EU seeks to co-ordinate easing of lockdown measures

European Commission publishes recommendations on how to lift restrictions

President of European Commission Ursula von der Leyen: next European budget must be “the European answer to the corona crisis”. Photograph: John Thys

President of European Commission Ursula von der Leyen: next European budget must be “the European answer to the corona crisis”. Photograph: John Thys

 

The European Commission has published guidelines on how to ease out of lockdown restrictions as a series of European Union member states began announcing the reopening of some shops, schools and businesses.

But it warned that targeted restrictions and hygiene precautions are likely to remain a feature of life until a vaccine for the disease is widely available, which is not expected for at least 12-18 months.

“This roadmap is not a signal that containment measures can be lifted as of now but intends to provide a frame for member state decisions,” said commission president Ursula von der Leyen after the launch of the guidelines in Brussels.

“In general, we recommend a gradual approach and every action should be continuously monitored.”

The EU’s executive arm is keen to encourage co-ordination between member states to avoid a repeat of the chaotic scenes that ensued last month when countries began closing their borders without consulting their neighbours, disrupting trade and leaving citizens stranded as they tried to get home.

There is also an awareness that countries that share open borders need to take consistent action against the disease in order for their measures to be effective. The commission recommends that non-essential travel outside the EU should continue to be restricted, and be subject to review, but advises that borders between member states should be open if the disease is at a similar level of prevalence on either side.

Inevitable increase

The paper notes that an increase in infections is inevitable once restrictions are eased, and that lockdowns may need to be reimposed if the disease begins to spread.

“A gradual rollback of confinement measures will unavoidably lead to an increase in new cases of infection with the coronavirus and a possible reintroduction of restrictive measures,” it reads.

Any decision to ease restrictions should be based on evidence that there has been a sustained drop in cases, and should only be done if countries have the capacity to monitor whether infections increase and if their healthcare systems have the ability to cope if the disease bounces back, it states.

The guidelines set out a suite of measures that would allow any further outbreaks of the disease to remain localised, meaning blanket national lockdowns could be replaced with targeted regional measures.

These measures include massively increased testing with results reported quickly, consistent collection and sharing of data, contact tracing through mobile phone apps, increased capacity of healthcare systems and greater stocks of of personal protective equipment.

The commission believes that the only permanent way out of the crisis is the development of a vaccine and has encouraged all states to help fast track development. It has made funding available to help scientists find one and to develop effective treatments of the disease in the mean time.

Economic recovery

Ahead of a meeting by EU finance ministers next week, European Council president Charles Michel said the bloc’s next long-term budget would raise funds to sponsor economic recovery after the pandemic, which is forecast to cause a downturn of historic proportions.

Leaders and governments will discuss a reworking of plans for the 2021-27 EU joint budget during a videoconference summit on April 23rd, after struggles to agree on how to make up for the loss of Britain’s contribution prevented agreement on a common budget earlier this year.

Member states have since been divided on the issue of how to fund a recovery, as northern states rebuffed a push by Ireland and eight other member states for the issuance of joint debt obligations in so-called euro bonds or corona bonds.

Ms von der Leyen said the next European budget “has to be the European answer to the corona crisis.

“A European budget that with all its might is able to leverage the necessary money for a huge investment initiative . . . in order to really restart the economic process,” she said.

“We’re not talking about a billion [euro].”