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27th Sep 2020

Coronavirus

First coronavirus cases hit EU institutions

  • The EU parliament's headquarters in Brussels. Open for business - but reduced business (Photo: European Parliament)

The first coronavirus cases struck the EU institutions on Wednesday (4 March).

An official at the general secretariat of the EU council of member states had tested positive for the COVID-19 virus, following local transmission in Belgium.

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"The colleague is currently receiving the appropriate medical care and the GSC [general secretariat of the council] is taking all necessary measures to limit the risks of transmission of COVID-19 to others," a council official told EUobserver.

The council does not plan to cancel meetings, and has kept its doors open.

Another official working at the EU's European Defence Agency also tested positive after he had returned from Italy on February 23.

Meetings at the headquarters of the Brussels-based agency, some two km away from the council buiding, have been cancelled until 13 March.

The parliament's plenary session in Strasbourg next week is planned to go ahead with 705 MEPs and their hundreds of assistants, but reduced to the "core functions" of the assembly.

Throughout EU institutions, hand sanitisers have been made available, and signs call for people who had travelled to infected areas and have been feeling sick to report.

Partial three-week cancellation

The parliament on Monday cancelled committee hearings, delegations, events organised by committees or the parliament administration, visits for three weeks.

However, committee meetings, political group meetings, and other key decision making bodies keep working.

Once inside the parliament building on Wednesday, assistants, MEPs, journalists, and visitors whizzed through the halls and corridors, stopping to chat at times. The building did not feel deserted.

Journalists and visitors were requested to sign a paper entering the parliament.

They were asked to declare if they have not come into contact with infected people, or have visited infected hotspots, such as China, Iran, Northern Italy, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, or South Korea in the last two weeks.

During Wednesday, there was some confusion over which events have been cancelled, and which could carry on. Some events participants only found out a few hours before their event that it was cancelled.

"We improvise," said one organiser.

In total, some 130 events at the parliament, which were expected to be attended by 6,000 to 7,000 participants, have been be cancelled.

Greta exception

Some MEPs have complained that climate activist Greta Thunberg was allowed hold a press event upon the launch of the EU climate law on Wednesday.

Centre-right EPP MEP Nuno Melo sent in an email to fellow MEPs addressed to EU parliament president David Sassoli on Tuesday saying: "I would like to request to hear the considered reasons for the exception granted to the citizen Greta Thunberg."

Belgian liberal MEP Hilde Vautmans agreed, writing: "I fully agree and cannot understand why the European parliament would restrict access to all visitors except for one person, Ms Greta Thunberg."

"External visitors coming from all around the world are not allowed to enter the building, but Ms Thunberg is. How should we explain this to our visitors and guests?," she added.

Spanish MEP from the far-right VOX Jorge Buxade Villalba agreed, calling granting an exception to Thunberg "unjustified privilege".

A German MEP from the the far-right AfD, Lars Patrick Berg, wrote that the "one rule for one and another rule for all others" undermines the parliament's credibility. Estonian MEP Yana Toom from the liberal Renew group agreed.

However, Sassoli's decision specifies that visitors can participate in events "those specifically invited by the respective chair" of committees, which was the case in the environment committee with Thunberg's invitation.

Brussels hospitality industry

Brussels has been hit by the fear of the virus economically. The Brussels Hotels Association (BHA) estimated that its members would be posting losses of up to €10m as a result of cancelled bookings, local media reported.

"This is just the tip of the iceberg," said Rodolphe Van Weyenbergh, secretary-general of BHA, which represents 90 percent of hotels in Brussels.

Coronavirus: EU at high risk amid global panic

The European disease prevention agency on Monday increased the risk of coronavirus infection in the EU to "high," as the outbreak spread to 18 member states. The commission also launched a "corona response team" to work on halting the disease.

WHO on coronavirus in Europe: 'be prepared'

The European Commission also urged EU member states to review their pandemic plans and to inform it about their healthcare capabilities in response to the outbreak.

Coronavirus: EU ministers urge members to share supplies

EU health ministers voiced concerns about the possible shortage of protective equipment and medicines in some member states, after Germany, France, and the Czech Republic blocked the export of anti-virus gear.

EU steps up coronavirus fight in first online summit

As Italy went into lockdown EU leaders discussed a more coordinated response to the outbreak. The commission promised financial help, as more and more meetings are cancelled in the EU institutions.

Europe prepares piecemeal coronavirus shutdown

EU countries have introduced partial travel bans, shut down schools, sports and cultural events, closed cinemas and theatres in an effort to slow down the spread of covonavirus. Fears over the economic turmoil also grow.

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