COVID-19 pandemic has tested ‘relatively limited’ health powers of the EU, says report

A new report by the European Court of Auditors (ECA) highlights “certain challenges” faced by the EU and its Member States since the outbreak of the health crisis last March.
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By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

18 Jan 2021

In the report, published on Monday, the auditors also note that in their 2016 audit report, they had “already flagged weaknesses” in dealing with serious cross-border health threats.

Some issues, such as preparedness planning “have proved to be persistent”, they say, while the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control  has, the report goes on, admitted that “considerable work” still needs to be done to “establish and strengthen robust population-based surveillance” of COVID-19.

Joëlle Elvinger, the ECA member responsible for the new review, said, “It was a challenge for the EU to rapidly complement the measures taken within its formal remit and support the public health response to the COVID-19 crisis.”

“It is too soon to audit ongoing actions or assess the impact of COVID-19-related public health EU initiatives, but these experiences can provide lessons for any future reform of the EU’s competences in this field.”

Publication of the report comes with much of Europe still under lockdown and cases of Coronavirus still on the rise in many EU countries. The pandemic will be debated by MEPs in Brussels on Tuesday.

The EU has been criticised in some quarters for a perceived slow response to the pandemic, including the approval by the European Medicines Agency (EMA) of vaccines and the current EU-wide rollout of the two vaccines that have, so far, been authorised by the EMA.

However, the Luxembourg-based auditors said the main role of the EU has been to “support Member States’ public health actions.”

These include “facilitating provision of appropriate supplies in a crisis and supporting the development of vaccines.”

“It was a challenge for the EU to rapidly complement the measures taken within its formal remit and support the public health response to the COVID-19 crisis” Joëlle Elvinger, ECA

The report concedes, “The EU’s public health competences are limited. It mainly supports the coordination of Member State actions, facilitates procurement of medical equipment and gathers information/assesses risks.”

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the EU has acted to address “urgent issues”, facilitating the supply of medical equipment and information exchange between Member States, as well as promoting testing, treatment and vaccine research.

It allocated 3 percent of its annual budget by 30 June to support public health-related measures.

“A key test for Member States in addressing the pandemic was ensuring the supply of sufficient medical equipment and the Commission took a range of measures to meet this challenge.”

These measures included introducing an export authorisation scheme, starting an EU-financed strategic stockpile of medical and personal protective equipment and setting up an online “matchmaking” tool for medical equipment purchases.

The Commission also launched joint procurement framework contracts for medical equipment.

“However,” note the auditors, “Member States procured the vast majority of their medical supplies through national procurement pathways.”

The EU budget has supported a range of actions including COVID-19 research and vaccine advance purchase agreements. By mid-2020, the EU specifically allocated €4.5 billion to public health-related measures and expanded the range of spending eligible for cohesion funding to cover COVID-19-related public health spending, says the report.

Some €547m from the EU budget was allocated by last June for research on the development of COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines. In the first half of 2020, the Commission also allocated €1.5 billion to fund advance purchase agreements with a range of COVID-19 vaccine developers.

The Commission’s policy of signing deals with different pharma companies has been questioned - it has so far reached agreement with six firms - but the auditors broadly support the vaccine strategy, saying it had “focused on investing in a range of vaccine technologies and companies.”

The report goes on, “The strategy included funding research on vaccine hesitancy as well as fighting disinformation, which could harm the success of mass immunisation campaigns.”

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