Can the UK afford to ignore what the EU is doing on Covid-19? Or will it gradually try to join in with its ambitious plans for the future?
Opening pubs at 6am was another U-turn for the government. But it didn’t deflect attention from it casually letting drop that the UK would participate in EU action on Covid-19 vaccine procurement. Whatever the reason behind the change of mind, this is a wise move. The EU is prioritising the development of a robust health strategy for the next five years. This is a welcome development, as solidarity and cooperation across the EU has become a matter of life and death. The member governments have shown that sticking to national silos is not the answer to a cross-border virulent killer.
So what is proposed? The EU’s covid strategy is designed to contain the virus, counter socio-economic pandemic impacts and support national and international responses. This requires political will and vision, coupled with major investment in the future.
The EU Commission has put forward a €2.4tn recovery plan designed to make the EU a strong, climate neutral, digitally advanced and socially responsible global player. A youth employment support scheme has been announced as a bridge to future-proofing vocational education and training. Critics across the EU want more and see now as an opportunity to completely re-think and re-define priorities in the light of the pandemic and citizens’ daily needs. This is the first step towards that and getting everyone to agree is not going to be straightforward.
However, as a start, a €750bn ‘next generation EU’ recovery instrument has been designed, based on the EU using new funds raised through the financial markets and re-purposing existing funds. €1,100bn is earmarked for a reinforced long-term budget for 2021–27.
A further €15.9bn has been raised in pledges under the EU’s coronavirus global response initiative organised by the EU Commission and Global Citizen – this will support universal access to tests, treatments and vaccines, and aid global recovery. Some €11.9bn of this came from member governments who are convinced that EU solidarity is essential. The virus – much like fish, pollution and many other things – doesn’t stop at political lines on a map.
It is striking that the slogan for the new EU German presidency is ‘Together for Europe’s Recovery’. The idea is that the EU should be a catalyst for modernisation across the board, in order to build resilience and enhance the EU’s ability to respond to and manage crises. The principles of EU solidarity are therefore reinforced by making a reality of its long-held commitment to being ‘united in diversity’, by showing that it is also united in adversity.
There are four pillars to the EU’s covid crisis response:
- tackling health and emergencies;
- building the economy;
- backing research and funding; and
- ensuring a coordinated exit from lockdown and the virus.
A major concern for the EU is making sure that equipment is sent to where it’s needed. Member states have agreed that this will be coordinated via joint procurement to increase the efficiency of buying and deploying supplies. The UK sees the value in this and has given it as the key reason for why we have now chosen to cooperate.
EU joint action doesn’t replace what member states do, but seeks to boost their response, including by directly part-funding their health systems. With an eye to maximising what is achievable, cross-border research is funded and there is a genuine commitment to facilitating and promoting expert advice. The fact that political decisions must be taken is acknowledged, but there seems to be far greater respect for making policy that is informed and led by relevant expertise.
This is in contrast to the shambolic approach taken so far by the British government, which has dissed experts, indulged in blame-shifting, avoided the high-quality research and testing facilities available in and offered by UK universities and the NHS, and scrambled around issuing ad hoc £108m contracts willy-nilly to all kinds of private companies. My colleague Anthony Robinson has been covering the story about private contracts with his latest article HERE.
More from Juliet Lodge:
- Before freedom of movement
- Government U-turn in track and trace fiasco?
- COVID-19 crisis: UK dogma vs EU solidarity
The EU is now relying on what it calls ‘solidarity in action’. This entails stockpiling medical equipment, deploying EU medical expertise and ensuring that EU members help each other. At the most basic level, this means ensuring that goods and people are not obstructed in getting to where they need to be: green lanes to speed up goods crossing borders and help to enable cross-border workers get to work.
There is a sense of urgency about delivering a response that looks beyond the immediate crisis. The EU has drawn on unspent ‘cohesion’ funds, and made possible transfers between funds, to re-set policy priorities with reference to its overarching ambitions of a green, digital future.
Accordingly, a more integrated cross-sectoral approach is seen as essential. Artificial intelligence (AI) technologies will be mobilised to support transforming public health, medicine and biomedical cross-border research. These will draw on AI applications to tackle Covid-19 and be used for combating future infectious outbreaks as well as real-time tracking, predicting new clusters, searching drug databases and helping expedite diagnostics such as CT scans. The EU is also acting to maximise what artificial intelligence can do to help identify and stop social media rumours and disinformation. As this inevitably requires more resources, existing budgetary resources have been tweaked.
The UK has now abandoned its somewhat farcical approach to developing a smartphone covid-tracking app, and decided to adopt one being used in other EU states. Whatever happens, it is unlikely the UK will manage to do anything progressive and appropriately responsive to public health in future without working with the EU. The pandemic is teaching the UK government one of the cruellest and sharpest lessons yet – of the need to work together and the vulnerability of isolation.