With more than 7000 coronavirus cases confirmed across Europe, health ministers convened an emergency meeting to try to head off medical supply shortages and coordinate their response.

What began as a story about isolated travellers from China's Hubei province falling ill on their European vacations has quickly become a story about community transmissions across a continent that prides itself on open borders and the freedom of movement.

Although the outbreak is most intense in Italy, the novel coronavirus has spread to nearly every European Union member country, along with Britain and Switzerland. As of this morning, 215 people in Europe infected with the virus had died, according to the count maintained by Johns Hopkins University.

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On Friday in Brussels, much of the discussion centred on addressing potential shortages in protective equipment - including the face masks that have sold out in pharmacies across the continent. But France and Germany are among those resisting sharing their supplies with other EU members.

The European health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, told the assembled ministers she recognised their main priority was protecting their own citizens. But she warned that European solidarity was "in the self-interest of us all."

The coronavirus has underscored the difficulty - and perhaps even the impossibility - of Europe responding to a uniform threat with a united front. If anything, the prospect of a global pandemic has exposed the cracks, both bureaucratic and political, in Europe's ability to coordinate across borders.

European capitals have approached the threat of coronavirus in different ways, without much consultation among them.

Italy announced this week the closure of all schools and universities until March 15, a date that may be extended. It has suspended all events and performances where attendees can't stay one-metre apart from each other. And it has imposed a virtual lockdown on 11 towns in the "red zone" of the outbreak.

But in France - which has had nine coronavirus deaths and where President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly said an eventual epidemic is "inescapable" - officials have said they would not enforce as many closures.

"We will not paralyse the economic and social life of the country," said French Health Minister Olivier Véran, in an interview with France's Libération newspaper.

"When the epidemic is here, it's above all a question of organising the alert and care system, and ensuring the continuity of state services without preventing citizens from living."

Tourists pull their luggage as they walk through a nearly empty St Mark's Square on a rainy day in Venice. The coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy has overwhelmed the public health system. Photo / AP
Tourists pull their luggage as they walk through a nearly empty St Mark's Square on a rainy day in Venice. The coronavirus outbreak in northern Italy has overwhelmed the public health system. Photo / AP

So far, France has banned indoor gatherings of more than 5000 people - leading to the cancellation of the Paris book fair. It has urged people who suspect they may have coronavirus to self-isolate and treat their symptoms at home, so as not to overload hospitals and potentially spread the virus even more.

And today, Macron urged citizens to limit visits to elderly relatives.

"Right now, our top priority is to protect the most vulnerable against the virus," Macron said, visiting a Paris nursing home.

"We must avoid visiting our elders as much as possible," he said. "Try to make sure that the youngest do not take part in these visits."

If more relaxed than Italy, France has taken more precautions than next-door Belgium, which has more than 100 confirmed coronavirus cases. The Brussels book fair this weekend was scheduled to go on as planned this weekend.

In the meantime, Britain has been doing its own thing entirely. Because of Brexit, British officials no longer participate in EU gatherings and did not attend the meeting in Brussels.


Britain's Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, told a Parliament committee on Friday that a global pandemic was almost inevitable that the government's "realistic worst case scenario" suggests that 80 per cent of Britons could get coronavirus, with 15 to 20 per cent needing hospital care.

To dampen the wave of cases and to protect the most vulnerable, Whitty said the British government might soon recommend that the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions begin to self-isolate and avoid crowds.

During the meeting in Brussels, Greek Health minister Vassilis Kikilias urged countries to warn their neighbours beforehand if they decide to impose any major public cancellations or travel restrictions. Failing to do so could alarm citizens of other member states whose governments have not done the same, he said.

The most sensitive remains the issue of sharing medical supplies across borders.

"We don't have enough protective masks," Adam Vojtech, the Czech health minister, said in the Brussels meeting.

"The problem is that the demand is much higher than the supply. A third of the world's production of drugs is located in China and also in India, which as far as I know also has stopped exports of drugs recently."


France and Germany asked the European Commission to stop the exports of supplies to other member states, largely to create safe stockpiles for whenever epidemics emerge within their own borders. But Italy, in the throes of Europe's biggest outbreak, has cried foul, pointing out it participated in an EU-wide coronavirus aid package to China but was receiving little from Brussels during its own time of need.

Right-wing politicians in Italy seized on the apparent disparity as a sign of EU hypocrisy.

"Talk about 'Union'! When others are in need, Italians gotta pay, but when Italy needs the others, they will shut their doors and wallets," said Matteo Salvini, the leader of Italy's Northern League party.

"Soon as the health emergency's over, we'll need rethink and rebuild everything, starting with Brussels."

Véran, the French health minister, told reporters in Brussels France was not acting in a protectionist way but rather "to have a long term and exhaustive vision of the equipment we have" and would consider exporting resources to other EU member states if needed.

Véran declined to say if or when France would authorise supply exports to Italy.


Janez Lenarčič, the European Commissioner for crisis management, said after the meeting that "it was not a black and white situation" for countries who opposed the restrictions of supplies to be exported.

"We will not favour measures that would favor one member state at the expense of others," he said.

But the EU itself was not immune from the coronavirus, a reality that may further undermine the bloc's ability to coordinate effectively. As ministers met to coordinate their efforts to tackle the outbreak, EU officials confirmed a staffer in the building was infected by the virus.

- Washington Post