COVID-19 pandemic: the EU’s policy response and its implications for the UK Contents


Purpose of this Report

1.The European Scrutiny Committee has a responsibility to assess, on behalf of Parliament, the development of European Union policy in areas of political and legal importance. The purpose of this Report is to describe the key policy and legal measures taken by the EU in response to the COVID-19 public health emergency to date, and to indicate their potential or actual implications for the UK.4

2.COVID-19, also known as coronavirus, is a viral infection that can cause severe respiratory complications in a significant sub-set of patients. It most likely originated in the Wuhan region of China in autumn 2019, and by January 2020 the World Health Organization declared it a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern” (PHEIC), “in view of significant increases in numbers of cases and additional countries reporting confirmed cases”. As of 26 March 2020, there have been over 462,000 known cases of infection and nearly 21,000 deaths.5 Measures to prevent the pandemic from overwhelming national healthcare systems, including limits on travel and public events, have had significant consequential effects on economic activity worldwide.

3.As the pandemic spread into Europe in February and March this year, many EU countries introduced restrictions on entry via land, sea and air,6 banned exports of certain medical items,7 and began ramping up public spending and tax breaks to help their economies weather the impact of coronavirus.8 The EU, by contrast to its individual Member States, has very limited legal powers (“competence”) in the area of public health or safety.9 The Union does have certain policy levers in other relevant areas to address the consequences of the pandemic (both in terms of the immediate medical response, and the wider economic fallout). The European Commission published a policy paper on the EU’s “coordinated economic response” on 13 March, which announced some of the regulatory, budgetary and legal measures described in this Report to address the COVID-19 pandemic.10

4.The particular implications for the UK of specific measures adopted by the EU during the transition period in response to this public health crisis are set out in the remainder of this Report.

5.Given the exceptional nature, and speed, of these EU policy developments, we have made the decision to make this Report before having received the customary Explanatory Memoranda from the Government setting out its position on the EU’s individual policy measures and documents described. The Government, in its Memoranda, must stipulate explicitly whether it agrees or disagrees with the EU’s proposition in each case.

6.The coronavirus outbreak is now global, necessitating intensive cooperation between the UK and other countries to limit its spread, secure adequate supplies of medical equipment, develop the most effective treatment plans, and cushion the wider economic shock triggered by the pandemic. The Committee takes note of the European Commission’s paper of 13 March on the EU’s “coordinated economic response” to the COVID-19 pandemic.

7.On the basis of the assessment of the potential or actual implications of the EU’s response to the pandemic for the UK set out in this Report, the Committee asks the Government to provide the requested information and clarifications into its forthcoming Explanatory Memoranda on the EU documents referred to.11 In particular, the Committee expects the Government to explain which of the EU’s policy measures adopted in response to the crisis are applicable to, or will be applied by, the UK, and to provide an assessment of their expected impact on the UK.

8.The European Scrutiny Committee is aware of course that the COVID-19 policy response of public authorities in the UK and the EU will continue to develop rapidly in the coming days and weeks, and this Report therefore only provides a snapshot of the EU’s approach at the time of it being agreed. The Committee will keep any further developments in the EU’s response to COVID-19 under review and report to the House again when necessary.

4 Given the fast-moving nature of the crisis, it cannot—and does not aim to be—completely comprehensive. This Report also does not cover in any detail policy measures taken by individual EU countries, which are beyond our remit.

5 World Health Organization, “Coronavirus disease (COVID-2019) situation reports” (accessed 23 March 2020).

6 EU Observer, “Nine EU states close borders due to virus” (16 March 2020). Production of medical personal protective equipment in the EU is concentrated in Germany, France, Czechia and Poland.

8 See for example: Bloomberg, “Italy Announces $28 Billion Plan to Cushion Virus-Hit Economy” (10 March 2020) and Financial Times, “France ready to nationalise virus-stricken companies” (17 March 2020).

9 See Title XIV of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. There is European legislation on “serious cross-border threats to health”, which notably allows for exchange of information on disease outbreaks via the pandemic Early Warning & Response System, which is discussed further in chapter 2.

10 European Commission document COM(2020) 112, “Coordinated economic response to the COVID-19 outbreak” (13 March 2020).

11 Where the Committee has raised questions in relation to EU documents that are not formally deposited for scrutiny, notably the Commission’s guidelines on border management and or the use of the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism and Early Warning & Response System (all discussed in chapter 2), we ask the Government to incorporate its response into the Explanatory Memorandum on either the Commission Communication of 13 March 2020 setting out the EU’s general approach to COVID-19, or in a Memorandum on any related document which is subject to scrutiny.

Published: 1 April 2020