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5th Jun 2020

Coronavirus

EU delays 'exit strategies' plan, as WHO urges caution

  • Austria, Denmark Germany and the Czech Republic have announced domestic plans to begin easing some of their restrictive measures from next week (Photo: Oli)

The European Commission has been forced by member states to delay its plans for "exit strategies" to the restrictive lockdown measures across the bloc, over fears about sending mixed messages about the coronavirus outbreak.

Initially, the commission was expected to adopt its guidelines on Wednesday (8 April) to ensure a coordinated approach among member states - especially after Austria and Denmark announced on Monday plans to ease restrictive domestic measures from next week.

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"We need to come up with this decision now to ensure that these strategies are done in a coordinated way," said a commission spokesperson on Tuesday.

However, the commission's statement changed hours later and the colleague of commissioners, instead, held a debate "on the roadmap to exit the restrictive measures" imposed by EU governments.

Additionally, the EU's executive body presented on Wednesday a common toolbox for the use of technology and data during the pandemic and guidelines to avoid medical supplies shortages.

Firstly, the toolbox aims for a pan-European approach for the use of mobile applications, which are mainly focused on warning, preventing and contact tracing.

However, the European Data Protection Supervisor (EDPS) this week urged a pan-European Covid-19 app, which should be ideally coordinated with the World Health Organisation (WHO) to ensure data protection, amid a proliferation of country-specific apps.

"Legality, transparency and proportionality should accompany any measures designed to fight the covid-19 pandemic," EDPS chief Wojciech Wiewiórowski said in a statement on Monday.

Secondly, the toolbox also focuses on a common scheme for using anonymised and aggregated data on the mobility of populations, provided by telecom operators since 23 March 2020.

This data can be especially useful for researchers and data scientists who model and predict the evolution of the disease, as well as for national authorities who can monitor the effectiveness of the measures taken thus far.

The commissioner for the internal market, Thierry Breton, said on Wednesday that "digital technologies, mobile applications and mobility data have enormous potential to help understand how the virus spreads and to respond effectively".

Additionally, the commission's guidelines called on member states to lift export bans on medical supplies and increase the production of medicines to avoid shortages.

"We need larger quantities of medicines to treat coronavirus patients in hospitals. This is why today we adopted guidelines to ensure that Europeans have access to affordable medicines during this crisis," said the Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen.

Likewise, on Wednesday the commission invited member states, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland, to prolong the restriction on non-essential travel to the EU until 15 May in a uniform way.

Lack of coordination?

Despite the recommendations issued by the commission, some member states have been taking unilateral measures since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, including export bans on medical supplies or the closure of borders.

As the coronavirus crisis moves forward, posing a risk to the economy and political stability of EU countries, the commission keeps facing the challenge to reach a common approach between 27 member states and neighbouring countries, such as the UK and Norway.

Yet, Austria and Denmark shared their future plans with the rest of member states and the commission when they announced earlier this week their "exit strategies", the commission spokesperson said.

Besides Austria and Denmark, the latest reports indicate that Germany and the Czech Republic have also announced plans to tweak restrictive measures.

Additionally, Spanish finance minister, María Jesús Montero, said on Tuesday evening that "citizens will be able to get back to their normal life" starting April 26 - when lockdown measures would expire.

And Italy is also looking into a strategic plan to exit gradually the confinement measures in two steps.

"The first (after Easter Monday) would allow reopening some industry for production activities, while the second (after May 4) would involve a reform of the restrictions on movement," La Republicca reported.

However, the European branch of the WHO on Wednesday urged countries not to lift restrictions prematurely.

"Now is not the time to relax measures," Europe WHO regional director, Hans Kluge, told a news conference.

"It is the time to once again double and triple our collective efforts to drive towards suppression with the whole support of society," he added.

As of Wednesday, WHO Europe reported a total of 687,236 confirmed cases and 52,824 deaths across the continent.

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