BRUSSELS – Fearing a possible shortage in masks and protective equipment to fight the new coronavirus, top European Union officials are urging members to put solidarity above national interests as the virus spreads quickly across the continent.
Speaking Friday after an urgent meeting in Brussels of health ministers from the 27-country bloc, crisis management commissioner Janez Lenarcic said EU nations are entitled to restrict exports of medical equipment but warned that such decisions could compromise the EU's ability to manage the growing COVID-19 virus crisis.
While Italy is the hardest-hit country in Europe, with 197 deaths and over 4,600 cases, more than 6,470 infections have been recorded across the bloc. The epidemic has been spreading at a quicker pace over the past two weeks, leading the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) to raise the risk of coronavirus infection from moderate to high.
“Preparedness has to be enhanced still further because simply it is more probable that what we have now in Italy will happen elsewhere in Europe,” Lenarcic said.
The last time EU health ministers met, on Feb. 13, no virus deaths had been reported in Europe. Now the EU has seen 211 deaths, with the Netherlands announcing its first death on Friday.
In response to the outbreak, Germany and other countries including the Czech Republic have banned the export of medical equipment such as respiratory masks, gloves and protective suits. As contagion fears have led to shortages of face masks and sanitising gels, French President Emmanuel Macron's government is requisitioning all current and future stocks of protective masks.
Lenarcic said the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm, would support such temporary measures only if they help the bloc's common cause, regulate the market, avoid price hikes and do not “favor one member state at the expense of others."
“That would undermine our common approach to this crisis," Lenarcic said.
Europe largely relies on China and India for drugs and protective equipment. German Health Minister Jens Spahn said Germany and others asked the Commission to implement a ban on exporting protective masks and clothing to third countries.
Spahn argued there should be economic incentives for companies to produce pharmaceutical products in Germany, which might mean having to pay more for generic medicines.
He also urged EU neighbors such as Britain, Switzerland, Norway and Serbia to be invited to future meetings on fighting the virus “because this is not about just the European Union, this is about Europe.”
Czech Health Minister Adam Vojtech said the Commission should speed up the joint procurement process it launched last month that allows the EU to buy urgent medical supplies and distribute them to members.
“We don't have enough protective masks," Vojtech said. “(Also) a third of the world's production of drugs is located in China and also in India."
Croatian Health Minister Vili Beros, who chaired the meeting, said the right of free movement in the EU should be protected and insisted that members be allowed to decide on their own virus-fighting strategies because they face different situations.
Italy, for instance, has closed all schools and universities and barred fans from all sports events for the next few weeks. But in neighboring France, the Paris-Nice bike race will go ahead this weekend and soccer games will still be played in Belgium.
“A uniform concept might not be good," he said "We also have different health care resources, different border situations. However we do need to talk, share our experience and best practices.”
On the national front, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.K. will face a “substantial period of disruption” from the new coronavirus as cases rose to 163.
Macron visited a retirement home in Paris to reassure both the elderly and health workers about France’s readiness to combat the spread of the virus.
“The priority of the nation is to protect our elderly people. We must do it with responsibility, common sense, measures of discipline and without any panic," Macron said.
French infections rose Friday to 577 while cases in Germany hit 545 and Belgium reached 109.
Geir Moulson in Berlin and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen contributed to this report.
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