First European Parliament’s COVID committee meeting reveals broad scope of topics ahead

At the first meeting og the Special Committee on COVID-19 (COVI), MEPs had an exchange of views with Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety [European Union 2022 - Source : EP]

The first meeting of the European Parliament’s new COVID-19 committee (COVI) on Thursday (12 May) did not bring about any concrete results but revealed the broad range of topics MEPs wish to address in the quest to collect lessons learnt from the pandemic.

At the first COVI meeting, Chair Kathleen van Brempt welcomed Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, reassuring her that this would be just one of many invitations for her to debate with committee members.

“We are still very close to the crisis, so policymakers and experts who were there during the crisis, such as you Mrs Commissioner, are still in office. Today there are only seven health ministers in our member states who were in office at the beginning of the crisis. We will need all that expertise.” Brempt said during her opening statement.

The Parliament greenlighted the new special committee in March 2022  tasked with overseeing lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and making recommendations for the future. As with other special committees, the COVID-19 committee has been granted an initial mandate of 12 months, which can be prolonged if MEPs find it necessary.

Kyriakides declared her “full cooperation and support” to the committee’s work and kicked off the meeting by summarising the challenges encountered in pandemic management. These included a lack of preparedness and the fragility of national health systems to the current status of the pandemic and the catalogue of new health initiatives put forth by the Commission.

The Commissioner hailed the EU’s Vaccine Strategy from June 2020 as a “turning point” and said that “the success of this strategy was an existential question for our Union.”

“I do not even want to imagine a situation where some large member states may have had access to vaccines, while others did not, [and what that] would have meant for the future of the EU,” the commissioner said and proceeded to praise the EU Digital COVID certificate, the EU4Health Programme and, of course, the Health Union initiatives including the set-up of HERA.

“We must tackle these crises together. Europe is our safe harbour in the storm. Public health is no exception. I believe, collectively, we have learned this after a difficult beginning. The real test, however, will be the next crisis,” Kyriakides concluded.

Following the commissioner’s remarks, the debate turned into a whirlwind of topics by MEPs related to a broad range of issues surrounding the pandemic response.

New special committee on COVID-19 elects chair

Socialist MEP Kathleen Van Brempt was elected at a constitutive meeting on Tuesday (19 April). She will head up the work of the European Parliament’s new special COVID-19 committee, with the goal of better preparing the EU for future pandemics.

Concerns about how the EU institutions handled the pandemic

Several MEPs addressed the persisting vaccination gaps within the Union and the need to stay alert for a potential future wave of infections.

Greek centre-right MEP Stelios Kympouropoulos, European People’s Party (EPP), highlighted the need to close these vaccination gaps and step up work to detect new variants. Fellow liberal MEP Véronique Trillet-Lenoir asked what steps the Commission plans to take to fight the inequality in access to vaccination within the Union.

In her answer, Kyriakides reiterated the warning that there could be a sudden increase in COVID-19 infections again, which means we should be ready to act and reintroduce previous measures to curb future waves of the pandemic. She also reassured MEPs that work is ongoing to get more people vaccinated.

“I have visited a number of member states in order to [assess] the situation, and I can say that there is no one size fits all,” she said.

“The ECDC [European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control] has been on the ground in the member states where they have faced problems with the low vaccine uptake [in order] to work with their experts to address this issue,” Kyriakides added.

Other topics regarding the Commission’s management of the pandemic were raised, such as the level of transparency surrounding the COVID-19 vaccines contracts and the number of vaccines purchased.

MEPs approve new special committee on COVID-19

A new special committee to oversee lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and make recommendations for the future has been greenlighted by the European Parliament on Thursday (10 March).

To deal with the consequences of pandemic measures

Apart from how the EU institutions and agencies dealt with the pandemic, many of the debates in COVI will centre around the implications of the many measures and restrictions across EU member states to curb the pandemic.

“Persons with chronic or other critical diseases had their main treatments delayed or suspended. It is something we need to reflect on,” Kympouropoulos said. Later in the debate, Trillet-Lenoir made a similar point highlighting the delays in diagnosis and treatment for cancer patients.

Socialist MEP Sara Cerdas brought up the disproportionate effect of the pandemic on women, mentioning higher death rates and worse long-term consequences of infections with COVID. To this, Kyriakides assured members that it is crucial to “make sure we use everything possible to close the gaps that have been made even wider because of COVID”.

Other topics highlighted were the worsening mental health across the continent, the loss of biodiversity worldwide – which is believed to have been part of the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic – and the emerging evidence that air quality could have worsened the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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