Public Health

Covid-19 restrictions: should the EU have been in charge?

Trying to do the right thing with Covid-19 measures. Would the EU have succeeded?

In crisis management, there is rarely the possibility to please everyone. The Covid-19 virus in the EU context is a particularly good example of  this: With core values including the freedom of movement and civil liberties, many governments were faced with making unpopular decisions in order to prevent more people from getting infected with the virus. This also meant that governments tried to delay drastic infringements on peoples’ freedoms until they were clearly necessary – at the risk of being called out for not acting strictly or quickly enough against the virus. In short, a balancing act of the worst kind. Whilst governments’ attempts to deal with the new virus have varied across countries and continents, one common and consistent point of criticism has been the lack of consistently imposed and aligned responses and measures across the EU. But what if all Covid-19 related restrictions would have been similar for all Member States, and decided at EU level ? Could such a scenario have actually changed things? 

A comparison – Denmark and Ireland

In order to answer this question, we take a comparative example of two EU countries: Denmark and Ireland. Both follow a similar development in terms of cases and deaths related to Covid-19 – yet they have taken different responses and actions independently and at different stages during the pandemic. As can be seen below in graph 1 and 2, there was no great divergence in how confirmed Covid-19 cases and deaths in Denmark and Ireland developed. After an initial spike in cases and deaths in March and April, both countries flattened the curve and kept numbers close to zero during the summer months. Whilst the death rate in Ireland was much higher at  the start  of the pandemic, both Denmark and Ireland were able to lower their death rate to almost zero over the same time period. After the summer, cases and deaths rose consistently in Denmark, whilst Ireland witnessed a rise, followed by a decrease , to then heavily surpass Denmark in terms of cases and deaths again.

See graph 1: Daily new confirmed Covid-19 cases in Ireland and Denmark

See graph 2: Daily confirmed Covid-19 deaths (rolling 7-day average) in Ireland and Denmark

Now, looking at these numbers, we can ask to what extent government actions correlate with certain shifts and trends in numbers.

Healthcare systems

As a starting point to analyze any health crisis, it is useful to compare the infrastructure and type of healthcare system that countries enjoy. Both Ireland and Denmark have a well funded universal health care system with a high WHO ranking,and, in terms of funding, both countries rank among the highest funded per capita. Given their similar population size and death rate of Covid-19, whilst having access to an excellent health care system that facilitated a rapid and effective response to Covid-19 cases, the only differences in measuring the success of handling the virus seems to boil down to the measures that the respective governments enacted. 

Face covering policies

To combat the spread of Covid-19, the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC) and the European Commission (EC) published reports and regulatory recommendations advising face masks and covers to be worn. Ireland was among the many states that chose to implement face coverings in June nationwide in all public indoor places and ensured compliance (successfully) by penalizing offences for not adhering to these rules. Denmark only implemented  face coverings in the end of October in all public indoor places, in response to newly rising cases around that time. Before, face coverings were only required in public transport and in restaurants.

Stay at home measures

Moreover, in March, at a European Council meeting of education ministers it was a necessity for people to stay at home (at first in the context of schooling). At a European Council meeting of education ministers it was already becoming apparent that a start at home with online-learning would become a necessity in order to slow down the spread of the virus.

 Both Ireland and Denmark swiftly entered a complete lockdown in the first weeks of March and continued to enforce effective measures to combat the spread of the virus. Of these measures, Ireland has been particularly strict in its implementation of face masks and the stay home and local order from the centralised Irish government. Denmark also shut down public life entirely – implementing its so-called ‘suppression strategy’. Hence, the measure of an early and rapid lockdown can be directly linked to the immediate decrease of cases from April onwards, equally in both countries.

Denmark’s rapid response made it one of the first countries to come out of a lockdown already  reopening institutions and shops in April, and accompanying this step with a widespread testing initiative. Meanwhile, Ireland still advocated people to stay at home, and only slowly started to relax measures towards the end of May, and reopening businesses at the end of June. This difference in approach cannot be linked to a divergence in performance when we look at the numbers depicted above. Regardless of when measures were relaxed and how, both countries maintained their low level of Covid-19 exposure consistently until September.

Stringency in response and measures

From these few examples, we can observe that both countries responded rapidly to the pandemic, with Ireland being strict and preventative in its measures, and Denmark more relaxed and responsive to changing trends. The Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) project developed the Government Stringency Index which calculates the stringency of policy responses in relation to different measures (including school and workplace closures; restrictions on public gatherings; transport restrictions and stay-at-home requirements) comes to the same conclusion. According to this data, Ireland’s policy responses were on average stricter than Denmark’s and reveal more fluctuations over the observed time period (see graph 3 below). Denmark on the other hand, lowered the stringency of its policy responses gradually and consistently over time, only increasing them again in the winter months. For Denmark, the strengthening of measures seems to correlate with  an increase in Covid-19-related infections and deaths. This cannot be said for Ireland, especially during 2020’s summer months. Nonetheless the Irish government appears to have taken a more preventative approach leading up to the winter in employing more strictness with moderately rising numbers from September onwards. 

See graph 3: COVID-19: Government Stringency Index

Hence, we can denote that more stringency does not necessarily equal less Covid-19 cases or a lower death rate related to the virus. Rather, this example stresses how there is no one-size-fits-all response to a health crisis like the current one. 

EU alignment?!

If we then ask whether there should have been EU alignment in regards to measures across its Member States, we imply that all of these countries can be compared equally in the pandemic’s context. For Ireland and Denmark with similar health systems and starting points in the pandemic this may be possible but on a larger scale it does not make much sense. We can compare countries’ response to the Covid-19 pandemic if we want to gain a descriptive insight into how they are/were doing. However, if we want to evaluate responses and propose the role of the EU as a coordinating actor in this process, we are mistaken. 

Important to stress here first is that the EU does not have the agency to enforce measures across all its Member States. For a step like this, the role of the EU would have to be redefined towards countries surrendering their national sovereignty to an EU “superstate”, a step opposed by many and therefore not realistic. What the EU can do – and has done – is to hold joint meetings and agree on necessities, thereby making recommendations for Member States to follow and align their actions. Specifically, in the Covid-19 pandemic, the EU Council activated its integrated political crisis response (IPCR), a mechanism allowing EU countries and the European institutions to coordinate actions. Hence, a clear distinction has to be made between the EU being in charge of restrictions/measures – which is not helpful, and shouldn’t be expected – and coordination/alignment where possible. The IPCR is one such positive alignment example as is the current vaccine programme which, despite its flaws, is much better done at EU level than if all Member States would have been competing with each other for vaccines. As the example of Denmark and Ireland shows, the ‘softer’ coordinating/recommendatory EU approach has been generally successful, with both countries adopting similar measures, even though they were implemented at different times and with more liberty to re-assess. 

Re-assessment and tailoring measures to each country’s (or even region’s) needs is particularly important if we recognize that each member state has different tools to work with, such as their type of health system, initial exposure to their virus (e.g. due to geographics), their culture around civil liberties, infringement on these and trust in governments. Just like any other policy is not made in a vacuum, Covid-19 responses cannot be either. 

Retrospectively complaining about what could have been done (better), or demonizing the EU, is always an easy move – however, acting in a difficult situation whilst trying to make the right decision and protect the largest number of citizens is not easy at all. Hence, we come to the conclusion that the EU took a reasonable approach in dealing with the pandemic in coordinating loosely and making recommendations whilst leaving national governments the freedom to assess when to impose unpopular but necessary measures. 

Finn McCartney has previously obtained a degree in European Studies from the University of Amsterdam, majoring in European Economics. Currently he is studying the European Policy MA at the UvA.

Tara Görder has a background in International Relations and Crisis & Security Management. Currently she is working as a Research Analyst in Public Policy Consulting at VVA Brussels.

Featured image licensed with Shutterstock

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