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Coronavirus: EU’s strategy for containing the virus

The coronavirus is spreading to more EU member states. On Thursday it had reached about 15 countries, with 12 deaths in Italy and two in France.

The EU agency for disease control (ECDC) has warned for a medium to high risk for the spread of similar clusters as in Italy to the rest of the EU.

Overall, the risk for infection for people in the EU was considered a low to medium but the situation is evolving and an updated risk assessment is awaited to reflect the findings of ECDC’s still on-going mission to Italy.

To contain the spread, screenings and quarantine measures have already been put in place by some countries. The possibility of border controls has been raised for the first time. Mass gatherings, such as sports and music events, might be banned in the near future. It is important for member states to coordinate their measures as regards mass gatherings and to discuss them in advance.

All options were mentioned on Thursday at a technical briefing in Brussels with senior officials from the European Commission and ECDC.

ECDC or the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control plays a crucial role in the efforts to contain the coronavirus. Set up in 2005 and located in Stockholm, it has put in place a system, based on legal decisions adopted by the EU, for the surveillance of communicable diseases and the rapid detection and response.

Risk assessments are done by a group of ECDC experts and produced at the request of the Commission, a member state or following an internal decision. A small group of experts meet also daily to assess the situation. An in-depth assessment is done every two weeks.

Rapid response to serious cross-border threats to health is coordinated at EU level within the Health Security Committee, composed of representatives of all member states and ECDC.

The Commission, in collaboration with ECDC, announced today that it shortly will issue standardised travel guidance templates to member states to use to provide information on prevention and what to do in case of infection or symptoms for travellers going to and returning from risk areas. The Commission has already issued travel guidance for its own staff.

At the meeting, a warning was voiced against comparing the outbreak of the coronavirus with other diseases such as pneumonia and influenza with relatively high death rates. While there is antibiotic treatment of these diseases, there is no vaccine yet against the coronavirus and it has the potential to infect more people. “We don’t know how far the coronavirus will spread.”

Partly conflicting messages were given as to whether EU wide travel bans or restrictions are covered by EU legislation. Any public health threats must be discussed by a community network established by ECDC for surveillance and control of communicable diseases. “We don’t give advice on border controls but look at the options.”

It would anyway be problematic to entrust health checks to border guards and they would have to cooperate with ECDC’s network.

Containment measures

The Commission differentiates between EU’s external borders and the internal borders between member states. For the external borders, public health threats can be invoked for controls provided that they pass the proportionality test. A member state would also have to coordinate such a measure with its neighbouring countries.

This possibility is not explicitly mentioned in the Schengen borders code which governs the movement of persons across the internal borders. That said, the Commission does not legally exclude member states from imposing internal border controls for public health reasons. Border controls have been imposed by some member states to stem the flow of illegal migrants.

Border controls on public health grounds have apparently never been done in the past and for the moment no member state has notified the Commission that they intend to do so. If they would, the Commission will issue an opinion but it has no right to veto the decision by a member state.

Asked by The Brussels Times about the notification period of four weeks, a senior Commission official admitted that the legal deadline was too long and apparently does not need to be respected in the current evolving situation.

The Commission seems to imply that there is no point in border controls since the virus does not stop at borders. “Refusal of entry would be no appropriate response.” The overriding concern of the Commission, even in the current crisis, is to preserve the integrity of the Schengen area with its open borders.

If infected people should not be banned from crossing internal borders, what should be done instead? In an act of mutual solidarity, member states need to cooperate on quarantine measures. Resources are limited and ECDC doubts that quarantine measures will play a dominant role in the containment of the coronavirus.

An expert said that it was impossible to know if quarantine measures for passengers from China and other affected countries would have made a difference and prevented the outbreak in Europe.

ECDC is working on assisting the member states on improving the quality of screenings of passengers at so-called points of entry (airports, land borders and harbours). Screenings however are not very effective because infected people with no symptoms will not be detected. Is was not clear whether screenings are recommended to detect the up to 25 % of infected persons who do show symptoms.

The advice given at the meeting was that information should be handed out to passengers on how they could protect themselves by simple means or stay at home in self-quarantine.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times