Gastein 2020: Looking beyond COVID-19

Alhough the Coronavirus pandemic dominated this year’s European Health Forum Gastein, health policymakers are already looking at the future of EU health policy and how it can be shaped, writes Rajnish Singh.
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By Rajnish Singh

Rajnish Singh is Commissioning Editor at the Parliament Magazine

30 Oct 2020

As global deaths caused by COVID-19 surpassed more than one million people, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Stella Kyriakides described the milestone as both grim and agonising.

Reflecting on the tragic human cost of the pandemic she said, “These are not just numbers. Behind every number is a person, and behind every person is the story of a family affected.” Speaking to health policymakers and experts from across the EU at this year’s all-digital European Health Forum Gastein (EHFG), Kyriakides told attendees that the response to the pandemic showed gaps in the health systems of Member States and their lack of preparedness.

According to the Commissioner, the ineffectual response by some governments underlined the importance of a coordinated EU response to overcome the current pandemic and future medical challenges. But she also highlighted the help the EU was giving, saying, “Since the beginning of this crisis, we have been working with Member States to bolster their health capabilities. The EU Vaccine Strategy, the joint procurement for medical countermeasures, and the distribution of personal protective equipment and medicines, were all examples of our efforts our help.”

 “You cannot automatically count on the crisis to build a better future; instead it commonly creates more inequality and instability” Maja Fjaestad, State Secretary, Ministry for Health and Social Affairs, Sweden

But it’s not just health supplies, extra financing has also been provided by the EU to help with cross-border health care and the purchase of any future vaccines, once ready and proven safe. Another key policy is the EU4Health Programme, which will help Member States improve their preparedness and response to any future health crises, as well as supporting the resilience of their care systems.

Even with these new measures, Kyriakides believes more needs to be done. She said, “Through collaboration, we have achieved a significant amount - but the truth is that we need a real, effective and strengthened European Health Union that can support Member States rapidly and effectively in times of crises.”

According to the Greek official, in order to achieve an effective union, more of the EU budget must be assigned to health policy, EU agencies, and the creation of a framework for cooperation against future medical threats. COVID-19 has also revealed the necessity to share information between Member States, she said. “The pandemic has shown the importance of sharing regular, reliable and comparable data gathered from national surveillance systems. However, gaps in these surveillance systems have hindered the provision of reliable and comparable analysis of the epidemiological situation.”

She called on delegates and Member States to urgently work together on a common approach to harmonise surveillance systems monitoring the spread of the disease. This includes innovative digital solutions to compare data and help policymakers make informed decisions.

Kyriakides stressed, “Together we can establish a more efficient, robust and standardised surveillance system. It will be the foundation upon which an effective, coordinated and science-based European Union will be built.”

Former Belgian Health Minister, Maggie De Block, also speaking at the EHFG, said that despite the current challenges she saw the pandemic as a chance to reshape society, especially care for older people. “This is an opportunity to make major changes to the way we take care of the most vulnerable people in our societies,” she said.

But she also stressed that to make these changes, “we need to have the support of citizens who have not been affected medically by COVID-19 but have been suffering from the lockdown measures. Therefore, the economic revival of the EU needs to also be considered.” Though she accepted it will not be easy to bring about changes, she was still optimistic saying, “Nothing is impossible and we should take this opportunity to make a better future.”

However, Maja Fjaestad, State Secretary at Sweden’s Ministry for Health and Social Affairs, was more pessimistic about the future and disagreed with De Block that the pandemic was an opportunity. She said, “You cannot automatically count on the crisis building a better future; instead it commonly creates more inequality and instability.”

 “Through collaboration, we have achieved a significant amount - but the truth is that we need a real, effective and strengthened European Health Union” Stella Kyriakides, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety

She stressed that in order to change society, there has to be a strong political will. However, she said that she believes the shared experience of Member States dealing with the tragedy of losing loved ones to COVID-19 could be used as an impetus to build a better society.

Thomas Steffen, State Secretary of the German Federal Ministry of Health, said, “We support this strong mandate for additional funding for health.” With Germany holding the Presidency of the EU Council, Steffen reminded delegates he was also speaking on its behalf.

He supported the majority of European policymakers’ call to strengthen the European Union’s ability to deal with health issues through the provision and access to additional funds and regulatory powers. For the German official, this will require the EU looking at additional legislation, where the EU Council could work with the European Commission on creating new initiatives.

“But at the same time, we may have to adjust the current legislation to be more effective and efficient,” he told delegates. Contrary to other speakers, Steffen warned that time should not be wasted on discussing what an EU Health Union should look like, but instead concentrate on what can be delivered to patients now.

He also expressed concern that the creation of a Health Union would involve treaty changes, since health policy was still the responsibility of Member States. Steffen said, “This is not the moment to discuss treaty changes, as we do not have time.”

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