Cyprus has been successful so far in controlling COVID-19 but needs to remain so, said Health Minister Constantinos Ioannou, noting that the EU must improve the overall quality of health care in the EU to be better positioned to deal with issues like COVID-19 in the future.
“We are successful so far, but we need to stay successful. We need to be vigilant, not complacent and make sure that when we open our borders, we are still a safe destination” Ioannou told POLITICO about how Cyprus is trying to walk the tightrope.
Asked how did Cyprus have so few cases and deaths, Ioannou replied that the government “drew up a strategic plan on how to manage the pandemic through public hospitals by increasing capacity, and especially for our ICU units. We paid special attention to comprehensive testing and surveillance mechanism strategies, especially contact tracing. We tested nearly 12 percent of the population. And we planned ahead — we started sourcing equipment as early as February”.
He replied in the negative if there was ever a period when Cyprus’ hospitals were overwhelmed. “We had a designated hospital for mild COVID cases. We increased our ICU capacity by cancelling elective surgeries and drawing doctors and health care professionals from the private sector. We also secured the services of a big rehabilitation center to isolate asymptomatic cases. We never use more than 25 percent of the available ICUs.”, he underlined.
The Health minister said that at the designated hospital, the maximum occupancy for the first week in April was 60%. We have 500 beds in hotels to cater for tourists who may test positive but are asymptomatic, he added.
Asked what else Cyprus is doing to ensure that tourism does not create a new wave of the virus, Ioannou said that even for tourists arriving from [low-risk] countries, “we want to randomly test a sample of 3-4 percent every day, at our expense, just to make sure. We want to be as subtle as possible so people can enjoy the holidays”, the Minister said.
Invited to say if he saw mistakes at the beginning of the outbreak, the minister said “ you see mistakes? I think a lot was done at an EU level — maybe not at the very beginning, but it caught on eventually. Solidarity was stressed from Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides. But maybe at the beginning, each member state was trying to navigate on its own”.
Noting that there might have been some delays, Ioannou said it is understandable “when you have to coordinate 27 countries and there are shortages all over the world”.
He also said that Cyprus did not put in an order for PPE as it has managed to secure 70, 75 tons of personal protective equipment from China. However, because the pandemic will be here until a vaccine is found, "we will definitely need the PPE in the months ahead, so EU procurement will be useful".
Ioannou explained that for small countries like Cyprus, there was always a problem in procuring. “It’s always been an issue for us to secure pharmaceuticals, especially innovative medicines. We’ve been calling for transparency in pharmaceuticals and equal pricing. In Cyprus, the price we get for the medicine may be 10 times the price in Germany or Holland. So these are issues where we want to see more action and solidarity".
Asked how he feels about Cyprus’ ability to get a vaccine, the minister said “we want to make sure that if the vaccine is found there won’t be any priority depending on the size of the country. However, he remarked, “I think we need to wait for at least 12 months before a vaccine is found, so we need to live with COVID-19”.
To a question if the EU should have more power to act on health, the Minister said "with every crisis there is an opportunity, and the opportunity is that the spotlight now is on health care. We should take advantage and invest more in healthcare systems in all EU countries. If we improve the overall quality of health care in the EU then we would be better positioned to deal with issues like COVID-19 in the future”, the Minister remarked.
Concluding, he said it is also extremely important to convince pharmaceutical firms to come back to Europe, because the issue of medicine shortages is not only in Cyprus, it’s Europe-wide.