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Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council

Volume 497: debated on Thursday 22 October 2009

European Union Health Ministers met in Luxembourg for the EPSCO (Health) Council on 12 October 2009. Andy Lebrecht (Deputy Permanent Representative, UKRep) represented the UK.

EU Health Commissioner Vassiliou opened the meeting by announcing the latest information from the ongoing clinical trials on the vaccines for H1N1. It was looking increasingly likely that only one dose would be enough to ensure immunity, rather than two as previously thought. As requested by the Council conclusions, the Commission would propose a mechanism whereby member states with surpluses of vaccines could make those vaccines available to other member states.

The Commissioner then noted that the joint procurement exercise for those member states without agreements with the pharmaceutical industry (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Malta) was ongoing and might be extended to EU neighbourhood or candidate countries. She finished by remarking that had the EU had a common procurement agreement for vaccines, rather than differing national arrangements, then all countries could have had the right amount of vaccines at a lower price.

Commissioner Vassiliou praised the willingness to work together that member states had shown throughout the pandemic, but noted that there was room for improvement, particularly in the field of communication. She complained that the Commission and other member states had often heard about important announcements through the media, rather than beforehand from the member state(s) concerned.

The ministerial discussion focused on three main issues: communications with the public; work with developing countries; and cross-cutting multi-sectoral preparedness.

Most member states agreed that communications should be co-ordinated wherever possible, but noted that they would always have to be tailored to local circumstances. When policies or messages differed, it was important that authorities could explain to the public why this was. This was particularly true for the vaccination campaigns which will be launched in the near future. The UK, and other countries, emphasised the key role that the Health Security Communicator’s Network, which provides a forum for officials dealing with communications to liaise with each other, has to play here. The UK also noted that it would be important for any EU-level communications initiative to support member state initiatives.

There was also a clear consensus that work with developing countries should be led by the UN system, and the WHO in particular. Many member states noted that the question of aid was wider than only the supply of vaccines: the EU should consider how healthcare systems more generally could be strengthened. The UK encouraged other member states and the Commission to provide as much support as possible to the UN’s urgent needs identification and prioritisation process for developing countries, and looked forward to the discussions on this envisaged by the Council conclusions.

The presidency received clear support for the work they had initiated on multi-sectoral issues in the friends of the presidency group. In addition to transport, telecommunications, and energy, member states thought that business continuity in banking and food and water supplies should be considered. The UK said that it thought that this multi-sectoral work was essential and suggested two specific tasks this group could set itself:

in the short term, a report summarising the business planning assumptions each member state is using; and

in the long-term, a piece of work examining the kind of flexibilities that might be needed in community legislation in the event of a crisis situation.

The presidency welcomed these suggestions and said that the group would indeed take forward the work suggested by the UK.