EU does no contact tracing after ministers test positive for coronavirus

The Council of the EU said Monday it has not initiated contact tracing linked to the foreign ministers of Austria and Belgium testing positive for COVID-19 days after attending EU meetings in Luxembourg, because it received no official notification of the cases.

The absence of any further inquiry by the Council raised questions about the EU’s protocols for dealing with potential outbreaks. And the Council’s assertion that it received no notice was apparently contradicted by Austria’s Foreign Ministry, which said it immediately informed the EU and other EU ministers and delegations that might have been put at risk.

Belgian Foreign Minister Sophie Wilmès announced her positive result in a tweet on Saturday. “Contamination probably occurred within my family circle,” she wrote, “given the precautions taken outside my home.”

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg’s infection was announced to national media on Saturday by a spokesperson, and news of the dual infections prompted the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, to announce that he would remain in isolation pending test results, given that he had seen both ministers at a Foreign Affairs Council meeting in Luxembourg. On Monday, Borrell announced that he was clear after a negative test.

“We don’t launch contact tracing on the basis of press reports or posts but after an official notification, and we haven’t received such an official notification,” a Council spokesperson said, insisting on anonymity.

“According to Belgian rules, in the case of contact tracing, you would only contact people you have been in close contact with up to two days before onset of symptoms or two days before their test (if asymptomatic),” the spokesperson said, adding: “As we haven’t been officially informed we do not have the exact details of when the symptoms/tests took place and we can only presume they took place after the two-day period had passed.”

But Schallenberg’s spokeswoman Claudia Türtscher said that immediate notifications were made.

“The Permanent Representation of Austria to the European Union informed the Office of the High Representative immediately after the test result was announced on Saturday morning,” Türtscher wrote in reply to a query from POLITICO. “In addition, the Permanent Representation also informed the Brussels representatives of the other delegations who were either sitting next to the Minister or with whom a bilateral talk had been held.”

The Council spokesperson insisted all precautions had been taken: “The meeting, like all physical meetings organized by the Council, was set up in a way that allowed for proper social distancing between participants.”

Schallenberg also met in person in Vienna last week with Canadian Foreign Minister François-Philippe Champagne, who then traveled to Brussels and met on Wednesday with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. A spokesman said that Champagne tested negative upon return home to Canada but was in isolation in accordance with national rules following his trip abroad.

The positive cases highlight the continuing risks for government officials who are still traveling and attending meetings amid the surge in infections. The situation also shows the complications facing the EU: Meetings in Brussels are subject to Belgian national regulations, while meetings in Luxembourg must follow the rules there. Informal meetings, currently being held in Berlin during the German presidency of the Council of the EU, are subject to the German rules and overseen by the presidency, rather than the Council’s general secretariat.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin were forced to leave an EU summit last week and self-isolate after learning of infection risks. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki missed the meeting because he was in quarantine.

A spokesman for the Belgian foreign ministry said he was looking into matter.

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