By Francesco Guarascio and Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – EU officials sought in vain on Friday to persuade France, Germany and other European countries to lift controls on the export of protective medical gear, which officials said could hurt the bloc’s collective effort to fight the coronavirus.
Countries including Germany, France and the Czech Republic have announced bans on exports of protective gear to avoid shortages at home, measures that go against the spirit of free movement of goods within the EU.
Such bans “risk undermining our collective approach to handle this crisis” EU crisis management commissioner Janez Lenarcic said at an emergency meeting in Brussels, where officials urged solidarity in the bloc to fight the outbreak.
While the meeting was underway, EU officials working in the building hosting the ministers were sent home and a separate meeting of diplomats was cancelled, after a new case of coronavirus emerged among EU staff. That followed a first case earlier this week.
Many EU countries rely on China, the source of the outbreak, for drug ingredients, and they are now struggling to avoid shortages after the epidemic disrupted supplies and delayed shipments.
Protective gear, such as face masks, is already in short supply in most EU countries, officials said, which puts doctors and nurses at risk.
Europe needs to bring medical production back to Europe, because it relies too much on imports from non-EU countries, officials in France and Germany, the EU’s largest countries, have said.
France imports about 40% of drug ingredients from China, a situation that the French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire called over-reliance on Beijing.
“This is not something that will be solved tomorrow, but we must start this discussion today so that we have a solution after tomorrow,” Austrian Health Minister Rudolf Anschober told reporters at the meeting in Brussels.
No immediate shortages of medicines have so far been experienced in the EU because of the epidemic, officials said, but concerns were mounting after India, the world’s top producer of generic medicines, restrained some exports.
The bloc already faced shortages of several drugs, including for respiratory diseases, before the outbreak.
Health commissioner Stella Kyriakides called for “solidarity” among EU states to avert shortages in protective gear.
French Health Minister Olivier Veran said France had requisitioned protective equipment to have a better understanding of the available stock. He declined answering questions on the export ban.
Germany’s Health Minister Jens Spahn said German restrictions on the export of masks, gloves and suits could be revised if an overall EU ban was introduced on sales to non-EU states.
Belgium’s health minister, Maggie De Block, called the bans “paradoxical” and urged that they be lifted, as did ministers of other countries that have not imposed them.
Italy, the EU country hardest hit by the outbreak so far, has formally requested help from other EU states to meet its needs for protective gear.
Italian health minister Roberto Speranza said more needed to be done at EU level to meet existing needs, and warned that lack of coordination could lead to higher prices for protective gear.
The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, last week began joint procurement of face masks and other protective gear on behalf of 20 EU states, but the effort probably won’t secure enough supplies before April, officials said.
EU industry commissioner Thierry Breton said he was confident that EU-based manufacturers could meet the growing demand for protective gear in the coming weeks, provided that production was coordinated.
Ministers also discussed measures to prevent the spread of the virus. They agreed not to introduce checks at their mutual frontiers, confirming earlier decisions to maintain free movement of citizens within the EU’s open-border Schengen area.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio, Philip Blenkinsop and Jakub Riha; editing by Larry King)