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 Friday evening, 215 people in Europe infected with the virus had died, according to the count maintained by Johns Hopkins University.
On Friday in Brussels, much of the discussion centered 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 E.U. members.
The European health commissioner, Stella Kyriakides, told the assembled ministers she recognized their main priority was protecting their own citizens. But she warned that European solidarity is “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, bureaucratic and political, in Europe’s ability to coordinate across borders.
European capitals have approached the coronavirus threat 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 meter — or about three feet — apart from one another. And it has imposed a virtual lockdown on 11 towns in the “red zone” of the outbreak.
But in France — where there have been 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 paralyze the economic and social life of the country,” French Health Minister Olivier Véran said in an interview with France’s Libération news outlet. “When the epidemic is here, it’s above all a question of organizing the alert and care system, and ensuring the continuity of state services without preventing citizens from living.”
France has banned indoor gatherings of more than 5,000 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 on Friday, 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.
In the meantime, Britain has been doing its own thing entirely. Because of Brexit, British officials no longer participate in E.U. gatherings and did not attend the Friday meeting in Brussels.
Britain’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, told a Parliament committee Thursday that a global pandemic was almost inevitable and that the government’s “realistic worst-case scenario” suggests that 80 percent of Britons could get coronavirus, with 15 to 20 percent needing hospital care.
To dampen the wave of cases and to protect the most vulnerable, Whitty said, the British government may soon recommend that the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions begin to self-isolate and avoid crowds.
During the Friday meeting in Brussels, Greek Health Minister Vassilis Kikilias urged countries to warn their neighbors 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 issue remains the sharing of 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 that it participated in an E.U.-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 E.U. hypocrisy.
“Talk about ‘Union’! When others are in need, Italians have to 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 to rethink and rebuild everything, starting with Brussels.”
Véran, the French health minister, told reporters in Brussels on Friday that 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 E.U. member states if needed.
Véran declined to say whether or when France will authorize supply exports to Italy.
Janez Lenarcic, the European commissioner for crisis management, said after the meeting that “it was not a black-and-white situation” for countries that opposed the restrictions of supplies to be exported.
“We will not favor measures that would favor one member state at the expense of others,” he said.
But even the E.U. institutions themselves are not immune from the coronavirus, a reality that may further undermine the bloc’s ability to coordinate effectively. As ministers met Friday to coordinate their efforts to tackle the outbreak, E.U. officials confirmed that a staffer in the building was infected by the virus.
McAuley reported from Paris. William Booth in London and Stefano Pitrelli in Rome contributed to this report.