Plans for a new centre for disease control were outlined yesterday in a scheme to speed up and co-ordinate the EU's response to epidemics.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control could be up and running by 2005, improving the surveillance of infectious diseases and making sure that the EU countries react in similar ways.
David Byrne, European Commissioner for health, pointed to the outbreaks of the deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (Sars) as an example of the need for the agency.
While the European Commission can currently ban the movement of animals if there is an animal health or food safety scare, it has very limited powers over efforts to fight human epidemics. Mr Byrne's spokesman, Thorsten Münch, said if one nation banned travel to or from the Far East, it would be ineffective if neighbouring countries do not follow suit because most EU countries are in a free travel zone.
However, commission officials say the new agency would not be given the power to restrict movements. Instead, it would ensure that countries' advice and legislation on such issues was consistent.
Mr Byrne said the centre would co-ordinate and facilitate common responses, and collaborate with member states, other countries and international organisations, especially the World Health Organisation.
Instead of taking over national governments' powers, it would "hook them up to act as a reference and co-ordination point both in routine and crisis situations," he told the European Parliament. The legislation will be put forward within the next few weeks and national governments and MEPs will have to agree it.
British officials reacted cautiously, saying they would study the detail of the proposals for the centre and added they would welcome anything that "genuinely adds value".
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