The European Commission presented last week ten lessons learnt from the current COVID-19 pandemic with focus on what has to be improved and what can be done better in the future.
Health issues fall under the competency of the EU member states. Quite early after the outbreak of the pandemic, the Commission was asked if and when it intended to evaluate its response to the crisis, especially its measures to coordinate the actions by the member states. The reply during most of last year was that it was too early to assess the response to sucn an unprecedented and evolving crisis.
The early lessons learned published now in a Communication (15 June) are described as a first snapshot of what needs to be acted upon for the benefit of all the EU. Overall, the Commission admits that the initial response was disjoint and uncoordinated but claims that it overcome the problems along the way, especially as regards the joint procurement of vaccines on behalf of the member states.
“The EU’s comprehensive response to the pandemic has been unprecedented in scale and delivered in record time, proving the importance of working jointly in Europe,” summarized European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
“Despite the fact that health policy at European level is still in its nascent years, the EU’s response to the pandemic was ample, and has included a wide range of unprecedented initiatives that were designed and delivered in record time,” added Vice-President for Promoting our European Way of Life, Margaritis Schinas.
The Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Stella Kyriakides, sounded more self-critical: “An unprecedented public health crisis needs to be turned into an opportunity to build back stronger. The key lesson learnt from the COVID-19 crisis is the need to transform the ad hoc solutions that were used to deal with the crisis into permanent structures that will allow us to be better prepared in the future.”
“We need to have a strong European Health Union in place as soon as possible,” she added, referring to perhaps the most important lesson learned. “Time cannot be lost when faced with a public health threat or another pandemic. Emergency action must become structural capacity. Solidarity, responsibility, common effort at European level for the threats that touch all of us equally is what will sustain us through this crisis and the next.”
Asked by The Brussels Times if an internal assessment could be regarded as credible, deputy chief spokesperson Dana Spinant replied that the Commission’s own analysis was based on input from independent stakeholders and experts, among others at the Global Health Summit in Rome last month, which was co-hosted by the Commission and Italy, as chair of G20.
The Commission’s assessment of lessons learned relies also on its work with its own expert agencies, the member states and other stakeholders. Based on the investment made in coordination and cooperation during the coronavirus crisis, the assessment is seen as an important success factor by the Commission for improving preparedness in case of a future pandemic.
Among the measures that worked during the crisis, the Commission is highlighting the Green Lanes initiative to keep food and medical equipment flowing throughout the Single Market, the EU Vaccines Strategy and most recently the EU Digital COVID certificates. Furthermore, the economic measures to weather the crisis and recover the economy could build on experience in the previous financial crisis.
As regards the lessons learnt, the Commission proposes among others to strengthen the global health surveillance, to appoint a European Chief Epidemiologist for more coordinated scientific advice, to prepare an annual State of Preparedness Report, and to establish a toolbox or framework for the activation of an EU Pandemic State of Emergency.
That said, there is a tendency in the assessment to blame the early lack of coordination and the slow response to the outbreak of the crisis on WHO’s delayed recognition of the outbreak as a world-wide pandemic. In the beginning, decision-makers also relied too much on the expert agencies (ECDC and EMA). The report clarifies that there a need to bridge the gap between science and policy-making.
The report on the early lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic will feed EU leaders’ discussion at the European Council meeting this week (24 – 25 June). It will be presented to the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union, and the Commission promises to follow up with concrete deliverables in the second half of 2021.