Seeking safe way out of pandemic

Once available, vaccines will be fairly distributed among Member States, meanwhile sick people will be send to hospitals abroad

At an urgent video conference held in the evening on 29 October, EU leaders discussed the need to strengthen the collective effort to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, with a focus on testing and tracing policies, and on vaccines distribution, the EU press service reported. “We very much agreed, it was repeated around the video conference table, to guarantee a fair distribution between Member States in the case of contracts signed by the Commission, and those we hope will be signed in the coming weeks,” Council President Charles Michel told a news conference after the summit.

Leaders agreed that testing and tracing are key to limiting the spread of the virus and will help better control the situation. They exchanged views on how to advance a common approach to the mutual recognition, deployment and use of rapid tests. The EU leaders discussed the initiative on interoperability between apps put on the table by the Commission and work on a common Passenger Locator Form, which would also facilitate tracing. “This would reduce the negative impact on free movement and on the functioning of our single market, which we absolutely need to preserve,” Michel pointed out. Heads of state or government also discussed the possibility of harmonising the duration of quarantines.

As far as vaccines are concerned, the leaders stressed four main areas to develop cooperation: fair distribution to Member States; criteria to determine priority groups; logistical challenges and bottlenecks; and communication on vaccines. “Our hospitals and health workers are again under pressure. That is why many leaders have announced lockdowns and restrictions. In such hard times, cohesion and solidarity matter more than ever. We call on all Europeans to take care of themselves and of each other,” Michel stressed.

Separately, EC President Ursula von der Leyen announced that the Commission is making €220m available to finance a safe cross-border transfer of patients where it is needed. “If we have more data sharing on ICU capacity and where capacity is lacking, we can increase the cross-border patient care and it can be organised early enough. So the more countries share information, the better we can coordinate the response,” she pointed out. Von der Leyen also warned that the EU's healthcare systems are at risk of being overwhelmed by the number of coronavirus cases unless authorities act quickly. She added that the EU would work for the quick validation, at EU level, of rapid antigen tests.

“We are deeply into the second wave,” said von der Leyen, who is a medical doctor with a background in public health and epidemiology. “And, this time, we face two enemies: the coronavirus and a growing Covid-19 fatigue. We cannot let down our guard now. The situation is very, very serious, but we can slow down the spread of the virus if everyone takes responsibility,” she pointed out.

The leaders' summit was held a day after the Commission launched an additional set of actions to help limit the spread of the coronavirus, save lives and strengthen the internal market's resilience. Concretely, the measures aim to better understand the virus' spread and the effectiveness of the response, ramp up well-targeted testing, bolster contact tracing, improve preparations for vaccination campaigns, and maintain access to essential supplies such as vaccination equipment, while keeping all goods moving in the single market and facilitating safe travel.

The Commission stressed that testing is a decisive tool to slow down the spread of the coronavirus. To promote a common approach and effective testing, it once again recommended the use of rapid antigen tests. But key elements are to be considered for national, regional or local testing strategies, such as their scope, priority groups, and key points linked to testing capacities and resources. To directly purchase rapid antigen tests and deliver them to Member States, the Commission is mobilising €100m under the Emergency Support Instrument.

The Commission is also stressing the importance of contact tracing and warning apps, which help to break transmission chains. So far, Member States have developed 19 national contact tracing and warning apps, downloaded more than 52 million times. The Commission recently launched a solution for linking national apps across the EU through a “European Federation Gateway Service”. Three national apps (from Germany, Ireland and Italy) were first linked on 19 October when the system came online. Many more will follow in the coming weeks. In total, 17 national apps are currently based on decentralised systems and can become interoperable.

The EU executive also admits that clear communication is essential for the public health response to be successful since this largely depends on the public adherence to health recommendations. All Member States should relaunch communication campaigns to counter false, misleading and dangerous information that continues to circulate, and to address the risk of “pandemic fatigue”. Vaccination is a specific area where public authorities need to step up their actions to tackle misinformation and secure public trust, as there will be no compromise on safety or effectiveness under Europe's robust vaccine authorisation system.

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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