The new EU4Health programme, announced in May this year as part of the European Commission’s COVID-19 recovery plan, with proposals to invest in prevention, crisis preparedness, the procurement of vital medicines and equipment to improve health systems and Europeans’ long-term health outcomes was rightly hailed as “game-changing.”
It is therefore more than “regrettable” that the only programme designed to support and improve Europeans’ health as part of the plan to deal with the effects of an unprecedented health emergency has been cut so drastically by EU national leaders during the last European Council. While it is no doubt welcome that they were able to overcome their differences to agree the EU Recovery Plan and the EU’s next seven-year budget, it does call into question the commitment to a Europe where people can live, work and age in sustainable and healthy environments and which supports timely access to affordable, high quality healthcare for all.
COVID-19 exposed the vulnerability of our healthcare systems, and showed the effects on the economy, society and our daily lives when we can no longer take good health for granted, with the greatest effects falling on the most vulnerable. As Europe recovers slowly from COVID-19, it seems that EU national leaders have not only minimised the need to tackle the immediate failures highlighted by the crisis, but have not fully considered the other looming health threats on the horizon, such as the growing epidemic of non-communicable diseases, antimicrobial resistance and the health impacts of the climate emergency – surely the aftermath of a pandemic is not the time to be cutting investment and reducing ambition in the one area so crucial to people’s lives and the future of Europe as a whole. Their decision is also in stark contrast to the overwhelming support from the European Parliament for the EU to play a stronger role when it comes to public health, as well as a blow to the 70% of Europeans who also want the EU to do more for health.
It is true that health funding has been increased compared to the previous budget settlement, but there are now questions on how the resources available will be allocated and which Commission priorities might no longer be supported. In the quest for European unity, a high price has been paid, and an unique opportunity, supported by unions, industry, health groups, MEPs and patients, to comprehensively tackle the current and future challenges affecting the health and well-being of millions of people living in Europe, has been lost.