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

2Movement of people and goods

9.The primary objective of Governments and other public authorities in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic has been to limit casualties resulting from infection with the disease. The role the EU has been able to play in this has been evolving rapidly since the start of 2020.

10.In late January, the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism (CPM) was triggered.12 This provides a system for asking Member States to provide equipment for use by other Member States or overseas to tackle an emergency. The Mechanism has provided financial support for flights repatriating EU nationals from overseas, and was recently used to start stockpiling medical and protective equipment for use by Member States (see below). The UK remains a part of the CPM for the duration of the transition period.13 European countries have also been systematically exchanging information on the epidemiological element of the pandemic via the EU’s Early Warning & Response System (EWRS).14

11.Although the Cabinet Office previously told Parliament of the many “benefits of […] future cooperation with the EU on civil protection” after Brexit in cases of natural disasters and other emergencies,15 the Prime Minister’s detailed negotiating objectives for a new relationship with the EU, published on 27 February 2020, omit specific mention of either the CPM or the EWRS.

12.Given that both the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism and EWRS have taken on renewed importance and focus given the potential for the coronavirus outbreak to last many months, potentially beyond the scheduled end of the post-Brexit transition period, we ask the Government to provide an update on its assessment of the costs and benefits with respect to continued UK participation in these EU systems after the end of the transition, and to clarify what form of formalised “cooperation” it is seeking with the EU on health security more generally.

Guidelines for border management

13.Although the EU’s mechanisms for exchange of information and coordination of the response to COVID-19 initially functioned as intended, following the rapid spread of the pandemic the EU’s practical response began to fragment rapidly along national lines in early March. By mid-March EU governments were pursuing decidedly national approaches. Countries including Denmark, Hungary and Germany had begun imposing unilateral entry bans to avoid the introduction of new sources of introduced infection. Some countries also instituted export bans to protect their domestic supplies of certain medical items necessary to treat cases of respiratory disease, notably personal protective equipment such as gloves and facemasks.

14.Within the EU, the effect of these measures was to disrupt travel and movements of goods not only with non-EU countries, but also within the Single Market, where border controls between Member States on the movement of people and trade restrictions on medical supplies are normally absent. In particular, the European Commission warned that the export limits and border closures combined had an “immediate and severe” impact on supply chains, especially those for “critical supply materials and perishable goods”.

15.On 13 March the European Commission called on Member States to implement “Europe-wide coordinated solutions”. This was followed swiftly by Commission guidelines on “health-related border management measures”; a legal measure enabling Member States to limit exports of personal protective equipment to non-EU countries; and a proposal to introduce “temporary restrictions” on travel into the Schengen area. The Commission also warned that it could “take legal action” before the Court of Justice if Member States maintained export restrictions that went beyond the emergency measures permitted under EU law.

16.On 16 March, the European Commission published guidelines for border management measures to protect health and ensure the availability of goods and essential services.16 EU leaders endorsed them via videoconference on 17 March. The Commission underlines the need for effective coordination at EU level so that national measures do not obstruct vital supply chains or impede the work of the emergency services. It makes a number of operational suggestions, such as providing “green lanes” to give emergency and freight services priority access at border crossings, and loosening supply-side restrictions (for example, weekend bans) on deliveries.

17.With respect to border restrictions to limit the spread of COVID-19, the Guidelines note that systematic controls—which can include health checks—on all individuals entering and leaving the Schengen free movement area already apply at the EU’s external borders.17 The Commission recommends that EU Member States establish procedures to screen all arrivals and departures to identify travellers at risk of exposure to COVID-19 or displaying symptoms of infection.18 Non-resident third country nationals may be refused entry if they are considered a threat to public health.19 Because of the existence of controls at the Schengen external border, the Commission considers that temporary internal border controls between Schengen countries should be the exception and are justified only “in an extremely critical situation” to respond to a risk posed by a contagious disease.20

18.The Commission’s Guidelines on border management seek to strike a balance between justified checks at the EU’s borders, both internal and external, to limit the spread of coronavirus, and the effective functioning of the Single Market so that essential transport, travel and supply chains within the Schengen zone are not disrupted. However, they are advisory and, as such, create no legal obligations. We would nonetheless welcome the Government’s view on their content and impact on the operation of supply chains for essential goods. We are particularly interested to hear whether the Government intends to follow the guidelines on health screening and checks at the UK border.

Temporary restriction on non-essential travel into the EU

19.The same day as it issued its guidelines on border management in response to the COVID-19 crisis, the European Commission also suggested21 that the EU and Schengen-associated countries (Iceland, Norway, Switzerland and Liechtenstein) should collectively impose a temporary restrictioninitially for 30 days—on travel from third countries to the EU (and also discourage outward travel from the EU). The following day, EU leaders jointly agreed to apply coordinated travel restrictions on the basis proposed by the Commission.22

20.The restrictions apply to all “non-essential” travel from third countries to the EU, with an exception made for returning EU citizens, their family members, and long-term residents.23 As the UK and Ireland do not participate in the Schengen free movement area, the EU Treaties recognise their right to determine the controls that apply at their borders.24 The European Commission nonetheless has encouraged both to apply the same restrictions as EU and Schengen-associated countries to limit the global spread of COVID-19. As the UK and Ireland together operate a Common Travel Area, it is imperative that they act in tandem. The Commission has made clear that the restrictions on travel to the EU would not apply to UK nationals—their right to free movement is protected under the EU/UK Withdrawal Agreement at least until 31 December 2020, the date on which the post-exit transition period is expected to end.25

21.The Government has not imposed similar entry restrictions on travellers arriving at the UK border from outside the EU. On 19 March, the Foreign Secretary said the Government does not at this stage anticipate taking similar action to restrict entry as it would “not be in the UK interest” and would not affect the spread of the virus. He added that the Government also had to consider the impact on supply chains and on airlines.26

22.When it comes to the management and control of its external borders, the UK is not bound by the rules applicable to EU Member States and countries associated with the Schengen rulebook. The decision taken by EU and Schengen states to introduce a temporary restriction on entry is nonetheless pertinent to the UK because it recommends action which goes beyond the formal powers conferred on the EU by the EU Treaties and therefore depends on countries voluntarily agreeing to coordinate their response to reduce the spread of COVID-19. We ask the Government to clarify whether it considers that the coordinated entry restrictions agreed by the Schengen states are an appropriate response to the COVID-19 epidemic, whether the Government will consider applying the same or similar restrictions on travel to the UK, and to what extent the UK is coordinating with EU partners (especially Ireland) in determining its own response.

Supplies of medical and personal protective equipment

23.As noted, the supply of medical and personal protective equipment necessary to combat the pandemic has been a controversial issue within the EU after individual Member States imposed export restrictions (even on the provision of such supplies to other EU countries). The European Commission has said it has persuaded some (unnamed) Member States to amend their export restrictions to bring them in line with EU law.

24.However, despite its concerns about restrictions on free trade in medical supplies within the EU, the Commission has sought to give Member States some flexibility in deciding whether relevant equipment can leave the EU for export to
“third” countries. To counteract a potential shortage
triggered by the pandemic,27 on 14 March the European Commission passed a legal act introducing a new requirement for EU businesses to obtain prior government authorisation before exporting personal protective equipment—face masks, gloves and other protective items—outside the European Union.28 These new EU-wide trade restrictions do not apply to the sale of PPE goods to the UK for the duration of the post-Brexit transition period.

25.The EU is also taking other steps to increase the availability of supplies of medical and protective equipment to its Member States. Most prominently, under the EU’s legal framework for cross-border threats to health,29 26 EU Member States plus the UK are signatories to a Joint Procurement Agreement on “medical countermeasures” (with the last Member State, Finland, in the process of joining).30 Based on this agreement, specific procurement exercises were launched in February and March 2020 for personal protective equipment and COVID-19 testing supplies. It is unclear if the UK—where there have been press reports of inadequate amounts of protective gear for frontline NHS staff31—although able to participate in these arrangements as a non-Member State during the post-Brexit transition, has agreed or declined to do so.32

26.On 19 March, the European Commission was also given the green light by Member States to purchase and stockpile medical supplies directly from early April, for distribution to Member States as needed, under the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism.33 The UK is able to call on the supplies of the CPM until the end of the post-Brexit transition period, but its role in the mechanism beyond that is unclear (see above).

27.The European Commission has introduced a new mechanism to enable Member States to limit the export of personal protective equipment (PPE) to preserve a supply within the EU. In responding to our Report, we ask the Government to explain whether it agrees with the Commission’s assessment that existing stocks of PPE and manufacturing capabilities within the EU are insufficient to meet demand; whether it also agrees that the introduction of a prior authorisation requirement is a necessary and proportionate response to the COVID-19 epidemic; effect it will have on supplies of personal protective equipment in the United Kingdom; and whether/how it will affect export businesses in the UK.

28.The EU in February and March 2020 also launched a joint procurement exercise for protective equipment and coronavirus testing supplies, to build up sufficient stockpiles and obtain them more cheaply than its individual Member States could. The UK, during the transition, is eligible to participate in such joint acquisition schemes. Given reports of inadequate supplies of medical equipment for frontline hospital staff in the UK, we ask the Government to clarify whether the UK is participating in the procurement exercises and, if not, to stipulate the reasons why.

12 See also the European Scrutiny Committee’s Report of 21 November 2018, which contains more details about recent reforms to the EU’s Civil Protection Mechanism.

13 In early February 2020, the Mechanism provided financial support for Member States chartering flights to repatriate EU citizens from China, and later that month it co-financed the delivery of personal protective equipment to China to help fight the outbreak. However, in February criticism also emerged that the EU’s requests via the CPM for other Member States to donate additional medical supplies to Italy had not yielded results. See for example The Guardian, “Italy criticises EU for being slow to help over coronavirus epidemic” (11 March 2020).

14 The ERWS mechanism was established by See EU Decision 1082/2013 on serious cross-border threats to health.

15 Letter by Oliver Dowden MP to Sir William Cash, 12 November 2018.

16 European Commission document C(2020) 1753.

17 See Article 8(3) of the Schengen Borders Code, Regulation (EU) 2016/399.

18 The Commission notes that this will require countries to make available protective equipment to those involved in screening, provide information to passengers and staff at points of entry and exit, and ensure that any individuals presenting a public health risk have access to appropriate health care

19 See Article 14 of the Schengen Borders Code, Regulation (EU) 2016/399.

20 As of 19 March, 12 EU or Schengen associated countries were applying temporary controls at some or all of their internal borders with other EU/Schengen countries for reasons related to COVID-19. The latest details are available on the European Commission’s website.

21 COM(20) 115; ESC No. 41142

22 The decision to apply a ban non-essential travel to the EU is one that had to be taken at national level, because the EU Treaties only give the EU powers to determine the checks and controls that apply at the external EU/Schengen border, not to decide who to admit.

23 There are further exceptions envisaged for those who fulfill “an essential function or need”, such as health and social care workers, or whose journey is necessary for “imperative family reasons”.

24 See Protocol No. 20 to the EU Treaties. The Government has updated its own guidance, advising against all non-essential foreign travel from the UK for an initial period of 30 days, with effect from 17 March. At the time of writing, there are no new restrictions on travel to the UK.

25 Article 132 of the EU/UK Withdrawal Agreement allows the EU and UK to agree a single extension of the transition period for “up to one or two years”. Section 15A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 prevents a Minister from agreeing to an extension in the EU/UK Joint Committee established by the Withdrawal Agreement. An extension would therefore require an amendment of the 2018 Act.

26 Oral evidence by the Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP, Foreign Secretary, to the Foreign Affairs Committee (19 March 2020; transcript not yet available).

27 The Commission has noted that EU imports of personal protective equipment from overseas has fallen as other countries restrict their exports, EU-based production is concentrated in a limited number of Member States (the Czech Republic, France, Germany and Poland), and existing stocks and manufacturing capabilities are insufficient to meet demand within the EU.

28 See Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2020/402 making the exportation of certain products subject to the production of an export authorisation. ESC No 41141. The requirement for an export authorisation applies for six weeks from 15 March. Under the EU’s usual trade rules, this equipment can be exported without restriction. See Regulation (EU) 2015/479 on common rules for exports.

29 Article 5 of EU Decision 1082/2013.

30 See for more information the European Commission website. Sweden and Poland also only signed after the coronavirus outbreak.

31 For example: BBC News, “Coronavirus: NHS staff ‘at risk’ over lack of protective gear” (18 March 2020) or the Guardian, “‘Not fit for purpose’: UK medics condemn Covid-19 protection” (16 March 2020).

32 The UK was among the original signatories to the Joint Procurement Agreement in 2014 and continues to be covered by it during transition.

Published: 1 April 2020