As stated by the World Health Organisation,(1) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, countries across the globe have implemented a range of public health and social measures, including:
- movement restrictions;
- partial or full closure of schools and businesses;
- quarantine in specific geographic areas; and
- international travel restrictions.
As the local epidemiology of the disease changes, countries have adjusted (and will adjust) these measures accordingly. As transmission intensity declines, some countries will begin to gradually re-open workplaces to maintain economic activity. This requires establishing protective measures, including directives and capacity to promote and enable standard COVID-19 prevention in terms of, among other things, physical distancing, hand washing, respiratory etiquette and, potentially, thermal monitoring, as well as monitoring compliance with these measures.
In accordance with the above, the European Union has implemented new common measures for the future and reinforcing those already in place in view of the emergence of localised outbreaks.
Public health measures have helped to stabilise the situation and bring the number of new infections to a level that can be managed by health systems. This has allowed for the progressive lifting of many restrictions imposed in recent months and the resumption of most activities.
In this regard, on 15 July 2020 the European Union published the Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions Short-term EU health preparedness for COVID-19 outbreaks, which aims to reinforce the European Union's preparedness and create a coordinated response capacity to counter further outbreaks of COVID-19.
This article highlights the main measures provided by the communication in order to ensure the European Union's short-term health preparedness in case of further COVID-19 outbreaks.
There has been a substantial increase in pharmaceutical laboratories' capacity to install new testing equipment, new methods and trained personnel to conduct research. In particular, the European Commission has launched a budget of €350 million to provide the above to research laboratories.
As will be detailed later in this article, through the publication of the Recommendation on Technology and Data to Combat and Exit the COVID-19 Crisis, efforts are being made to use new technologies to track new infections through mobile apps. Ten EU member states have already launched such apps for contact monitoring and alerting, all to ensure the freedom of movement in the European Union once again.
The surveillance function is based on achieving early detection of new sources of infection. Therefore, EU member states should share standardised epidemiological data at the state level, including hospitalisation data.
There was a deficit in access to medical protective equipment at the beginning of the pandemic. As the scope of the pandemic progressed, the European Medicines Agency supported initiatives suggested by the pharmaceutical industry to improve and overcome initial difficulties. EU member states must establish an overview of their needs for medical supplies and for the successful development of a vaccine.
In view of the shortage of capacity in intensive care units and of specialised health workers, cross-border support in terms of healthcare personnel and patient transfer is being sought. The European Commission has allocated European structural and investment funds to implement such transfer. In addition, it has been decided to:
- finance and organise the transport of staff;
- optimise hospital space; and
- create the so-called 'European online network of health professionals' to provide them with practical training.
Following the action plan that was launched at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, non-pharmaceutical measures have also been taken (eg, the restriction of circulation, social distancing, the use of masks and cross-border controls). However, these measures have resulted in both social and economic costs to populations, so efforts are now being made to avoid large-scale blockade measures in the event of further outbreaks.
Given the array of different vulnerable groups (eg, the elderly, people with previous pathologies, socially marginalised people or, due to the proximity to the contagion, health personnel), the communication considers that measures to protect their health must be tailored to each specificity, as there will be differing needs and requirements in each case. This will also include needs with regard to mental health support.
There is notable concern about simultaneous outbreaks of seasonal influenza and COVID-19. To achieve a differential diagnosis, the main action to be taken is directed at supporting and coordinating the early implementation of seasonal influenza vaccinations (eg, increased surveillance, testing, access and diagnosis).
(1) "Considerations for public health and social measures in the workplace in the context of COVID-19", Annex to Considerations in adjusting public health and social measures in the context of COVID-19, World Health Organisation, 10 May 2020.