Health ministers squabble over face masks at coronavirus talks
EU health ministers want solidarity when it comes to the response to coronavirus — but don’t mess with their face masks!
Tensions between big EU members such as Germany and France and their smaller counterparts was palpable at a meeting of health ministers in Brussels on Friday meant to coordinate the response to the deadly outbreak.
Germany has banned exports of face masks and other protective equipment and the French government decided to take over production of protective masks earlier this week. Italy, the worst hit country in Europe, doesn’t allow exports of protective equipment without prior authorization from its civil protection authorities, and the Czech Republic asked local producers of masks to keep supplies within the country, Health Minister Adam Vojtěch said.
Such moves have caused anger.
Belgian Health Minister Maggie De Block said these measures are impeding suppliers from delivering to other countries as part of existing contracts. “I want to insist that we [don’t] overreact to this health threat by imposing export bans on personal protective equipment as have done some among us,” she said.
Her counterparts from the Netherlands, Lithuania, Estonia and Austria, among others, echoed that call.
“In times of scarcity, it is even more important to show solidarity, especially within the EU,” Dutch Medical Care Minister Bruno Bruins said.
The three European Commission representatives at the meeting also insisted on solidarity — although they didn’t single out any countries for pulling in the opposite direction.
European Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides warned that countries keeping supplies only for themselves may need solidarity from other EU states later on.
Her crisis management colleague, Janez Lenarčič, went further, saying it was “non-European to close oneself within one national market.”
Most of the criticism seemed to be targeted at Germany, which also took fire from across the Atlantic on Thursday, with a White House official saying Germany’s restriction on equipment left the U.S. alone in the fight against the outbreak.
But German Health Minister Jens Spahn responded defiantly.
“The market is such at present that masks are not going where [they’re most] urgently needed, it’s where people pay most money for them,” he said. Germany asked the Commission to consider banning equipment exports outside the bloc, but took its own measure until that happens, even if it is “not perfect.”
He explained the German measure wasn’t a ban as such, as other countries could be given personal protective equipment upon request from German authorities. “If it is for a European neighbor country, it is more likely that we are going to say yes,” Spahn said after the meeting.
French Health Minister Olivier Véran said his country’s move to take control of mask production has helped the government know stock numbers, which wasn’t the case before. The requisitioning also avoided masks going to secondary markets, where they would be sold at much higher prices.
Spahn said in a long speech during the meeting that he understood why smaller members may feel like they were being bossed around by the EU’s big three during the epidemic.
But he said Italy, France and Germany have the highest number of cases in the EU — some 4,600, with the majority in Italy.
He warned that other countries could be in the same place in the future and “for that reason, I have to ask you to show your understanding in how we wish to proceed.”
Spahn appeared frustrated at times with the pace of action at the EU level, calling for measures to be adopted faster.
“We need to work more quickly when we adopt papers, take positions, adopt conclusions,” he said. “That is a lesson learned for all of us.”
A joint tender for protective equipment for 20 EU countries managed by the Commission took more than two weeks to be released despite many health ministers backing the idea at a Health Council meeting on February 13. This drew criticism from Vojtěch before the second extraordinary meeting.
Kyriakides said offers in response to the tender are expected on Monday, but some wondered if suppliers would be able to provide the equipment because of the restrictions imposed by some countries.
The timeline for what happens after the applications for the tender come in seems to be up in the air. Belgium’s De Block asked how long would it take to decide which offer to accept, without receiving a clear answer.
Meanwhile, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton told ministers exponential demand for protective equipment puts supply chains to the test. “I will invite the representatives of the industry to discuss about the current state of the market and the possible measures to help them respond adequately to the challenge and in a coordinated way,” he said. That meeting is expected to take place next week.
Talking about talking
Other ministers weren’t as pointed or lengthy in their criticism as Spahn, but did push for more EU action and harmony.
One proposal, from Greece, Portugal and Germany, was to create a digital platform for countries to put in-real-time updates about the political decisions being taken.
Currently, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) updates on the number of cases each day, but what about the politics involved, Greek Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias asked.
“It’s a pity to find out about each others’ politics through newspapers and sites,” he said.
Belgium’s De Block said that when one country shuts down schools (as happened in Italy), people turn to ministers in another country and ask whether they’re going to do the same. She called for national authorities to give their EU counterparts a heads-up before they make these kinds of decisions.
ECDC boss Andrea Ammon said that the EU’s Early Warning and Response System has what’s known as an incident management module where all these measures could be listed.
Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza boasted about the work his government has done so far and offered to share the lessons learned with others.
“Italy thinks that it will be able to successfully overcome this [epidemic] thanks to a good cooperation between science and politics,” he said.
Judith Mischke contributed reporting.