An-depth report from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has lifted the lid on what it says was the confusion within the EU over the Covid-19 pandemic that led to the crisis gripping many of its nations.
The investigation – Crisis in the Commission: Inside Europe’s Response to the Coronavirus Outbreak – reveals how ‘despite assurances throughout January and February that Europe was successfully containing the virus, it had silently taken hold of the continent and officials were beginning to realise that a larger crisis was looming.’
The investigation reveals how vital PPE was sent to China just days before the alarm bells were wrung in Europe that it was facing its own pandemic. Stockpiles of PPE in Europe had been destroyed or were out of date and had not been replaced, the investigation reveals.
The report also outlines how cooperation between nations broke down as government prioritised their own needs.
“On 17 January the first coronavirus conference call was held by the European commission’s health security committee, comprising representatives from various ministries of health. Just 12 – fewer than half – of the 27 member states, plus the UK, phoned in,” outlined the report.
The investigation also revealed:
- The UK and France shared information about what they were doing at their airports. But there was no update from the Italian government, because the representative didn’t see the email inviting him to discussions.
- Although governments were required to tell the health security committee before implementing measures, an obligation they were reminded of on multiple occasions, action was taken in some cases without informing neighbours. Committee members were stymied by the format and length of the meetings – typically only an hour with about 100 people attending – which limited the amount of communication and cooperation possible.
- In the months and years before coronavirus arrived in Europe, stocks of PPE had dwindled. Emergency supplies of masks had expired, been destroyed and never replaced. Pandemic preparedness plans were out of date.
- Several European countries had a strategic stock of masks that were outdated. France, for example, held 1.7 billion protective masks in 2011, but had only 117 million at the outbreak of the pandemic. Between January and March this year it burnt 1.5 million. In 2017, Belgium ordered the destruction of 38 million masks. They were never replaced.
- European countries imposed restrictions on the export of key medical supplies to neighbours. On 3 March, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, announced that he was requisitioning “all stocks and the production of protective masks”. The next day, the German government banned the export of PPE, despite the health minister Jens Spahn saying three weeks earlier that there was “little point in taking unilateral measures”. The spirit of cooperation had evaporated, and with it, the hope of a coordinated European response.
- The Belgian and Dutch governments bought up the ingredients to make key drugs and delivering them to hospitals to be produced on-site. With a limited supply of these ingredients in Europe, this hamstrung efforts by the pharmaceutical industry to increase the manufacture of medicines needed to treat the most severe coronavirus cases.
“In less than two months, Europe went from blithely calling the virus a “Chinese problem” to being described as the “epicentre” of the global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO). The coronavirus shook the foundations of European solidarity and proved to be the greatest collective crisis faced by the continent since the Second World War,” says the report.