Mr Tzitzikostas,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am very pleased to have this opportunity to update you on the latest EU actions to tackle together the COVID-19 pandemic, as a continuation to the very constructive exchange I had with Mr. Tzitzikostas a few weeks ago.

Europe’s regions are being re-shaped by this crisis.

But they are also becoming symbols of the solidarity and strength on which the European Union was built.

People and communities have come together to support one another through grief, anxiety, economic hardship and strict containment measures. We have seen very powerful, selfless and poignant acts.  Such as communities looking after the daily shopping needs of vulnerable people. Also demonstrating admirable strength throughout the measures that had to be undertaken to contain the virus.

Governments too have reached across boundaries and borders to treat patients whose local hospitals can no longer accommodate them.

And many medics have volunteered to travel far and wide to use their expertise where it is needed most.

This extraordinary solidarity has given light to the EU in some of its darkest hours.

We are immensely grateful – and as we move into the next phase, it will remain essential.

EXIT STRATEGY

As you are aware, last Wednesday, the Commission presented a European roadmap with recommendations for Member States to follow as they gradually ease the current lockdown measures.

Understandably, many are anxious to resume a degree of normality.

But if we move too fast, and we do not coordinate prudently, effectively, or communicate clearly with citizens, we may jeopardise  the very difficult progress to date, and risk an increase in cases. 

Any decisions to move forward should be based:

  • on the latest scientific and epidemiological advice, and
  • health systems’ capacity to manage continued new cases.

The Commission’s roadmap recommends five essential elements to ensure a coordinated de-escalation of measures across the EU.

These include:

  • A robust monitoring system, and sufficient testing capacity -- to diagnose and measure potential immunity.
  • An effective contact tracing system -- to break chains of infection.
  • Sufficient healthcare capacity – to ensure systems can cope with a potential increase in cases when measures are lifted.
  • A stable supply of medical and protective equipment.
  • And continued support for effective and safe treatments to reduce mortality and healthcare pressures.

The Commission has published a recommendation on mobile data and apps to support Member States’ work, and guidance on testing. The Commission also produced guidance for Member States on emergency assistance in cross border health care.

PLEDGING CONFERENCE

Of course, the only way to truly exit the pandemic, is to develop a vaccine, that is accessible to everyone.

And for this, we need to work together, with our international partners, and with industry to mobilise the necessary investment and resources.

President von der Leyen will host an online pledging conference on 4th May to support this.

I encourage you to spread this message as widely as possible..

SHORTAGES OF MEDICINES

The Commission has also taken steps in recent weeks to address reported shortages in critical medicines to treat COVID-19 – in particular those used in intensive care.

The current situation has exposed some structural weaknesses in the EU’s medicines supply chain, and a high dependence on non-EU countries for active pharmaceutical ingredients.

I have been holding weekly meetings with the industry with Commissioner Breton to discuss any bottlenecks or problems in the supply chain with industry.

I have also called on industry to increase their production in essential medicines used in the care of  COVID-19 patients. 

We have also adopted guidelines to ensure Member States have access to a supply of essential medicines.

These include lifting export bans and restrictions, avoiding national stockpiling, enforcing “Green lanes” and optimising the use of medicines in hospitals.

In the long term however, I hope that the weaknesses in the supply chain and the shortages of medicines will be addressed in the new pharmaceutical strategy, expected to be launched later this year.

CROSS-BORDER COOPERATION

The Commission also issued guidance earlier this month to step up our emergency assistance to support cross-border cooperation.

Your regions have helped immensely to make this happen on the ground.

At European level, the Commission is helping to assist health authorities by coordinating requests and offers for intensive care places and qualified medical personnel through the Health Security Committee and the Early Warning and Response System.

It is coordinating and co-funding the emergency transport of patients and qualified medical teams across borders through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism.

And it is encouraging Member States or non-governmental organisations to send qualified teams of medical personnel across borders.

This cooperation has  saved lives.

EMERGENCY FUNDING

In parallel to this work, the Commission has taken steps to mobilise emergency funding of €2.7 billion euros through a new EU solidarity instrument -- the European Union Emergency Support Instrument for the healthcare sector.

This will also help save lives and support targeted actions linked to the EU’s collective effort to tackle COVID-19.

Other funding support will also be mobilised through the Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative to help countries and regions address the impact of COVID-19 pandemic.

Mr Tzitzikostas, in your invitation to me, you asked what the Committee of the Regions can do to support the EU’s common efforts, and move forward on the road to recovery.

The first, is to continue working together.

Through isolation, we have seen the true value of solidarity.

How the gestures of individuals have brought comfort and hope to  millions of people.

How humanity can reach a hand across borders.

We are stronger and more successful where we work as a team: across communities, across regions, across countries, and across the world.

Local and regional governments have a fundamental role to play in this. And at this point I would like to really underline the importance of the launch by the Committee of Regions of an Action Plan: COVID 19 dedicated webpage since 27 March, together with mapping of identified practices.

The second area, is clear and coherent communication.

This is of paramount importance.

And the regions have a very important role to play -- building trust in governance, and ensuring that measures, however difficult, are well understood and accepted. Equally so your input will be most precious when the measures begin to be lifted. This must be done carefully and with as much coordination possible. Your role to pass on this message to communities will be crucial. Because we have to listen and communicate with our citizens to make them rightfully feel that they are part of the whole recovery process. 

COVID-19 will not go away until we find a vaccine, but life must and will go on.

I call on you, as Presidents of this Committee:

  • to reinforce the message of solidarity in your regions,
  • to urge your citizens to continue respecting measures that are taken in the collective interest,
  • to help us implement prudently and safely the phasing-out of these measures  when the time comes,
  • and to continue offering your support to those regions that were hardest hit.

We are living through incredibly difficult times, but together, we will come out of this crisis stronger.

Thank you.