BRUSSELS – The European Union moved Wednesday to head off a chaotic and potentially disastrous easing of restrictions that are limiting the spread of the coronavirus, warning its 27 nations to move very cautiously as they return to normal life and base their actions on scientific advice.
With Austria, the Czech Republic and Denmark already lifting some lockdown measures, the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, rushed out its roadmap for members of the world’s biggest trade bloc to coordinate an exit from the lockdowns, which they expect should take at least a few months and involve large-scale testing.
Some 80,000 people have now died in Europe from the disease — about two-thirds of the global toll — according to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control. The commission said those scientists should be relied upon to guide national exit strategies in the weeks and months to come.
Brussels is deeply concerned about the damage that could be done if each EU nation charts its own course, given the panic that ensued after the pandemic first spread in Italy, with unannounced border closures that sparked massive traffic jams and export bans that deprived hard-hit countries of medical equipment.
And the EU is very much split in its approach. Despite the ravages the illness is wreaking on their economies, France this week renewed its lockdown until May 11, and Belgium appears headed in a similar direction. Spain also recently renewed its state of emergency for the second time for an additional two weeks.
"This is not - it is not - a signal that confinement, containment measures can be lifted as of now,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told reporters, highlighting the need for clear communication across the bloc as countries emerge from quarantine.
Warning that lifting restrictions will “unavoidably lead to a corresponding increase in new cases," the commission said that this should only start when the spread of the disease has dropped significantly and for some time, and when hospitals can cope with more patients.
While the commission, which proposes EU laws and ensures that they are enforced, does not spell out exactly how EU countries should make the transition, the roadmap does underline that their “action should be gradual.”
“A lack of coordination in lifting restrictive measures risks having negative effects for all member states and creating political friction," the document said.
Business operations should be phased in by sectors, based on things like how much can be done over the internet, the economic importance of the industry, or the kinds of shift work that could be introduced. Social distancing should be maintained and there should be no general return to work, it says.
Shops could gradually reopen, with possible limits on the number of people who could enter, and school could start again, although the commission recommends smaller classes to allow students to work at a safer distance from each other. Lunch breaks could be set at different times and internet learning should be preferred where possible.
Brussels says a gap of around one month should be left between any steps to monitor their impact.
Elderly people should be protected for longer, while restaurants, bars and cinemas could resume business with restricted opening hours and limits on the number of people who could enter. Measures blocking mass gatherings like festivals and concerts would be among the last to be lifted.
For most people, coronavirus symptoms clear up in two to three weeks. But for some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
The commission also recommends that virus testing be massively ramped up and done in the same way across the bloc. It says data collection, including through apps on mobile phones, “can help interrupt infection chains and reduce the risk of further virus transmission” and should be done on a voluntary basis.
With a vaccine being the only silver bullet against the disease, the EU is injecting funds into research to fast-track the hunt for such a miracle drug, and is working with the European Medicines Agency to make it easier to conduct clinical trials and slash any red tape that might stop it going on sale.
“This is our collective best shot at beating the virus,” von der Leyen said, and she announced an online pledging conference to help raise funds for the effort on May 4.