With the number of Coronavirus cases continuing to soar throughout Europe and elsewhere, the European Parliament's authorities have decided to reduce the plenary agenda to just over one day - starting this evening (Monday) and concluding on Tuesday.
The move comes after a number of MEPs expressed their concerns to the institution's President David Sassoli, with one Parliament source saying it had considered calling off the plenary altogether.
The so-called Conference of Presidents, leaders from each of the mainstream groups in the assembly, met this morning to discuss the ongoing situation and available measures to combat the spread of the virus.
This is an unprecedented and unheard of in Parliament’s history but, according to the source, the emergencies measures reflect fast-growing concern about the spread of Coronavirus and the need to protect both staff and MEPs.
The thinking behind the decision is, according to the spokesperson, "is to strike a balance between the Parliament's institutional responsibilities and, on the other hand, its contribution to assist during the 'containment phase' of the Coronavirus outbreak.
On the agenda are statements on International Women's Day, a debate on the Coronavirus outbreak itself, the migration situation on the Greece-Turkey border and the EU's Multiannual Financial Framework negotiations.
The spokesperson confirmed that the potential of the next plenary, which is scheduled to start on 30 March, was also discussed at the Conference of Presidents meeting.
The use of remote voting was also raised, but "there are no technical ways to use it at this moment in time and so there are no votes this week, just debates".
In the meantime, visits to Parliament by outside groups and individuals have already been seriously curtailed.
Among those calling for all parliamentary activities to cease was Renew Europe leader Dacian Ciolos, a former Romanian PM, who, in an email to Parliament’s President David Sassoli on Sunday evening, urged him to “suspend” the entire session or “substantially reduce its agenda to what is essential.”
Several MEPs from Italy’s 5Star movement made a similar demand in another letter to Sassoli, calling for “all parliamentary activities to be suspended with immediate effect until the health risks are under control.”
MEPs on Tuesday will assess EU and national efforts to contain the COVID-19 virus from spreading and the role of the new EU Coronavirus response team in a debate with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
The team coordinates with Member States in sharing information, assessing needs and ensuring a coherent, EU-wide response.
A Commission spokesman said, “A significant increase in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks would deeply affect public health and healthcare systems and heavily affect the economy and social life.”
However, a vote that had been scheduled to follow the debate on the EU's Corona virus response, on Thursday, will not go ahead.
"A significant increase in COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks would deeply affect public health and healthcare systems and heavily affect the economy and social life” European Commission spokesman
Speaking ahead of the Conference of Presidents decision, German MEP Peter Liese said his group, the EPP, “strongly supports a coordinated response from all Member States, speaking with one voice, giving one message throughout the EU.”
He added, “Our group finds it of vital importance to reduce medicine dependency on China to prevent the shortage of medicines and supply. We would also like to emphasise the importance of immediate action.”
Liese said, “The European Council should have acted sooner.”
Further comment came from an ECR spokesman who said, “We are asking for appropriate plans to be put in place so as to ensure equal access to medicines and protection measures for everyone.”
The Commission, meanwhile, said it had secured an additional €37.5m for “urgently-needed” research on COVID-19 vaccine development, treatment and diagnostics.
Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, said: “The emergency funding from Horizon 2020 enables researchers to work immediately to tackle the outbreak of the Coronavirus on several fronts.”
“Seeing the research community getting in action so rapidly gives us new hope that we will soon be one step closer to our goal of stopping the spread of the virus.”
The health risk posed by the virus is forcing a rising number of businesses, as well as the EU institutions, to cancel travel and public events and switch to teleworking, in the hope of slowing the epidemic.
The European Food Safety Authority, based in Parma, Italy, had told staff to work from home and has banned visits to its premises.
"Our group finds it of vital importance to reduce medicine dependency on China to prevent the shortage of medicines and supply. We would also like to emphasise the importance of immediate action" Peter Liese EPP MEP
On Monday, the Council, representing Member States, issued a statement saying that, having consulted with the Croatian EU presidency, it “has decided on a number of new preventative measures which take into account latest developments in the spread of the Coronavirus.”
“The measures have been communicated to Member State delegates and others who are affected by them. They take effect as from Monday.”
The number of Council meetings, its preparatory bodies and working groups will be reduced while the size of delegations participating in meetings will be limited. All visitor groups to the Council and non-essential training will be suspended.
“The emphasis of this approach reflects the fact that the virus is now present to a considerable extent in most Member States, including Belgium, and that this development is likely to continue,” read the statement, adding that the council “will continue to monitor the situation closely.”
The Council's statement comes after French President Emmanuel Macron had contacted EU leaders, urging them to hold a special Council summit to coordinate an EU response to the Coronavirus outbreak.
Elsewhere in Europe, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte on Sunday approved emergency measures limiting movement for over 16 million Italians until April 3 to contain the spread of coronavirus.
Residents of the Lombardy region — which includes Milan and is one of Italy’s richest and most industrialised — and 14 other provinces in the country’s north will only be allowed to leave their homes for urgent health and professional reasons.