Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has proposed a multibillion-euro (dollar) European Union fund to help countries in the 27-nation bloc whose health care systems have been hardest-hit by the coronavirus outbreak.
In an interview broadcast Wednesday night by Dutch news show Nieuwsuur, Rutte said: "We are, of course, in solidarity with South Europe. There's no doubt about it."
The proposed fund and Rutte's comments follow harsh criticism of the Dutch from southern European nations over the country's opposition to an issuance of joint European debt, known as coronabonds or eurobonds, and comments attributed to Dutch Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra about Spain's ability to fund its medical response to the virus.
Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa last week called the comments "repugnant."
"Hoekstra and I have said we could have communicated in a more subtle way," Rutte told Nieuwsuur.
Now Rutte says the Dutch have "taken the initiative to establish a fund in the form of gifts for countries that are economically weaker to help them with the health care costs of fighting the coronavirus."
He expects the fund to reach 10-20 billion euros if other EU nations agree to it.
However, he also stressed that the Dutch still oppose issuing European debt to help hard-hit economies.
"The Netherlands is against that for very many reasons — it doesn't fit into the euro system," he said. "Another thought that we have is that's what the European emergency fund ... is for."
Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte said earlier this week he hoped the European Union would put together a cohesive response to the plight of countries like his, whose economy has been crippled by the coronavirus outbreak.
Conte vowed to fight for a "strong and cohesive European response" and called the crisis "an appointment with history. Europe must say if it's ready for this appointment" to effectively deal with social and economic shock wreaked by the pandemic.
Nine leading European university hospitals are warning they will run out of essential medicines needed for COVID-19 patients in intensive care in less than two weeks as they are increasingly crushed by the pandemic.
The European University Hospital Alliance said that without countries cooperating to ensure a steady supply of these drugs, doctors and nurses might no longer be able to provide adequate intensive care for people critically ill with the new coronavirus.
In a statement published this week and sent to national governments, the group said that aside from the need for protective gear and ventilators, "the most urgent need now is for the drugs that are necessary for intensive care patients." They wrote that existing stocks of muscle relaxants, sedatives and painkillers were likely to run out in two days at the hardest-hit hospitals, and in two weeks at others.
Last week, Italy's national pharmaceutical agency issued a formal alarm to regional health authorities that the recent jump in demand for some medicines had depleted supplies. The agency set up a special email address for the regional authorities to report any difficulties finding certain drugs.
The shortage of such critical medicines has led some hospitals to buy alternative drugs or to try giving patients different dosages.
"It is extremely worrying that overworked and often less-experienced nurses and doctors-in-training, drafted to fill the gaps, have to use products and dosages that they are not used to," the group wrote, on behalf of hospitals in Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden and Spain.
A team of experts for the hospitals authority in Paris last week drew up a list of suggested workarounds for emergency units to employ to try to ward off what it identified as a "strong risk" of some sedatives and painkillers running out. The experts said that for each prescription, medics should ask themselves whether a drug is really necessary and if doses can be reduced, as well as consider alternative drugs.
The European hospital alliance noted that some governments had reacted to the shortages by refusing to export drugs elsewhere, and warned this would prevent drugs from reaching hospitals in dire need of the medicines.
"No single country in Europe has the production facilities to provide all the drugs (or protective gear or ventilators) needed," the group wrote, pointing out that some countries had shut their borders to exporting such drugs but not importing them. "Coordinated European action will be of vital importance."
Last week, the World Health Organization said there were "extreme pressures" at all levels of the medical supply chain, from raw materials to production, distribution and delivery.
"The world was not ready for a pandemic (and) we did not have the stockpiles in place," Dr. Mike Ryan, the U.N. health agency's emergencies chief, said.
Ryan said WHO was working with other agencies and negotiating with G20 nations on how to quickly scale up production of essential medical supplies and ensure equitable distribution.
Political opponents, scientists and even usually supportive newspapers lambasted British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday over his government's broken promises on wider testing for the COVID-19 virus.
Johnson's Conservative government vowed weeks ago to rapidly increase the number of tests for the new coronavirus to 10,000 a day, then 25,000 a day by mid-April. But progress has been slow. The government says 10,412 tests were performed Tuesday, the first time the daily target was met.
Like some other countries, the U.K. has limited virus testing to hospitalized patients, leaving people with milder symptoms unsure whether they were infected. Many scientists say wider testing — especially of health care workers — would allow medics who are off work with symptoms to return if their results are negative, and would give a better picture of how the virus spreads.
Johnson tested positive for the virus a week ago and revealed last Friday that he had mild symptoms of COVID-19 disease. He has continued working while in self-isolation and promised in a video message that the government was "massively increasing testing."
Testing "is how we will unlock the coronavirus puzzle. This is how we will defeat it in the end," Johnson said.
Opinion polls suggest Britons have been largely supportive of the government's efforts to contain the new coronavirus. Johnson ordered residents to stay home except for a handful of permitted circumstances and ordered the closure of schools, bars, restaurants and non-essential shops.
But as the number of virus-related deaths in the U.K. accelerated in recent days, the unity behind the government's response is shattering. The country had more than 29,800 cases and more than 2,350 deaths as of Thursday, according to a Johns Hopkins University tally.
The right-leaning Daily Mail newspaper slammed the "testing fiasco" on its front page Thursday. "Questions without Answers," said the Conservative-supporting Daily Telegraph, accusing the government of being unable to say why Britain lagged behind its European neighbors on testing.
Critics compare Britain's approach to testing unfavorably to the one in Germany, which has the ability to test 500,000 people a week and has reported fewer deaths among people with the virus
The government says testing front-line health care workers is a priority, and it set up five drive-through test centers to do it. But they had tested only 2,800 people by Thursday, from a National Health Service workforce of more than 1 million.
Paul Cosford, emeritus medical director of Public Health England, acknowledged that "everybody involved is frustrated that we haven't got to the place where we've got to get to."
Part of the problem is Britain's centralized state-funded health system, which is fairly efficient at organizing hospital treatment but poor at rapidly boosting testing capacity. All coronavirus tests were initially processed at a single Public Health England laboratory, though several other public labs are now also handling the tests.
British officials also blame shortages of swabs to take samples and of chemicals known as reagents, which are needed to perform the tests, for the delay in ramping up testing.
But private-sector firms and academic institutes say their offers of help have so far been ignored.
Paul Nurse, chief executive of the Francis Crick Institute for biomedical research, said its laboratory had been repurposed so it could carry out 500 tests a day by next week, rising to 2,000 a day in future.
He compared the effort required to the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British troops from the French port of Dunkirk as it was overrun by German forces in 1940 — a rescue that saw hundreds of small private boats join the navy in plucking soldiers from the beaches.
"We are a lot of little boats. and the little boats can be effective," Nurse said. "The government has put some big boats, destroyers in place. That's a bit more cumbersome to get working and we wish them all the luck to do that, but we little boats can contribute as well."
The state finance minister of Germany's Hesse region, which includes Frankfurt, has been found dead. Authorities said he appears to have killed himself and the state's governor suggested Sunday that he was in despair over the fallout from the coronavirus crisis.
The body of Thomas Schaefer, a 54-year-old member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, was found Saturday on railway tracks at Hochheim, near Frankfurt.
Police and prosecutors said that factors including questioning of witnesses and their own observations at the scene led them to conclude that Schaefer killed himself.
State governor Volker Bouffier linked Schaefer's death to the virus crisis on Sunday.
Bouffier said Schaefer was worried about "whether it would be possible to succeed in fulfilling the population's huge expectations, particularly of financial help."
"I have to assume that these worries overwhelmed him," Bouffier said. "He apparently couldn't find a way out. He was in despair and left us."
Germany's federal and state governments have drawn up huge aid packages to cushion the blow of largely shutting down public life to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Schaefer had been Hesse's state finance minister for a decade.
The cumulative number of coronavirus cases in Italy reached 86,498 on Friday, exceeding the total figure registered in China, according to data by the Civil Protection Department coordinating the national emergency response.
The pandemic also claimed 969 lives, a new single-day record high in fatalities registered here since the outbreak hit the country's northern regions on Feb. 21.
The death toll grew to 9,134, with 50 fatalities occurred on Thursday and not yet included in the total figure, national commissioner for the emergency Domenico Arcuri explained at a daily press conference.
In unveiling the new statistics, Arcuri took the place of extraordinary commissioner and Civil Protection Department Chief Angelo Borrelli, who was under home confinement for the second day in a row due to fever (but negative for coronavirus).
According to the data, 589 new cured people were registered on a daily basis, bringing total recoveries to 10,950.
With 4,401 people tested positive on Friday, the number of active coronavirus infections grew to 66,414. "About 6 percent of the total, or 3,732 patients, are currently in intensive care," Arcuri explained.
According to epidemiological data released by the National Health Institute (ISS) on Friday (and based on data up to Thursday), at least 6,414 health professionals were among those positive for the coronavirus so far.
"They have an average age of 49 years, and some 35 percent of them are male," the ISS wrote in a bulletin.
At the press conference, the commissioner stressed statistics in Italy and in many other places around the world "prove how global and wide this health crisis is."
"In a global crisis, there is a clear need of cooperation, without egoism, and Italy is playing its due part," he stressed.
Arcuri also recalled Italian authorities were putting much effort in trying to find and purchase equipment and protective gear necessary in the emergency from as many countries as possible.
"We keep cooperating with many countries, and keep buying (equipment) from France, Germany, China, and Russia... while talks are under way with further countries, which are often located very far from us," he said.
"This is the time of cooperation and solidarity, with no further implication, whether of political or geographical nature. Wherever there is a chance to obtain solutions to our citizens' problems... that is the right place to go," he stressed.
Arcuri said all Italian productive and social actors have been called to give their contribution to strengthen industrial production and help the country become more self-sufficient in terms of medical equipment in these exceptional circumstances.
In related news on Friday, the country's Education Minister announced schools would most likely remain shut beyond the national lockdown period so far imposed by the government, which was officially effective until April 3.
"For sure, the school closure will be extended over the April 3 date," Lucia Azzolina told state TV broadcast RAI 1.
"At the moment, our goal is to ensure students will return to school only after health authorities have guaranteed this is safest... our pupils' and our educational staff's health is the priority."
The minister explained that "information about final exams, both in primary and secondary schools, will be provided to students in the next weeks."
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte's cabinet was at work to outline further measures to help the country's industrial and social fabric sustain the impact of the health crisis. A first package worth 25 billion euros (27.7 billion U.S. dollars) was passed earlier this month.
Addressing the senate on Thursday, Conte said he was confident the government would be able "to offer companies, families, and workers additional allocations, for a total not lower than 50 billion euros (including the first package)."