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Coronavirus: Too early to exit lockdown measures in the EU

The European Commission was supposed to discuss and adopt a roadmap to exit the restrictive measures put into place by the member states during the coronavirus crisis but it appears to be too early since hardly any country has managed to flatten the curves.

Many countries start to fear the economic consequences of a prolonged closure of the economy and are eager to phase out the lockdown measures. As reported yesterday, Denmark and Austria have announced exit strategies starting from mid-April.

Belgium does not belong to those countries. The head of the expert team appointed by the government to steer the country out of the nationwide standstill warned yesterday (8 April) that it is “far too early” for Belgium to define a timetable to lift its coronavirus lockdown.

Updated risk assessment

In fact, the same message was also given yesterday by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in its updated risk assessment.

“In the current situation, continuous spread of the virus can be expected. It is still too early to suddenly lift all community and physical distancing measures in the EU/EEA and the UK, even though these stringent measures may be quite disruptive to society on an economic and social level,” warned ECDC Director Andrea Ammon.

According to ECDC, overall, large increases in COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to be reported from the EU/EEA countries and the UK. Recently, in a few EU/EEA countries, the number of new cases and new deaths reported daily appears to have decreased slightly. However, many countries are currently only testing severe or hospitalised cases, therefore these trends should be interpreted with caution.

Despite early evidence from Italy and Austria that the number of cases and deaths are declining, there is currently no indication at EU level that the peak of the epidemic has been reached.

The risk of increasing community transmission of COVID-19 in the EU/EEA and the UK in the coming weeks is moderate if mitigation measures are in place, and very high if insufficient mitigation measures are in place (emphasis by ECDC).

ECDC writes that a strong focus should remain on comprehensive testing and surveillance strategies, community measures such as physical distancing, strengthening of healthcare systems and informing the public and health community.

Last but not the least, the promotion of mental wellbeing among people living under physical distancing measures is necessary to ensure that populations have the resilience to maintain adherence to these measures. The ECDC is located in Solna, Sweden, where the government appears to have this in mind when designing less strict lockdown measures than other countries.

Commission response

The European Commission also indicated on Wednesday that its planned guidelines on exit strategies was premature. At the on-line press briefing, the chief spokesperson said that the Commission recognizes, after consultation with the member states, that more time is needed for reflection and adoption of the guidelines.

Furthermore, in an announcement yesterday, the Commission invited the member states to prolong the temporary restriction on non-essential travel to the EU until 15 May.

The experience of member states and other countries in Europe (30 countries in total) exposed to the pandemic shows the measures applied to fight the spread of the virus require more than 30 days to be effective, the Commission writes.

“The Commission calls for a coordinated approach to the prolongation, as action at the external borders can only be effective if implemented by all countries at all borders, with the same end date and in a uniform manner.”

The spokesperson told The Brussels Times that the Commission is constantly adapting its course of action. Indeed, after a slow start, when the spread of the coronavirus could have been contained, the Commission has adopted a number of measures to support the member states hit by the outbreak and to coordinate a common response.

“We are in the middle of fighting the pandemic,” he said. The next challenge will be to coordinate the exit from the crisis knowing that the member states are at different points in the curves which need to be flattened. Analysing the spread of the virus and the capacity of the health care systems is crucial.

Does the Commission foresee that member states will exit the crisis at different times, keeping their borders closed until they have fully exited? The Commission guidelines will apparently address this question. “We think that it’s important that there is information and coordination, e.g. to allow for health workers and goods to cross the borders.”

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times

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