EU has ‘comprehensive approach’ to containing coronavirus, says Ursula von der Leyen

However, Irish MEP Mick Wallace calls for upcoming Strasbourg plenary to be moved to Brussels because of outbreak.

Photo credit: Press Association

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

02 Mar 2020


The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDPC) said on Monday that the risk level from coronavirus had risen from moderate to high.

At a news conference in Brussels on Monday the European Commission revealed that there had so far been 2100 cases of coronavirus in 18 member states and that 38 people had died from the disease in Europe.

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, at the same briefing, also launched the executive’s “corona response team”, a group of five EU commissioners who will coordinate work on halting the deadly outbreak.


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The officials are Janez Lenarcic, who oversees crisis management, Stella Kyriakides, in charge of health issues, Ylva Johansson, who oversees border-related issues, Adina Vălean, in charge of mobility and Paolo Gentiloni, responsible for macroeconomic aspects. 

Von der Leyen, speaking at the EU’s emergency control centre, said, “The virus continues to spread, and I have full sympathy for those suffering from the virus.”

She added, “The virus has brought governments and health systems together to try and work to contain it.

“The EU has an ongoing risk assessment and already is working in close coordination with member states. We have a very comprehensive approach to containing the virus” European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen

“The EU has an ongoing risk assessment and already is working in close coordination with member states. We have a very comprehensive approach to containing the virus.”

She said the five-strong team will be working on “three main pillars” - the medical field, covering prevention and procurement to relief measures, information and foresight; the second covers mobility, from transport to travel advice and Schengen-related questions and the third part covers the economy. 

This “pillar” will look at various business sectors, she said, such as tourism, transport and trade, as well as value chains and the macro-economy. 

The commission has also launched a dedicated webpage providing information on activities across medical, civil protection, mobility, economy and statistics angles, as well as links to member states’ dedicated websites, recent studies and other relevant information.

Von der Leyen added, “We are working intensively on different work strands in what is a very complex situation.”

There is, she told reporters, already “huge coordination” between the EU27, the WHO and the ECDPC.

There are, though, no plans presently to cancel any European Commission events due to the outbreak, she said, adding, “but this can change.”

She noted that some companies, as a precaution, are telling staff to work from home, adding “that is up to them.”

“We are faced with a rapidly changing situation. Italy faces a situation which is not the same as in other member states. It is an evolving situation. What is crucial is coordination and a comprehensive approach” European Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides

She said, “Any decisions on what events are cancelled at member state level will depend on who is attending the event and the area involved. But any decision has to be respected.”

She added, “As a medical doctor, I rely on what the experts tell us, and I learn a lot from them.”

When asked how the outbreak compared with other diseases such as winter flu, which has a far higher mortality rate, she said, “This is a new type of virus and there’s a lot we do not know. It is spreading very fast, so all this has to be taken into account.”

“That is why we need a cautious, alert and vigilant approach.”

At the same briefing, Lenarcic said, “Some have asked for travel to be banned or restricted and borders closed but these are very harsh measures. 

“What we have learned so far is that every country needs to get ready. The answer is not to give in to panic. But the situation is likely to get worse which is why we want to ensure a coherent EU response. This is a global challenge and no country can tackle it on its own.”

“The EU has already invested substantial funding on dealing with this, some €230m for research and the pharmaceutical industry and is looking into further funding possibly.”

Further reaction came from Kyriakides who said, “We are faced with a rapidly changing situation. Italy faces a situation which is not the same as in other member states. It is an evolving situation. What is crucial is coordination and a comprehensive approach.

“This outbreak is of clear concern, but it is not a time for misinformation.”

“We should learn lessons from the Chinese who seem to have garnered some control over the spread of the virus by restricting movement and the use of isolation. I believe it does not make sense for all the MEPs and staff to travel by train, bus, aeroplane and car to Strasbourg” Irish MEP Mick Wallace

Valean, also present at the event, said it was “crucial to maintain seamless mobility” in Europe where “there is robust set of rules for passenger rights.”

In the event of a flight cancellation related to the outbreak, passengers, she noted, have the right to compensation. “But any assessment is made on a case-by-case basis.”

Addressing the economic fallout, Gentiloni said, “It is clear there will be a short-term impact on the Chinese economy. This is likely to be significant. Sectors affected are mostly travel, tourism and automotive.”

He added, “We are seeing the risks involved on this starting to materialise. While it is still too soon to measure the impact of all this, that does not mean we can minimise it. These are extraordinary times.”

Meanwhile, Irish MEP Mick Wallace has called for the parliamentary plenary in Strasbourg next week to be moved to Brussels because of the outbreak.

In a letter to Italian Socialist MEP David Sassoli, the European Parliament’s president, he writes that this would be the “common sense” solution.

He writes, “Panic is unhelpful when it comes to dealing with the challenges of the virus, but we should learn lessons from the Chinese who seem to have garnered some control over the spread of the virus by restricting movement and the use of isolation.”

He added, “I believe it does not make sense for all the MEPs and staff to travel by train, bus, aeroplane and car to Strasbourg.”

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