to a resolution adopted last Friday by Parliament that calls for the creation of an EU “health task force.”

Meanwhile, Carlo Fidanza, an RE member from Italy, told a meeting of the Transport and Tourism Committee, also on Tuesday,  the EU “needs to give the tourism sector more certainty.”

He said the industry faced a “collective funeral”, adding that hotels “have been brought to their knees.”

Greek MEP Elena Kountoura, of the European United Left group, said, “The situation in the travel and tourism sectors gets more dramatic by the day. It is estimated 4.6m jobs could be lost.”

“Greece, my country, only managed its public debt crisis thanks to tourism and many Greek islands depend exclusively on tourism.”

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton, outlining the Commission’s proposals to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and support the tourism sector, told the meeting that a priority is to “restart tourism.”

The French official added “I hope we all can start travelling again soon.”

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