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Crisis Commissioner Lenarčič argues for widespread testing

Brussels, 17 March - European Crisis Management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič told the Slovenian press in Brussels on Tuesday that the World Health Organisation and the European Centre for Disease (ECDC) both advised as much testing for coronavirus as possible. The Slovenian meanwhile believes the measures being taken now can start producing effects in a week or two.

Brussels, Belgium
European Crisis management Commissioner Janez Lenarčič.
Photo: Thierry Monasse/STA

Speaking about the measures being taken by the European Commission, Lenarčič said the Commission was in favour of strictly following ECDC recommendations, which include wide testing.

The same view on testing is held by the WHO and by Chinese health workers on the basis of their experience, the commissioner added, noting Singapore and South Korea, which are fairly successfully in dealing with the virus, felt this way as well.

Testing is being restricted in Slovenia, with the government's expert advisor Bojana Beović arguing a few days ago that it was no longer necessary to test everybody who had been in contact with a confirmed patient. But today she said Slovenia was still conducting around 1,000 tests a day.

Lenarčič said he did not know what the decision of the Slovenian government was based on and added that the WHO and ECDC also recommended systematically tracing the contacts and sending them into isolation.

The commissioner highlighted two issues: "The speed at which this virus has been spreading has surprised everyone, including many epidemiologists ... while the second problem is that people did not take the situation seriously enough unit recently."

Lenarčič, who hopes this has changed, believes that the measures being taken now can start producing effects in a week or two, provided the public cooperates.

"If the spreading of the virus is limited significantly, we will know in about 10 to 14 days what the real scale of this problem is," he assessed.

The commissioner meanwhile expressed regret member states failed to immediately respond to the Commission's recommendation to prepare and secure enough capacities and material. It turned out that the reserves of protective equipment are modest in practically all member states, he said.

Lenarčič said the Commission had immediately taken action. It is currently coordinating three joint procurement projects that involve most member states and concern protective material, ventilators, lab equipment and testing kits.

The consent was secured today from member states to start building a European strategic reserve for such equipment, as well in the future for vaccines for any cases of the EU facing a shared health threat, he explained.

Lenarčič argued that one logical reason for the response at EU level seeming rather uncoordinated at first was that decisions on public health and state borders were in the domain of member states, while the Commission only played a supportive role.

He however noted that the measures had not been entirely uncoordinated after all, since member states adopted similar measures within a relatively narrow time frame.

Lenarčič added that coordination improved as leaders asked the Commission last week to help with the efforts, which gave it a say in matters usually outside of its competences.

Thus, the Commission is in favour controlling the free movement of people, while Lenarčič warned against restrictions to the free flow of goods, stressing food, medicines and protective equipment were at stake too.

He moreover highlighted an extensive stimulus package for the economy, which includes a EUR 37 billion investment incentive meant to help the health sector, SMEs and the labour market. Slovenia is expected to get around EUR 600 million.

Meanwhile, commenting on the initiative of Slovenian Health Minister Tomaž Gantar for the Commission to put a cap on prices of protective equipment as prices are rising fast, Lenarič said "the arrival of such virus profiteers is regrettable and must be condemned, but the question is what measures can be taken".

He said his internal market colleagues would examine the possibilities, while he pointed to the obvious option of countering this with an increase in supply, something the Commission is working on very hard, having several tools at its disposal.

Lenarčič also commented on Britain's herd immunity approach to the crisis, saying he felt "a large number of deaths among vulnerable groups is a too high price to pay to achieve herd immunity".

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© STA, 2020