Former top health official calls for EU to step up on health issues

COVID-19 crisis has put the healthcare system as the top priority not only for the citizens but also for the EU institutions. [Jacob Lund / SHUTTERSTOCK]

*Corrects Xavier Prats Monne’s title to director-general for DG SANTE

Health stakeholders, including a former top European Commission health official, are calling for the EU to play a more active role on health issues to ensure that action taken during the pandemic continues to be built upon in the future.

The comments come on the back of a new report, published on Monday (17 May), which found that improving healthcare tops the list of societal priorities in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report is an EU health special edition of the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021. Based on data from 33,000 people from 28 countries, including six EU countries, between October and November of 2020, the report found that improving healthcare is seen as a number one priority in 26 out of 28 countries.

But the trust in the healthcare system has been shaky over the past few months, the survey revealed.

While in May of 2020, trust in the healthcare systems in 11 countries reached 76%, the 2020 “spring trust bubble” for the healthcare system burst in January 2021, when the figure dropped by 11 percentage points to 65%.

Meanwhile, globally trust in the healthcare system was found to fall by 1 percentage point from 2020 to 2021.

Speaking at an event to mark the launch of the report, Xavier Prats Monne, former director-general of the Comission’s DG SANTE, said that the prioritising of the healthcare system should come as no surprise given the current circumstances.

“Can you imagine a better argument for a European Health Union than COVID-19? Probably not,” he said. 

Stressing that health is “our most basic right”, Milka Sokolovic, director-general of European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), highlighted that it is no surprise that “we expect the EU to play a more active role in protecting [health], particularly from the threats that transcend national borders.”

However, Monne warned that EU citizens “expect that institutions work and focus only on issues that matter to citizens. And they focus only on issues where the EU has actual legal powers”. He went on to explain that healthcare was traditionally national or even sub-national competence.

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When the COVID-19 crisis hit the EU, the only legal instrument to address cross-border issues was the European Council decision on serious cross-border threats to health from 2013. 

“That means the lowest possible kind of legal instrument, it was certainly below the radar of political level, and certainly not for the purpose to address the crisis,” Monne pointed out. 

In response, the Commission came up with multiple proposals for how to better address the health crisis.

This included upgrading the capacity of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), launching an online public consultation on the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), giving a legislative proposal to establish a European biomedical research and development agency (BARDA) and working on health data space.

Any of these measures would have been “unthinkable” prior to the crisis, the former EU health Commissioner pointed out.

However, Monne said that the measures alone are not enough to ensure stronger healthcare systems, stressing the “magnitude” of the task ahead. 

“The success of the response for a stronger European Union depends on two factors, how long the memory of policymakers is, and how much trust there is between them,” he said highlighting that it is essential to “strengthen the willingness of policymakers to act” for preventing future crisis. 

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[Edited by Natasha Foote/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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