MEP: COVID-19 was a harsh lesson but we came out with a common approach

Nicolae Stefanuta at the Plenary. State of play of the implementation of the EU Digital Covid Certificate regulations. [Fred MARVAUX/EP]

Patient access to the same high standards of care should be at the core of the re-thinking process of health systems after the pandemic, according to Romanian Liberal MEP Nicolae Ștefănuță.

The way health was seen before the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted drastically, and the EU is now trying to turn the lessons learned from the pandemic into better preparedness for the future health crisis.

“Go back two years, and you will see very few people thinking of a possible pandemic occurring in the near future,” Ștefănuță told EURACTIV in an interview.

He added that there was a false sense of confidence at the EU level coming from politicians and experts, mainly due to the previous overreaction to the 2009 influenza H1N1 pandemic.

“This way, we have seen a reversal of some policies that were adopted at the EU level, like common stockpiling of medicine and medical equipment,” he said.

At the beginning of 2020, Ștefănuță was assigned as the rapporteur from the liberal group Renew Europe on the Union Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM) file.

“My job there was to get support from my colleagues to push for a common stockpile of emergency equipment, including medicine and medical equipment, but unfortunately, my amendments failed to gather sufficient support in the ENVI committee,” he explained.

According to Ștefănuță, it resulted that following the panic that accompanied the spread of COVID-19 in Lombardy, Italy, there was a genuine need to have a common basket of medicine and medical equipment at the European level.

The lack of a common approach was “the biggest drawback in EU preparedness”, said Ștefănuță. “When panic erupted, there was no common response from the 27 member states, and everyone was implementing ad-hoc restrictions, which led to a total breakup of internal movement of goods and citizens,” he said.

Ștefănuță added that “it was at that moment when we understood that it was vital for the EU institutions to play a central role in dealing with common crises.”

Therefore, the Commission reviewed the initial UCPM legislation and proposed a more robust version that included the creation of emergency stockpiles, amongst other measures, to consolidate the mechanism further.

“The COVID-19 was a harsh lesson for us all,” he said, adding that, as a response to future cross-border health crises, the Commission, in collaboration with the Parliament and the Council, has embarked on an overhaul of EU health policies to build a European Health Union.

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European Health Union needs to unite East and West

In her 2020 State of the Union address on Europe, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke of the need to draw lessons from the current crisis and build a European Health Union.

In November 2020, the Commission put forward proposals to strengthen the EU’s health security framework and reinforce key EU agencies’ crisis preparedness and response roles.

The aim is that all EU countries prepare and respond together to health crises and diseases such as cancer. That also includes medical supply availability and affordability across the bloc.

“By acting together, through European solidarity, we can overcome possible future crises such as natural disasters, external aggressions, or a next possible pandemic,” Ștefănuță said.

He added that to make the European Health union successful, gaps between East and West need to be lowered, “hence standardising treatment protocols and access to innovative medical care”.

One of the key initiatives in the EU’s health union aims to consolidate existing EU health agencies like the infectious disease agency (ECDC) or the European medicines authority (EMA).

The European Court of Auditors highlighted the urgent need to reshape the EU health agencies and reorient resources towards new priorities in a recent report.

Plans stepped up a gear with the announcement that the Parliament and the Council have agreed at the end of October to strengthen the EMA’s role to avoid potential future shortages of medicines and medicines devices.

Another key initiative focuses on proposing new instruments to deal with unpredictable cross-border health threats, such as the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA).

HERA was launched in September by the Commission to complete the European Health Union and will become a key actor in strengthening Europe’s ability to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to cross-border health emergencies.

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Digitalisation and more

Pooling expertise and funding from all member states “to avoid duplication of work” is another crucial element to make the health union successful, Ștefănuță pointed out.

“Thus, we have to build trans-European health capacities as well as to integrate different health digital infrastructures as the key to ensure better preparedness for future health crises,” the lawmaker said.

EU programs like EWRS (Early Warning and Response System) need to be updated to work with the latest technologies and be efficiently used by member states to ask for and coordinate assistance.

Another important development is the common European Health Data space, one of the priorities of the Commission 2019-2025. Ștefănuță called digital transformation “the next big thing on the agenda.”

“I envision that soon, patients will have unrestricted access to their digital health records and be able to share them with different medical practitioners, regardless of their country or the place they wish to travel to or to settle in, through the consolidation of an EU integrated Health Data Space,” the MEP said.

He added that a common European Health Data Space should promote better exchange and access to different types of health data, supporting healthcare delivery and health research and policy-making.

“This pandemic has shed light on all the holes in our intertwined and complex European health system. It is my strong belief that only with a common approach, via a Health Union, we can deal decisively with current or future cross-border health threats,” Ștefănuță concluded.

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[Edited by Alice Taylor]

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