Speech by Vice-President Šuica on "Social Services and COVID19 – what role for the EU?"
Online participation with the European Association of Service Providers for Persons with Disabilities (EASPD) 

 

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Thank you for the opportunity to address your online summit today.

I appreciate that via this channel, we continue our dialogue that we started at the height of this crisis a few months ago. All present here today agree on the importance of social services. The Commission is no exception. We are determined to implement the European Pillar of Social Rights, which enshrines peoples’ right to access quality services. Few will disagree that the current pandemic makes implementation more necessary than ever before.

COVID19 has clearly taught us the importance of effective access to services. We have seen how the most vulnerable in our society, the disabled, the elderly, the  homeless, those in poverty, and others, have suffered as their access to social services was cut due to measures to curb the spread of the virus.  

Social protection  

Indeed, the current crisis creates unprecedented challenges to our health, our economy and our social well-being. Some are more at risk than others. Especially the elderly and people with a disability. The same is true for those who provide services to them. Social services are under a particular strain and the Commission is committed to help. 

A short time ago, together with Commissioners Nicolas Schmit who is responsible for Jobs and Social Rights, Stella Kyriakides in charge of Health and Helena Dalli responsible for equality, we had a discussion with organisations focusing on social services to the elderly and people with disabilities. We are listening to the social sector, have taken actions and continue to assess the different instruments and possible solutions to support both providers and users of social services. 

This is a challenging task for all of us and we must reflect together on the ways forward – in the short-term, the medium-term and in the long-run.  

COVID19

Ladies and gentlemen, 

When we think about the most immediate challenges, we think about how the current pandemic changed our lives and our way of life, suddenly and dramatically. It affected all EU Member States, and the entire world. Because of the pandemic, unemployment will likely increase from 6.7% to 9% this year. The EU economy is forecast to contract by 7.5% also this year according to the  Commission’s Spring 2020 Economic Forecast. This means that the most vulnerable in society will feel the impacts of this disease through no fault of their own. Existing inequalities are exacerbated. 

Let’s take a moment to compare and contrast. The economic recession over the period 2008-2013 triggered a fall in living standards of poor people of more than 10% per year in Portugal, Italy and Ireland. In Spain it was 25% per year and 40% per year in Greece. Today, the COVID-19 epidemic has the potential of generating even deeper effects with GDP falls of -1.3%  in Ireland and Portugal, 
-2% in Spain and Italy and -6%  in Greece. And the signals we are getting from the organisations on the ground corroborate these findings. 

Short-term measures

Service providers and users have reported on the elements affecting the continuity of their services. The lack of personal protective equipment, unstable funding, lack of planning and guidance from public authorities, information and communication chaos; all were mentioned. Many of these issues stem from the fact that nobody was prepared for this kind of pandemic impact. In order to address the most immediate impacts of the pandemic we have taken a number of measures. Many of them with social services and other key services in mind. This concerns both funding questions and guidance for activities on the ground. 

CRII/+ 

Our first, quick response to the crisis was the “Coronavirus Response Investment Initiative” or “CRII” and CRII Plus. In a nutshell, both CRII packages focus on increasing the scope of cohesion and other relevant funds and allowing Member States to rapidly re-direct funds towards COVID-19 related measures, with the aim of delaying the spread of the virus and protecting employment levels. 

This amounts to about €8  billion from the EU budget, which Member States will be able to use to supplement €29  billion of structural funding. Moreover, up to €28 billion of unallocated structural funds from the existing national envelopes and including national contributions should be fully eligible.  

Let me add here that I welcome very much that together, you and us, we have been able to organise a webinar on 3 June to bring together all relevant actors at national and European level to engage in a constructive dialogue. This has helped to exchange innovative ideas on how to use the CRII and to ensure the continuity and quality of care and support services. It is crucial that the measures we have taken actually reach you to unfold its effects. 

Inspired by the Partnership Principle, this activity enables starting a stable and fruitful cooperation to jointly plan and design the ESIF funding opportunities, addressing both the short and long-term challenges of social services across the EU.  

ECDC guidance

The European Centre for Disease Control has produced guidance for healthcare facilities and providers on infection prevention and control measures for the management of the COVID-19 infection in healthcare settings, including long-term care facilities.  

Following our exchanges with you, specific ECDC Guidance on infection prevention and control of COVID-19 in Long Term Care Facilities was published. There is specific guidance for assisted-living facilities, residential care homes or other facilities that take care of people requiring support. Residents of these facilities are a vulnerable group as many are disproportionately affected by 
COVID-19 compared to other groups, as evidenced by the large number of outbreaks reported, especially in long-term care facilities for older persons.

The ECDC has also provided guidance on prevention, preparedness and management of COVID-19 in migrant communities and migrant/asylum seekers camps. This report that was published on 15 June, includes population-relevant aspects of infection prevention and control, contact tracing, risk communication and community engagement. 

Exiting the pandemic: medium-term measures

Concerning the medium- and long-term impact of the COVID19 pandemic, the demand for targeted social services will likely increase. The reason is that the hardest hit are people already at the bottom of income distribution. On the other hand, targeted social services working with these groups, were already suffering from sustainability, human and financial resources problems before 
the crisis hit.

The COVID19 crisis demonstrates that business continuity of these services requires more work. More specifically, critical, essential and non essential functions of these services should be established. We will also need to consider which services and practices could be shifted online, and, last but not least, we will need to reflect on the overall quality standards. 

Solidarity and recovery

It is beyond doubt that the COVID19 pandemic shows us the importance of solidarity. With this in mind, for the medium-term horizon, the European Commission proposed a plan to lead us out of the crisis and into sustainable, long-term economic growth, based on a green transition and a digital 
transformation. Therefore, we recently announced a comprehensive package for European recovery, with its overall budget of €1.85 trillion. This will help Europe to recover. Major initiatives like ‘Next Generation EU’ will boost the EU budget in the first crucial years of the recovery and contribute, together with the reinforced budget for 2021-2027, to making it sustainable, inclusive and fair. On the basis of solidarity, together, we will exit the crisis. 

I would now like to address some key elements of the amended European Social Fund Plus proposal for 2021-2027. While the ESF+ broadly covers future challenges in employment, education and social inclusion, the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the fabric of society has prompted the adjustment of the ESF+ proposal to the new reality. The Commission adjusted the budget proposed for the ESF+ shared management strand. There are no changes to the Employment and Social Innovation strand. This means the ESF+ is proposed to have a budget of EUR 86 billion in 2018 prices or €97 billion in current prices. 

Given COVID19, it is imperative to support vulnerable people and those facing a  higher risk of social exclusion. The revised ESF+ proposal introduces a requirement that each Member State invests 5% of its ESF+ resources to address child poverty. It is vital to target this vulnerable group to ensure that no child is left behind in the aftermath of the COVID-19 crisis. 

Long-term measures

With an eye on the future, along with my colleague Commissioner Nicolas Schmit, we want to look into long-term care. The COVID19 pandemic has shown how some members of our community work in precarious conditions. I am talking about 70% of staff in the health sector, with the majority working in care services. The demand for long-term care will increase. The provision of sufficient access to long-term care services of good quality is recognised by the European Pillar of Social Rights. We will also need to look into the situation of care workers. As we age, our needs are greater for such services. The professions must become more attractive for those interested in it. We need to look at income, working conditions, training, and funding. We also need to look into the voluntary sector and see how we can support it. It harbours enormous potential both to the benefit of those that need care as well as providing meaningful activities to those who get engaged. 

Ladies and Gentlemen, 

We know the care sector has enormous potential for job creation and yet we have seen how care workers, mainly women, work in precarious conditions. We have witnessed how older people could have been better protected. Last January, the Commission launched an open consultation on the Action Plan. We are seeking the input of stakeholders on Principle 18 of the Plan, namely long-term care but also on minimum income. The crisis has put enormous pressure on households’ income. Poverty is likely to increase and so additional measures are required to address the existing gaps in social protection systems. 

If we are serious about fighting poverty, if we want to build a cohesive and resilient society, then we need to root out poverty. This means addressing child poverty and investing in children. The Commission intends to come forward with a proposal on this in the first half of 2021.   

On the subject of disability, the Commission plans to present a new and strengthened European Disability Strategy in 2021. While the Commission is currently reflecting on this strategy, I can tell you that it will be based on the United Nation Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, the European Pillar of Social Rights and the Sustainable Development Goals. People with disabilities can benefit from an independent life-style and accessible environments and responsive support. 

Demography, democracy and the Conference on the Future of Europe

I also see a strong link between the democracy and demography strands of my portfolio: we need to address demographic challenges, as their impact can already be felt throughout the EU to varying degrees, be it in increasingly depopulated regions or a declining workforce. We will not and cannot afford to leave anyone behind, not during normal times, and much less when facing crises. We will also need to assess the sustainability of our social protection systems to ensure intergenerational fairness in the face of an ageing population.  

The manner in which COVID-19 has infected our European Union shows now, more than ever, that democracy and democratic institutions have a key role to play. Citizens have been asking for greater participation in policy-making and we need to listen to this call. Participative and deliberative democracy tools can help to reinforce democracy in the EU. An additional tool at our disposal is the 
Conference on the Future of Europe. Now Council has adopted its position, as have the European Parliament and the Council, we can take the next stops to launch the Conference.  

Having already held many dialogues with citizens, I am convinced that issues such as healthcare and the EU’s response to the public health crisis will now have a more prominent role in the Conference and in the dialogues among citizens. 
 
Let me take this opportunity to thank EASPD for the work they do in promoting the views of over 17,000 social services and their umbrella associations. There are over 80 million people with a disability throughout our European Union. 

Each one deserves to have their voice heard. EASPD works to promote equal opportunities for them through effective and high-quality service systems. I invite you and your members and organisations to bring your ideas and reflections to the Conference on the Future of Europe. Organise events around the Conference, in your respective villages, cities and regions. Share your recommendations and your ideas. When our online digital platform is launched, please submit your contributions online. 
You have a voice and you have policymakers who want to listen with a view to making the best policy decisions possible, with an eye on both the present and the future. 

Thank you.