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24th Oct 2020

Coronavirus

EU commission seeks to buy medical gear itself

  • EU countries at first were reluctant to share medical supplies (Photo: CDC Global)

The EU commission will propose directly buying the bloc's strategic stockpiles of medical equipment, crisis management commissioner Janez Lenarcic announced on Thursday (30 April).

The EU executive in late March proposed to set up a stockpile of face masks, intensive care equipment and other essential medical gear to tackle shortages in member states during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Under the reserve's rules, agreed by EU countries, member states have to volunteer to undertake a procurement, purchase specific equipment, and store it - all of which is financed by the commission.

So far, out of the 27 member states, Romania and Germany have agreed to buy and store gear for the stockpile.

Shipments have already been made from Romania to Italy, which is one of the hardest-hit EU countries by the pandemic. Spain will also soon receive gear from the reserve.

Lenarcic, who is also the European Emergency Response Coordinator within the commission, told a group of journalists that the EU executive is in discussion with several more member states and, in total, a dozen countries have "signalled their readiness to consider participating in forming such a reserve".

EU countries at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak have faced shortages of crucial medical equipment, and initially member states were reluctant to share equipment.

Lenarcic said the commission wants to prepare for a possible second wave in the coronavirus pandemic, or other outbreaks, by itself buying, arranging storage and sending the gear where it is needed most.

"If everything in the EU crisis management system depends of voluntary solidarity of member states, then you get into difficulty when all of them are effected," he said.

"That's why we need to have system in place that would provide for effective solutions in such cases, which are no longer theoretical," Lenarcic added.

"I want to propose that the commission would be able directly to enter into procurement of equipment destined for European strategic reserve. Now [currently] we can't," he said.

Lenarcic said he envisages five to six regional hubs for such EU stockpiles. The Slovenian commissioner added that the strategic stockpile serves as a "solidarity, ensured in advance".

He did not say when the idea for the new procurement method would be presented, but said the commission is "working on the proposal".

Lenarcic said the decision to build up a strategic stockpile, which was agreed by member states in "record time", was one of the lessons learned during the initial phase of the crisis.

House on fire

The EU stockpile is complimentary to another tool, the civil protection mechanism, where a member state in trouble can ask for help from other member states.

Early in the crisis, Italy triggered the mechanism, and other member states were criticised for their slow response.

"There was a time when the Italian request for assistance went unanswered. But that was more a matter of lack of personal protective equipment than lack of solidarity," Lenarcic said, adding that now doctors from other countries have gone to Italy, while Italian patients have been treated in Germany.

"When everybody is affected or afraid it will be, it is difficult to share something that you yourself believe you will need," he said, adding: "In a village, when one house is on fire, neighbours will come and help you. But when all houses are on fire… then it's more difficult."

Crisis management is a member state competence, and countries traditionally only delegate powers to the EU when action on the EU level is deemed more effective.

"This [crisis] experience shows that there is perhaps a good reason to do more things in health and civil protection at European level," Lenarcic said.

He pushed back against criticism that the commission did not do enough at the onset of the outbreak, saying that it warned about this virus at the end of January and called on member states to prepare for all scenarios.

"We don't have a hidden storage in the cellar of the Berlaymont where we keep our stockpile of masks and gloves," he quipped, referring to the commission's Brussels headquarters.

He added that there has been globally too much demand and too little supply of protective and medical equipment.

Lenarcic said the commission wants to reduce the EU's vulnerability by promoting domestic production, diversifying supply chains, and building up strategic reserves.

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