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27th Feb 2024

EU seeks more health powers after dubious Covid-19 response

  • The new proposal would allow the commission to declare an EU-wide public health emergency to activate quickly the bloc's emergency response mechanisms (Photo: General Inspectorate for Emergency Situations Romania)

The European Commission on Wednesday (11 November) put forward a set of proposals to strengthen coordination at EU level in cross-border health crisis.

The move comes after the first outbreaks of Covid-19 triggered competition among member states on crucial medical equipment and export bans on medicines.

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"We have to work together to address health threats, the past year has shown us that fragmentation makes all member states vulnerable," said health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides.

"Unfortunately, we live in a time where infectious diseases may emerge at any point, and we all need to be ready for the next pandemic or health emergency," she added.

The new proposal would allow the commission to declare an EU-wide public health emergency to activate quickly EU's emergency response mechanisms to, for example, stockpile or procure the necessary medical equipment.

The EU has no direct or shared competencies in the area of health, and member states have been traditionally unwilling to give more power to Brussels on the matter - resulting in a clear lack of coordination evidenced during the first months of the pandemic.

Yet, Covid-19 has also revealed that national-level preparedness and response capacities of EU countries were "sub-optimal" prompting "incoherence" concerning their compatibility, the commission said in its proposal.

That is why member states are now asked to prepare pandemic plans that Brussels will audit and test to ensure the right level of preparedness and the effective use of funds under EU programmes.

The bloc also wants to have a better-integrated surveillance system at EU level, using electronic health records and new technologies, such as artificial intelligence and high-performance computing, to predict, detect and analyse cross-border health threats.

To do so, Brussels wants harmonised datasets from member states with a variety of indicators, based on common EU case definitions - including, for instance, data about hospital beds availability, specialised treatment and intensive-care capacity or the number of trained staff.

The upcoming EU4Health programme will provide financing to improve national surveillance systems.

Next year, the commission will propose to set up a new EU agency, the Health Emergency Response Authority, responsible for monitoring production capacities in order to ensure that supply chain vulnerabilities are addressed - after the pandemic exposed the EU's dependency on third countries for medical equipment and medicines.

Additionally, the role of the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the European Medicines Agency would be reinforced with more financial resources and personnel.

Cross-border health services

If approved by member states and MEPs, this proposal could be immediately applicable to the current pandemic - which in Europe accounts for almost a quarter of the 1.2 million deaths globally despite its well-equipped hospitals.

"The past year has taught us that health is a precondition for our societies and economies to function," also said Kyriakides, stressing that Wednesday's proposal is only one of the building block of the so-called European Health Union, together with the EU vaccine strategy.

In the coming weeks, the commission will also put forward a pharmaceutical strategy and a plan focussed on cancer.

Next year, the electronic cross-border health service, also known as EU's health data space, will allow the exchange of health data between member states securely.

Under this initiative, some member states are already introducing services that allow EU citizens to obtain their medication in a pharmacy located in another EU country when travelling or provide doctors with key information about citizens such as allergies, current medication, previous illness or surgeries when the patient comes from another EU country.

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