January 28, 2020 / 4:45 PM / 25 days ago

Swiss seek access to EU early-warning system as coronavirus spreads

BERN (Reuters) - Switzerland needs access to a European Union early-warning system for health crises to shore up its defences against the new coronavirus in China, Swiss health officials said on Tuesday.

Isabella Eckerle, head of the Geneva Centre for Emerging Viral Diseases, Daniel Koch and Patrick Mathys (LtoR) of the Swiss Federal Office of Public Health address a news conference on the new coronavirus in Bern, Switzerland January 28, 2020. REUTERS/Arnd Wiegmann

Under the EU’s Early Warning and Response System (EWRS), member states share information to try to prevent or control cross-border threats to health. But Switzerland is not a member of the EU, so it is not part of the EWRS.

With the coronavirus’s emergence, Bern has sought temporary access to the system and expects Brussels eventually to agree to its request, as it did during a recent Ebola outbreak.

But permanent access to the EWRS is hindered by an impasse in protracted talks with the EU because of disagreement over a treaty that foresees Switzerland routinely adopting single-market rules, among other things, to preserve favoured-trading status.

The situation could serve as a warning to Britain as it prepares to leave the EU while keeping trade ties to the bloc.

“It’s very difficult for us to know exactly what is going on in our neighbouring countries, especially which measures they are taking,” Daniel Koch, head of the communicable diseases unit at the Swiss Federal Department of Health, told Reuters.

“What it shows now is that when a crisis starts, it’s a little bit late to put us in, it takes too much time.”

Switzerland has no confirmed cases of the respiratory illness that emerged weeks ago in Wuhan in China. But the confirmation of cases in France and Germany has made Swiss health officials anxious to get news of developments fast.

“The Europeans have expanded their early warning system,” Koch said. “They communicate with each other. And it’s not that they don’t want to communicate with us. But it doesn’t occur to them that we don’t see the reports.”

DIGITAL PLATFORM

The EWRS is a digital platform linking the EU’s executive European Commission, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, and health authorities across the EU to manage serious cross-border threats.

A deal giving Switzerland access is ready for signature as part of a broader health pact with the EU.

But talks are blocked by the EU’s demand over single-market rules and a request by Brussels for Bern to create a more effective platform for resolving disputes. Talks are on hold until May, when Swiss voters decide whether to cancel an EU free-movement accord.

Beyond excluding the Swiss from the early-alert system, other consequences of the EU impasse include suspension of cross-border securities trading in July. Moreover, Swiss manufacturers of medical devices such as pacemakers and hip implants are warning of a potential trade logjam later this year.

Editing by Timothy Heritage

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