They say women are from Venus and men are from Mars, but you have to wonder where certain UK government ministers are from. Judging from the disingenuous replies and petulance on display at the Covid inquiry, the answer may as well be ‘the dark side of the moon’.
Right from the start, the UK’s response to the pandemic seemed chaotic. The public was repeatedly told that the government was ‘following the science’. Yet this claim has been dismissed by expert medical witnesses who seem nonplussed by the apparent inability of those in charge to grasp some basic statistical concepts. Unsurprisingly, the inquiry confirms an impression of a befuddled Cabinet, largely in thrall to one of the prime minister’s senior advisers, and captivated by the lure of grandiose PPE contracts.
What’s more surprising has been the discovery that the Cabinet wasn’t only cocooned in Westminster – rather, it would appear to have been ensconced on the dark side of the moon, unable to hear or see anything about how other countries around the globe were managing the health crisis. Had it bothered to look, it might have learned something, at the time and in the many months since the pandemic. In contrast to the UK, the EU – that favourite target of derision by the former PM – met criticism by swiftly learning lessons; lessons which the UK has still failed to recognise.
Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority
While successive UK governments were sleeping or dithering, the EU took steps to boost its response to such crises.
Over two years ago, on 16 September 2021, it set up the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA), whose mission is to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to health emergencies. Currently the Commission is running a consultation calling for evidence and views from the public, as well as professional bodies, to inform its review of how well HERA is working. It is assessing what might need to change to ensure that it can deliver crisis-relevant medical countermeasures in the event of any public health emergency, supplementing action by member governments in a fair and open way.
The review will also look at how HERA’s work at EU level complements that of other EU bodies, including Commission departments like DG SANTE, DG ECHO, and EU agencies such as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) (set up in 2005 when the UK was in the EU, and which provides scientific advice to the EU and member governments) and the European Medicines Agency that the UK used to host pre-Brexit, and which subsequently re-located to Amsterdam from London.
The Commission will consider the value of HERA as a distinct body and critically appraise obstacles, as well as the sufficiency of the HERA mandate to deliver efficiently on its objectives. Criticism from the public and stakeholders is welcomed to supplement interviews with members of the European Parliament and civil protection authorities, as well as input from anybody impacted by HERA’s work, such as national governments, healthcare professionals, patients, businesses, researchers and others in the international community.
How the EU quickly improved its response
When the pandemic broke, the EU was heavily criticised for its inability to act swiftly on associated health issues on behalf of its 26 member states. Disagreements among the various member governments played a part, but equally important was the absence of sufficient legal (treaty) basis to provide the legitimacy for the EU Commission to act on behalf of all.
In the event, attempts to improve this imperfect situation yielded swift results. Several options were considered, focused on pandemic recovery and improving the EU’s capacity to respond to crises in future. On 26 March 2020, Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated, “Let us do the right thing together – with one big heart, not 27 small ones”, as criticism mounted in the face of haphazard responses to Italy’s rising death toll. That key lesson learned in the early days of the pandemic underpins today’s priorities.
HERA was set up as a Commission service with the goal of “strengthening the EU’s ability to prevent, detect, and rapidly respond to cross-border health emergencies, by ensuring the development, manufacturing, stockpiling, procurement, and equitable distribution of key medical countermeasures (MCMs), such as medicines, vaccines, gloves or masks”.
On 21 December 2021, the Commission authorised BionTech and Pfizer’s vaccines following assessment of their effectiveness and quality by the European Medicines Agency. The Commission president confirmed that doses would be made immediately available to all EU countries on the same conditions.
The Commission also launched the free, Re-open EU mobile app, to provide comprehensive, current information on health, safety and travel measures in all EU states, as well as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland. The information was available in all 24 languages of the EU, using data from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control and from the member states themselves. Some 30 million downloads followed swiftly and the set-up cost for the app was lower than the UK’s Test & Trace app.
Action on many frontsc
The Commission took a number of other steps to improve the overall situation as regards Covid:
- It acted to counter disinformation and foreign interference.
- It promoted a coordinated approach to managing the airborne virus in the winter months (such as air ‘scrubber’ units in schools, airing rooms, and using strong personal protective equipment and FP2 face masks, not then widely recommended in the UK).
- It disbursed short-term funds to help sustain jobs under the SURE programme, also currently subject to online public consultation.
- It opened a dedicated webpage on the Cohesion Open Data platform to show how EU cohesion policy provided states with Covid support.
- It adopted a pharmaceutical strategy to ensure everyone could access the newest and most affordable medicines, and to make the sector more resilient and better prepared for future health crises.
- It assessed the prospects for economic contraction (7.8% in 2020 and growth of 3% in 2022).
- It promoted more efficient testing across the EU and pushed antigen testing in the hope of restoring freedom of movement and the internal market as soon as possible.
- It proposed strengthening the EU’s health policy to create a resilient health union.
- €1.8tn was earmarked for a budget and recovery plan, to build a greener, more digital, democratic and resilient EU known as NextGenerationEU, based around an unprecedented joint debt proposal and an EU provision rarely used until then that would allow the EU to borrow heavily on the financial markets.
A forward-looking agenda
The recovery plan, said von der Leyen, would help turn the challenge of the pandemic into an opportunity, led by the green and digital transition. UK ministers could, if they wished, readily find publicly available information that would offer valuable insights – but they would have to remove their Brexit blindfolds first.
Whether the public consultation will endorse HERA remains to be seen. But a key lesson that was clear way back in 2019 is how useful it is to have the organisational capacity to innovate swiftly in health emergencies, to provide an over-arching evaluation of what is needed and distribute limited resources fairly. This capacity is vital when governments need to resist the temptation to engage in political sniping: technical and more objective oversight at EU level adds perspective and coolheadedness.
So we might well ask, if our ministers were willing to peek out from behind the dark side of the moon, might they learn something from the EU about the value of cooperation in the name of, and for, the public good?