Brussels – Smaller EU member states have hit out after Germany, France and the Czech Republic blocked the export of some medical supplies that could help slow the novel coronavirus outbreak.
EU health ministers were meeting on Friday to plan a coordinated response to the epidemic, but Germany has banned exports of face masks and gloves and France has requisitioned all its own stocks.
Some EU members — notably Italy, where at least 148 people have died — have been hit harder than others and some ministers think precious resources should be shared.
“I think that in fact we should show our solidarity, for example in the distribution of protective resources,” said Belgian health minister Maggie de Block.
“There are two countries that block all exports … and that’s not in the spirit of the EU.”
Dutch minister for medical care Bruno Bruins agreed, telling the crisis meeting: “In times of scarcity it is even more important to show solidarity, especially within the EU.
“I understand that some countries are now taking national measures to safeguard their own stocks. I believe that such measures are not a solution to the scarcity that is currently affecting the whole of Europe.”
Austria’s Rudolf Anschober said he did not want to discuss this policy “in front of the cameras”.
On Wednesday, Germany’s interior minister said it had banned the export of medical protection gear such as masks and gloves to ensure local health workers have enough.
President Emmanuel Macron has announced that France will requisition all face masks produced there, a de facto export ban, and Czech health minister Adam Vojtech has halted disinfectant exports.
An EU spokesman confirmed France and Germany had notified the European Commission of their decisions, but would not be drawn on whether they met EU single market rules.
EU officials have stressed the importance of a coordinated response — health commissioner Stella Kyriakides saying she was focused not only the readiness of individual states but also “the need for solidarity”.
– Crisis talks –
But German health minister Jens Spahn urged his colleagues to try to understand why Berlin, Paris and Italy are acting as they are, given their bigger and older outbreaks.
“I sometimes have the impression that some of you think: ‘Typical, once again the big guys, France, Germany and Italy are going their own way,” he said.
“The reason we are upping the pressure is because the situation is different in our countries than the others. We are in a different phase than those countries who are still detecting and containing cases.
“Once the outbreak develops inside a country, measures at the border won’t help.”
He said the German decision was an “imperfect measure” and not an export ban as such, but a request for producers to obtain a licence to ship gear that might be better used elsewhere.
Vojtech said supplies of protective suits and masks were limited and that European health workers should be first in line as production is ramped up.
“We’re trying to negotiate with producers to supply the market, but production is limited. The demand is much higher than the supply worldwide. It is not easy,” he said.
The novel coronavirus strain that erupted in China this year and causes the COVID-19 disease has killed more than 3,300 people and infected nearly 100,000 in about 90 nations.
Europe has not been hit as hard as China, but the virus is spreading across the continent and Italy in particular has a major outbreak, with 148 dead in just over two weeks.
By Dave Clark