The European Parliament has cancelled 130 events due to take place on its premises in Brussels and Strasbourg because of the coronavirus outbreak.
Late on Monday, the assembly’s president David Sassoli announced that for the next three weeks at least, a total of 130 “non-core” events open to the public on Parliament’s premises, which were expected to be attended by between 6,000 to 7,000 participants, will not now go ahead.
In addition, visitors will not be allowed to access Parliament until 23 March at the earliest. At the same time, Sassoli stressed that Parliamentary work will continue, including committee meetings and, to the surprise of some, next week’s Strasbourg plenary session.
An internal document, seen by this website, says that there is “a need to protect the health of MEPs, staff and others visiting the Parliament.”
The drastic action, never taken before for such a period of time, comes with the death toll from the virus rising by the day.
The latest WHO figures indicate over 82,000 people have been infected, with over 2,700 deaths in China and 57 deaths in 46 other countries.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Germany has jumped to 117 from 66 while the death toll in Italy has risen to 34.
France has banned any public event with more than 5,000 people that is held in a "confined space". The ban comes as the country confirmed 73 cases of the virus. Similarly, “large scale” events have been banned in Switzerland.
Belgian authorities have confirmed six new cases of coronavirus. The newly infected people had all returned to Belgium from travelling in northern Italy.
“We will limit the access of visitors to the Parliament. This measure derives from the fact that we are a very open institution by nature with 700,000 visitors per year. Under the current circumstances, it is our responsibility to suspend these visits" European Parliament President David Sassoli
A spokesman for the European Parliament commented, “The current set of measures applies for the next three weeks with the possibility of changes and adaptations, according to developments.
Sassoli, in a statement, noted, “We assess the spread of the coronavirus on a daily basis, in close cooperation with the European health services as well as national authorities. As a result of this assessment, we have decided to update our set of precautionary measures.
“We will limit the access of visitors to the Parliament. This measure derives from the fact that we are a very open institution by nature with 700,000 visitors per year. Under the current circumstances, it is our responsibility to suspend these visits. In the same spirit, we will cancel 130 events such as exhibitions or external conferences planned for the next [three] weeks on Parliament premises.”
Speaking at a news briefing in Parliament, the Italian added, “As far as the Parliament administration and staff is concerned, we demand everybody who has visited one of the areas affected or has been in touch with an infected person to work from home and monitor closely their health status. MEPs are advised to apply the same principle of responsibility.
“The Parliament has the duty to maintain its legislative work. Activities such as the next plenary session, committee meetings, the Conference of Presidents as well as the work of President’s office will therefore be upheld.”
Some events will still go ahead in Parliament, though, including a visit on Thursday by climate activist Greta Thunberg who will meet members of the assembly’s Environment and Public Health Committee. The committee will also discuss how the EU is confronting, with member states, the outbreak.
Sassoli’s comments come after it emerged that the EU currently faces a “moderate to high” risk of “widespread sustained transmission” of the virus.
“As far as the Parliament administration and staff is concerned, we demand everybody who has visited one of the areas affected or has been in touch with an infected person to work from home and monitor closely their health status. MEPs are advised to apply the same principle of responsibility" European Parliament President David Sassoli
This is according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control which, with the European Commission, is helping coordinate the EU’s response to the outbreak.
The spread of the virus, meanwhile, has also had an impact on political life elsewhere in Brussels.
A major Africa summit, organised by the European Reformists group and due to go ahead in Parliament on Wednesday has been postponed due to “coronavirus security measures.”
Organisers took the decision to postpone the high-level event scheduled for March 4 after the Parliament announced it was closing its doors to visitors.
It is now hoped the gathering, which brings together business figures and politicians from across Africa and Europe, can be reorganised for a date in early July.
A group spokesman said: "The postponement is an unavoidable disappointment, and we apologise to our stakeholders for the change in plan. We have taken a measured and responsible approach on public health grounds. Our ambitions remain to create a closer relationship between Africa and Europe with a summit later this year when circumstances allow."
Elsewhere, the Innovative Medicines Initiative, IMI, a public-private partnership between the European Commission and the pharmaceutical industry, has launched a fast-track call for research proposals to develop treatments and diagnostics in response to the outbreak.
Up to €45m of the funding will come from Horizon 2020, the EU research and innovation programme, and a commitment of a similar scale is expected from the pharmaceutical industry so that the total investment could reach up to €90m.
Dr Pierre Meulien, IMI executive director, said, “Collaborative projects involving companies, universities and public bodies have the potential to dramatically accelerate the development of new treatments and diagnostics to tackle this threat to global public health.
“During the outbreak of Ebola in western Africa, we demonstrated that IMI can rapidly launch projects and deliver results in an outbreak setting, and I am confident that we can do it again for the coronavirus.”
Mariya Gabriel, EU Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, added, “I welcome the rapid response of IMI to the coronavirus outbreak. This collaboration between the public and the private sectors brings their expertise and resources together in our fight against the coronavirus outbreak.
“This will help speed up the development of treatments and diagnostics in face of this global emergency and increase our preparedness for future outbreaks.”