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Experts warn EU capitals not to ease coronavirus rules for holidays

by editor

It’s pandemic pandemonium all over again.

Brussels has urged EU capitals to avoid a disjointed lifting of containment measures that could lead to a third wave of coronavirus infections, but countries are already moving ahead with their own plans to ease restrictions ahead of the winter holidays. Public health experts say that could be a big mistake that will ultimately lead to more deaths.

Austria is bickering with its neighbors — Germany, Italy and France — over whether to reopen ski resorts, and even if the EU agrees on a path forward, Switzerland — a non-EU country — still plans to reopen. Poland has opened up malls and shops. France is now allowing religious services with up to 30 people, with further relaxation of control measures planned by mid-December. Museums, cinemas and theaters are expected to reopen, and a curfew will replace a stay-at-home order.

Despite the moves to ease up, health authorities say the threat of further spreading the virus remains as dangerous as ever, especially with many hospitals and health systems overwhelmed. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s map still shows nearly all of the Continent an alarming deep red.  

“It really is dangerous and reckless to think that we’re on top of this,” said John Middleton, president of the Association of Schools of Public Health in the European Region.

Middleton said infection rates have decreased in many European countries — but only to October levels. Relaxing measures now, he added, “is just a recipe” for a rebound of cases in January.

Andrea Ammon, the ECDC director, issued a blunt warning during a video meeting of EU health ministers on Wednesday. “I would like to stress the epidemiological situation doesn’t give an indication that public health measures can be relaxed,” Ammon said. “We have looked into what this situation is like if the measures that have now been taken were lifted or eased by 21 December. What our projections say is that there would be a subsequent increase in hospital admissions as early as the first week of January. And if these measures are lifted earlier, like 7 December, an increase in hospital admissions could happen already over Christmas.”

EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides told the health ministers that the start of vaccine distribution should not lull governments into a false sense of security. “Until vaccines can be sufficiently deployed, measures to mitigate the spread of the virus must continue over the coming months and especially over the holiday period,” Kyriakides said.

“I understand the desire to ease these restrictions,” she added, noting that the Commission was issuing new recommendations. “More than 5,000 people still lose their lives every single day,” she said, or one every 17 seconds. “Today, we have proposed a tailored advice for the upcoming end of the year festive season for a safer end of the year, and I urge you to heed it. This is about a Christmas and the end of the year of respecting and saving lives.”

Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has implored EU leaders not to repeat the mistakes of last summer, and early fall, when premature reopenings led to a second wave far larger than the first. Despite all these pleas, however, capitals are once again going their own way.

Adding to the disarray, Hungary and Germany are signing their own deals for coronavirus vaccines — despite a much trumpeted EU-led joint purchasing program.

While societies have grown more accustomed to life — and death — with coronavirus, the number of fatalities is still staggering. In the U.K., some 16,000 people have died so far in the second wave, according to David Spiegelhalter, chair of the University of Cambridge’s Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication, though restrictions have lowered the fatality rates.

“Sadly, the prediction that the second wave would involve tens of thousands of COVID deaths looks like it will be fulfilled,” Spiegelhalter wrote in a statement to reporters. “And we can expect this second wave total to rise to over 20,000 by Christmas.”

Some EU countries are still acting with more caution. Belgium reopened businesses this week but has not yet decided if it will relax measures further before Christmas. In Spain, where November saw the second-highest monthly deaths from COVID after April, most coronavirus restrictions are expected to remain in place until the end of the year.

And despite repeated pledges by EU national officials to share scientific expertise and coordinate policies, countries are setting different limits on interpersonal contacts for the holidays. Poland says it will allow only immediate family members to celebrate Christmas together. Germany has said it will allow 10 people from different households to meet. Among Spanish authorities, there is debate and disagreement. National health officials have urged a limit on festive gatherings of six people, but some regions plan to allow up to 10 people per household.

Other long-term issues have yet to be sorted out. The Commission is pushing for wider use of rapid antigen tests, which some countries like Slovakia have already used at scale. Other countries, like the Netherlands, have been more cautious, as experts warn the quality of tests on the market differs widely. And countries still have not harmonized the amount of time recommended for quarantining or self-isolation after a potential contact risk.

The U.K. has shorted the quarantine time for travellers to five days provided a coronavirus test comes back negative.

The unheeded warnings from the Commission and experts come as Brussels is stepping up pressure on EU countries to transfer some legal authority over health policy to independent EU agencies as part of a proposed European Health Union. Currently, nearly all power over health rests in national capitals.

Many of the Commission’s proposals unveiled in mid-November are relatively modest. For example, the Commission wants to change the infectious disease agency’s mandate so it can issue recommendations to countries, rather than just provide summaries of facts and data, which national or local officials can interpret and act on as they see fit.

Another proposal would allow the EU’s medicines agency to monitor drug shortages in an emergency. Other recommendations — like allowing the Health Security Committee to make decisions that must be followed in the capitals — drew concern from countries during a health minister’s meeting Wednesday on the European Health Union.

Still, von der Leyen and other EU officials insist that it is crucial to plan ahead and get a framework in place for whatever might be the next health emergency. 

In a video prepared to mark the one-year anniversary since she took office, von der Leyen conceded that the EU had already learned some hard lessons. “We know it now,” she said. “The world was not prepared for such a pandemic.”

UPDATE: This article was amended on 2 December to clarify a quote from Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides on the death rate from COVID-19 in the EU.

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug pricing, EMA, vaccines, pharma and more, our specialized journalists keep you on top of the topics driving the health care policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a complimentary trial.

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