(14 July 2023) On the 12 July 2023 the European Parliament adopted a report on the lessons learnt from the COVID-19 pandemic and recommendation for the future. The report was presented by the designated committee established by the Parliament last year, a decision welcomed by EPSU and other organisations who were calling for a dedicated forum to discuss the lessons learnt from the pandemic. The committee’s mandate was to present a report based on the lessons learnt and make proposals for improving the EU's crisis management and preparedness for future emergencies.
The report follows similar initiatives from European and pan-European organisations such as the WHO–Europe report: Drawing light from the pandemic: A new strategy for health and sustainable development, the Commission Communication on drawing the early lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic as well as various EPSU reports and positions including in the health and social services.
The European Parliament's report dedicates one section to the important role of health and care workers entitled 'Boosting the healthcare and social workforce in the EU to be prepared for the next crisis' (paragraphs 130 to 143). The section rightly identifies issues that made the health and social care sector unprepared for the pandemic.
The report says that 'investment in public healthcare has not been prioritised in all of the Member States, leading to staff shortages, overall negative effects in this area and consequent low levels of resilience in public health systems and services in the face of new possible emergencies and the demographic transition.'
It echoes long standing demands of EPSU for the integration approach to health and social services. For instance, the Parliament 'reiterates that the EU needs to take a stronger role in guiding and orientating the improvement of public health, as all Member States should consider public health and social care to be a priority for public investments and not a cost to be minimised; emphasises that improving the health of the population is a strategic investment and a moral obligation for our societies and economies and therefore calls for the EU and the Member States to recognise the essential role of public healthcare.' The report also underlines the importance of the primary care.
However, the section dedicated to the health and social care workers - the backbone of the sector - make up only 19 out of the report's 616 paragraphs. These key paragraphs are not echoed either in the recommendations presented at the end of the report. Furthermore, the report does not mention social partners (trade unions and employers organisations) nor make any reference to the crucial role they played during as well as after the pandemic, or to the role they will be undoubtably have to play in future health emergencies.
The pandemic demonstrated how important joint co-operation between governments and social partners was to respond to the crisis. It also showed also how collective bargaining can make the sector more resilient by addressing staff shortages. The European Parliament's report gives some recognition to the role of collective bargaining and 'underlines that healthcare professionals’ wages and working conditions are factors that currently contribute to staff shortages in the EU; calls on the Member States to implement Directive (EU) 2022/2041, which calls for national plans to be drafted on improving collective bargaining coverage in the health and social care sector.'
When it comes to the recommendations on the role of the pharmaceutical industry and intellectual property rights in relation to access to crucial vaccines and medicines (including the many demands for the so-called TRIPS waiver), the report's compromise position is disappointing. The strategic role of the public sector should have been underlined and highlighted in the final recommendations.
Overall, while the report is ambitious and comprehensive in focusing on health; a coordinated approach with respect for democracy and fundamental rights; societal and economic impact; and the EU and the world, the recommendations could have been more precise and future-orientated.