Several transparency issues during COVID could have been avoided, says EU watchdog

Emily O'Reilly, a former journalist and broadcaster, became Ireland's first female Ombudsman in 2003. She has been European Ombudsman since July 2013. [European Parliament]

The EU response to COVID-19 has been a balancing act between being fast and being transparent. European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly tells EURACTIV about the issues she has looked into and what to consider for next time.

When the cases of COVID-19 began to rise in Europe, contradicting information and differing recommendations made it challenging to know the best way to protect yourself from the virus.

We still did not know exactly how it spread, if masks actually made a difference, and what the consequences of becoming infected could mean for our health and our family and friends.

This was partly what prompted O’Reilly to launch a strategic inquiry into the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in July 2020.

In an interview with EURACTIV, she recalled how the early advice changed often and that “there was a reluctance to go back on the advice they had given” and admit they were wrong.

“[The ECDC] really wasn’t well placed at the beginning of the crisis to do what people would have imagined [based on] its title,” O’Reilly said.

According to her, the EU’s infectious disease agency was set up in another time and spun as something that would help the member states coordinate their responses to future pandemics or epidemics.

“But the problem was that it didn’t — and still doesn’t — have the power to compel the member states to give it information, [despite the recent] changes to its mandate,” she added, saying that for them to live up to their name fully, it would require a treaty change and extended EU competences in health.

The inquiry into the ECDC was followed by a range of strategic initiatives, which are less extensive than inquiries, into the European Medicines Agency (EMA), the European Commission, the Council and the European Investment Bank (EIB), reminding them of their obligations to uphold transparency measures in the way they worked and the information given to the general public.

Even though we have come a long way since the early days of the coronavirus, transparency issues are still being brought up. Most recently, a group of five MEPs have modified their legal case against the Commission to gain full access to the vaccine contracts and information about the prices, advance payments, liabilities and donations.

Simultaneously, O’Reilly is looking into how money from the Recovery and Resilience Facility is spent and why the Commission denied a journalist access to text messages between Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla sent during the time of negotiating vaccine contracts.

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Unnecessary darkness

While conscious of the speed at which EU institutions and agencies had to act, O’Reilly and her office stumbled upon issues which could have been handled differently to avoid scepticism.

This included how home-working requirements suddenly meant that internal meetings and meetings with lobbyists were not recorded as they should be. It also included the heavily debated negotiations on vaccine contracts.

“The Commission refused to name the seven-member states who were involved [in the negotiations of the advanced purchase agreements with vaccine producers],” O’Reilly said, mentioning that they were eventually released.

“We were very puzzled by that because I thought it would have been helpful for the Commission,” she added.

In the beginning, when the whole issue around the contracts was contested and the Commission was being criticised, it would have been useful for people to know that it was not just the Commission negotiating but member states as well, according to O’Reilly: it would have taken about 30 seconds to write the names of these countries down and that “there was nothing at risk” by doing this.

Following the negotiations about the vaccine contracts, criticism was directed toward the Commission for not publishing the contracts. Eventually, they did but redacted large chunks of the text because of commercial sensitivity.

“I do not know what’s there. My experience of administrations is generally that they tend to be very conservative and that the heavens do not fall when they release documents,” she said, referencing cases through her many years as an Ombudsman in both the EU and Ireland.

She says the procedures on not releasing documents come down to the culture in the administration. In this one, they deal with “multiple cultures in relation to transparency.”

“[At the same time] they’re governed by the same laws and the same treaty. The treaty allows access to documents. It’s a fundamental right. Unless there’s a very, very good reason not to use it and sometimes that is forgotten.”

“We all have the right as European citizens to take part in the democratic Union. We can’t do that if we don’t know what’s going on. It’s very simple.”

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Advice for future pandemics

“Time will tell” how the EU came through the pandemic in terms of transparency and accountability. That being said, O’Reilly is convinced that the handling of the vaccine contracts could have been done better, and more information should have been released at an earlier time.

“The more transparent you are (…), the more you’re able to help people to trust and take the vaccine if they still choose [to do so],” she said, referencing the vaccine hesitancy seen in many places.

“Transparency isn’t just an abstract thing. It has real-world consequences. So people could see the contracts, be reassured that everything was done properly [and] that nothing was hidden,” she added.

For O’Reilly, people would be more likely to do what their administrations asked them to do “because people were asked to do extremely difficult things during COVID.”

For future pandemics we may or may not experience, O’Reilly said it is crucial to “be honest with people about what [the EU administration] does and what they can do.” Especially in the case of the ECDC, which did not have the mandate to act in the way EU citizens would expect them to do.

She also recommended looking at the gaps in our health infrastructure and more transparency surrounding talks taking place in the context of these issues, like with the recovery funds and the vast sums of money being channelled into different areas to everyone can monitor the use of the funds.

Health brief: Transparency in COVID contracts

The EU response to the COVID-19 pandemic had to happen fast, but critics quickly highlighted the lack of transparency – especially with the vaccine contracts. These critics are not done fighting.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna/Alice Taylor]

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