Von der Leyen: EU countries must step up against coronavirus

EU countries failed to prepare adequately for the second wave of coronavirus infections and must now urgently step up cooperation on testing, containment measures and preparations for distributing a vaccine, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday.

Von der Leyen issued her sober assessment a day before EU heads of state and government meet by videoconference to discuss their pandemic coordination efforts. While she refrained from finger-pointing, there was no mistaking the Commission president’s conclusion that leaders had fallen short, and that national capitals, which retain most legal authority over health policy, must act quickly to prevent thousands of deaths.

Governments are struggling to deal with sharp increases in cases that are pushing some hospital intensive care units close to capacity. New restrictions have been ratcheted up across the Continent almost by the day. On Wednesday, German leaders agreed to mandate the closure of bars, restaurants and many non-essential businesses across the country. France was poised to announce measures just short of a full national lockdown.

Appearing at an online news conference with Peter Piot, a Belgian virologist who is her special adviser on the pandemic response, von der Leyen insisted that EU institutions and member countries had taken many positive steps, including adoption of a historic economic recovery package. But she also admitted that leaders had loosened containment measures too quickly and not heeded the warnings from experts who urged vigilance and preparation.

“If you look back, you can see that a lot of things were done in the right direction in the first wave, but obviously the exit strategies were partly too fast, and measures were relaxed too soon,” von der Leyen said.

Ahead of the leaders’ conference call, the Commission issued a proposal to the Council for more comprehensive cooperation across the entire pandemic response, but especially for better data sharing, including on critical care capacity in hospitals; improved and faster testing; making better use of contact tracing apps; plus more consistent rules on transportation and border regulations.

But the Commission proposal also laid bare some abject failures given that national governments had months to prepare for a second wave.

For example, the Commission said critical information is not being shared. “The sharing of data on the EU COVID-19 Data Platform needs to become the norm: at present only five member states are using this to share information,” the document said. The Commission also assisted 19 of 27 EU countries in developing contact tracing apps, but only three of the national apps — for Germany, Ireland and Italy — are able to connect with each other. The other 16 will likely not be connected until the end of November.

Von der Leyen implored national leaders to prepare vaccination plans, even though clinical trials have yet to yield an approved vaccine. “We call on member states to prepare now national vaccination plans and to review them now at EU level,” she said. “We need to be prepared for the arrival of the first vaccines. There is a lot to do.”

Von der Leyen said the Commission was poised to assist cross-border cooperation, including the potential transfer of patients should healthcare systems become overwhelmed and hospitals run out of beds. But she said better data was urgently needed.

“It is now so important to be stringent, to stay coordinated, to act fast,” she said.

Von der Leyen and Piot conceded that the pandemic will dampen the winter holidays. “It will be a different Christmas,” von der Leyen said.

Piot said that only a safe, proven vaccine would likely ease the crisis, but he also noted that medical experts so far succeeded in eradicating just one virus — smallpox — across all of human history. He also warned that societies would not tolerate the cost of reaching “herd immunity.”

“Let’s not forget that the toll in deaths will be enormous. millions of people will die and I think in the 21st century, that’s not something we can ethically accept,” he said.

In addition to urging better government action, von der Leyen and Piot said individual citizens also must do more. Piot said that the use of face masks in the EU was at roughly 60 percent, compared to 95 percent in some Asian countries. “That could save hundreds of thousands of lives if we all do it,” he said.

Von der Leyen noted that in addition to fighting the virus, governments were also battling fatigue and frustration among citizens.

“People are becoming more and more fed up with the preventative measures against corona,” she said. “And I can understand that people are suffering with this virus. For months we have all been making sacrifices.”

But in a sign of the inherent contradictions, even as von der Leyen urged vigilance and criticized governments for reopening too soon, the Commission’s own portal for tracking pandemic travel measures is called, “Re-open EU.” 

Piot said that governments must act with foresight. “We must act fast; we should not waste our time, and we should certainly not wait until people start dying in great numbers,” he said. “We need to act when the number of cases are increasing, not when people are dying.”

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