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Commissioner for Health
Opening Speaking Note at the Ebola High Level Co-ordination Meeting
Ebola: High Level Co-ordination Meeting – Borschette Centre
Brussels, 16 October 2014
Ministers, Secretaries of State,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Welcome to this high level co-ordination meeting.
Let me first warmly thank you – in particular all the Ministers and Secretaries of State who are present here - for coming to Brussels at such a short notice to discuss measures on Ebola.
The sheer fact that 21 Ministerial level representatives are here, on a 3-day notice testifies to your commitment and engagement to address Ebola.
Indeed, in the past few days we have seen rapidly growing concern amongst our citizens about Ebola – citizens fear that the virus could spread in Europe – and extensive media interest.
I believe it is important that we remain vigilant and consider all the means of preparedness to secure the health and safety of our citizens.
But let me make this absolutely clear; the decision of which measures to apply to guard one's borders against the Ebola virus disease remains exclusively within the remit of the sovereign states which form the Union.
However, as foreseen in the European Union Decision on Cross border health threats of 22 October 2013, there is a duty of the Commission to consult with Member States with a view to co-ordinate efforts "to develop, strengthen and maintain the Member States' capacities for monitoring, early warning, assessment and response to serious cross-border threats to health".
Article 11 of the same Decision further foresees that Member States shall consult each other within the Health Security Committee, in liaison with the Commission, with a view to co-ordinate national responses to cross-border health threats.
It is in this context that Minister Lorenzin and myself have invited you to this meeting today; so that we can exchange information and discuss possible entry measures at EU borders in response to the Ebola crisis.
One important clarification: We are meeting here as Commission and representatives of the EU Member States and countries of the European Economic Area to discuss an important issue that concerns us all.
As such, this is not in any way an extraordinary Council meeting; and we are not here to formally agree or adopt any conclusions. We are here to discuss possible options to address a very important issue.
I would like to stress that the European Commission is fully committed to helping the affected countries in every way we can; and to supporting international efforts aimed at bringing the Ebola epidemic to an end as soon as possible.
This epidemic is unprecedented in scale and is estimated to get worse before it gets better. The numbers of people who contract the virus are currently doubling every 3 to 4 weeks.
Ebola is a cause of massive suffering to tens of thousands of people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
I am sure you will join me in expressing condolences to the thousands of people – adults, children, health professionals – whose lives have been destroyed by the virus; and in saluting the great courage and determination shown by the people of those countries, and those working on the ground to fight the disease.
The commitment of the European NGOs in this respect deserves our special praise and recognition.
I believe that we need to redouble our efforts in Europe to assist them now and in the months ahead.
At the same time, I believe it is also our duty to ensure that Europe is prepared to deal with Ebola.
Indeed, we need to ensure that laboratories, primary care, hospitals and public health services stand ready to react rapidly and effectively to protect our citizens and stop Ebola from spreading if and when it arrives.
In addition, if we are to consider putting in place other measures at entry points, it is clear that such measures cannot be effective in isolation.
But borders are something that we share in the EU, in the European Economic Area and in the Schengen Area. The reduction in barriers to the movement of people and goods is, of course, a huge achievement of the EU. We can only recognise and support the economic and social value of reducing such barriers.
At the same time, we need to recognise that measures at borders can have a role to play in protecting public health.
All countries present here today, whether or not part of Schengen, have a common interest to co-ordinate the most appropriate measures at our common borders to protect the health of our citizens.
Any such measures would need to be complementary in nature.
Following the announcement from the United States of the introduction of additional screening measures at five International airports for travellers arriving from the affected countries, the European Commission asked the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control for its scientific assessment of exit and entry screening measures.
I understand the ECDC concludes that such screening, from a scientific point of view, would have limited effectiveness; and would not detect all the possible people infected with the virus.
For me however, as European Commissioner for Health, every person with the virus we detect through screening is one life saved; potentially many lives saved.
Every person we can treat and cure because we could detect this person through entry screening justifies considering entry screening.
I therefore see added value in entry screening: in terms of providing information to travellers, providing information to the crew, reassuring our citizens; and possibly identifying infected passengers.
I am informed that on Tuesday this week, the Commission Services discussed with the EU Health Security Committee some options for possible additional measures at entry.
At that meeting, most of the Committee members who spoke did not favour introducing entry screening.
Instead, they favoured reinforcing measures to ensure that travellers entering Europe coming from the affected countries have appropriate information on Ebola and on what to do should they develop symptoms of the disease.
This could be complemented by enhanced information for crew, airport staff and front line healthcare providers.
However, some countries are clearly still considering how best to proceed. Furthermore, the situation continues to evolve. The interest in considering further this question is clear from your participation here today.
My hope for this meeting is that we can agree to exchange information and co-ordinate national measures.
Before I pass the floor to Beatrice Lorenzin, Minister of Health of Italy, let me present our suggested agenda (which you have received some days ago):
After the Minister, we planned that the Commission makes a short presentation on options for entry measures; and that afterwards we have an open discussion about such options.
I would like to ask if everyone agrees with the proposed agenda – or whether anyone wishes to suggest any changes.
Thank you – I will now hand over to Beatrice Lorenzin.