Could we be moving towards an enhanced EU healthcare strategy, asks Deirdre Clune.
The European Commission has announced a €750bn rescue package to support the recovery of the European Union from Covid-19. If agreed by all member states it is intended that this fund will support a sustainable recovery that restores and enhances growth across the EU.
One element of the Commission proposal is the creation of a new standalone EU4Health programme with a budget of €9.4bn. It will invest in prevention, crisis preparedness, the procurement of vital medicines and equipment, as well as improving long-term health outcomes.
In a recent survey in Europe, two-thirds of respondents said that “the EU should have more competences to deal with crises such as the Coronavirus pandemic”.
Results showed Ireland was one of the countries that agreed most with this statement. In responding to the pandemic, European citizens wanted the EU to focus primarily on ensuring sufficient medical supplies for all EU Member States, on allocating research funds to develop a vaccine, direct financial support to Member States and improving scientific co-operation between Member States.
Primary responsibility for health protection, healthcare systems and medical care lies with the individual member states. However, the EU does have a role to play in improving public health and this has evolved over the years particularly as a response to the free movement of people and goods in the internal market.
This move required the coordination of public health issues with a particular focus on health, safety and consumer protection preventing and managing diseases, reducing danger to human health and harmonising health strategies across the EU.
The setting up of a number of specialised agencies improved the EU dimension of public health. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) in 1995 facilitates the development and access to medicine, evaluates application for market access, monitors the safety of medicines across their lifecycle and provides information to healthcare professionals and patients.
The European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) was set up in 2005, its mission to identify, assess and communicate current and emerging threats to human health posed by infectious diseases. It works in partnership with national health protection agencies across the EU to strengthen disease surveillance and early warning systems.
The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), set up in 2002, provides independent scientific advice to decision-makers regulating food safety in Europe, covering all aspects of the food chain, from field to fork.
Other developments such as the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC) and the Cross border Healthcare Directive allow European citizens to access healthcare in another member state.
So, are we to move towards an enhanced EU healthcare strategy? Last month the European Parliament adopted a resolution which called for more solidarity in the health sector.
We called for a substantial strengthening of the competences, budget and staff of the ECDC and the EMA so that they can coordinate medical responses in times of crisis.
The Parliament wants to see the establishment of a European Health Response Mechanism to better prepare and respond in a coordinated way to any type of health or sanitary crisis that emerges at EU level.
We want to see this mechanism function as an information hub as well as an emergency response unit to deliver vital supplies, medical equipment and medical staff to regions experiencing a sudden surge in infections. This type of rapid response capacity is essential given, as we now know, the potential for worldwide epidemics and given the threat of bioterrorism.
There was some criticism of the EU’s slow response at the start of the Covid-19 epidemic but since then the Commission has moved on a number of fronts to contain the spread of the disease and support national healthcare systems.
The EU has joined forces with other global partners to host an international pledging function to attract funds and develop a universal deployment of diagnostics, treatments and vaccines against the virus.
So far €7.4bn has been raised and the European Commission has pledged €1.4bn. Funding has also been provided to EU research projects to develop new treatments and tests.
€3bn has been provided to create an emergency stockpile of medical equipment, including personal protective equipment, ventilators and therapeutics to support member states and transport medical equipment and patients across borders.
Programs are now in place to ramp up the production of masks, PPE, hand sanitisers and disinfectants and ensure an adequate supply for EU healthcare needs in an effort to reduce dependence on supplies from other jurisdictions.
The European Green Deal will have a direct impact on health through its strategy and its ambition for zero pollution. Last week the Commission proposed the Farm to Fork strategy which set out to ensure sustainable food production and processing and promote a shift to healthy diets.
When this crisis has passed and we move to a world where we live with Covid, we will want to see increased European action.
This action must utilise and co-ordinate our resources and our expertise in medicine and science to ensure we protect all Europeans in a world where we want to move freely and meet family and friends.
Deirdre Clune is an Ireland South MEP